Fox Snakes

P. vulpinus and P. ramspotti

Last updated: March 10, 2022
Verified by: AZ Animals Staff
Image Credit Ryan M. Bolton/Shutterstock.com

In some areas, fox snakes and gopher snakes have crossbred in the wild.

Fox Snakes Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Reptilia
Order
Squamata
Family
Colubridae
Genus
Pantherophis
Scientific Name
P. vulpinus and P. ramspotti

Read our Complete Guide to Classification of Animals.

Fox Snakes Conservation Status

Fox Snakes Locations

Fox Snakes Locations

Fox Snakes Facts

Prey
Mice, rats, young rabbits, ground-nesting birds and sometimes their eggs, frogs, lizards
Main Prey
Mice and birds
Name Of Young
Hatchling
Group Behavior
  • Solitary
Fun Fact
In some areas, fox snakes and gopher snakes have crossbred in the wild.
Biggest Threat
Mistaken identity, roads
Most Distinctive Feature
Copper or bronze-colored head
Distinctive Feature
Strongly patterned alternating blotches down the length of their spine.
Temperament
Shy, but generally docile.
Litter Size
6-30
Predators
Foxes, coyotes, hawks.
Diet
Carnivore
Lifestyle
  • Diurnal
  • or Nocturnal Depending on Region and Season
Favorite Food
Mice
Common Name
Fox snake
Number Of Species
-1

Fox Snakes Physical Characteristics

Color
  • Brown
  • Grey
  • Beige
  • Chestnut
Skin Type
Scales
Lifespan
approximately 20 years

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Fox snakes are a type of non-venomous rat snake that inhabit areas of North America east and west of the Mississippi from Missouri north into southern Ontario, Canada. They don’t generally exceed 4.5 feet in length but can reach 6 feet. They are excellent rodent control, especially around barns and fields.

Mistaken identity cases plague these snakes; they rattle their tails when they become frightened and they have a similar color pattern to the Massasauga rattlesnake. People kill them when they confuse fox snakes with Massasauga rattlesnakes. As if their behavior wasn’t enough for a case of mistaken identity, their heads are a copper to bronze color, making people believe they’re venomous copperheads.

Amazing Facts About Fox Snakes

  • Fox snakes are close cousins to king snakes and gopher snakes.
  • Their markings are similar to Massasauga rattlesnakes.
  • They are excellent climbers even though they don’t hang out in the trees all the time.

Where to Find Fox Snakes

Western fox snakes typically inhabit the edges of forests near rivers and other water sources. They’re not often in the water and prefer to live in slightly arid conditions. They don’t generally live in urban areas but can live in barns and abandoned buildings where they feel there’s protection and rodents are present. This species has a flexible diet and will eat mice, birds, young rabbits, lizards, and amphibians; although the adults tend to favor warm-blooded prey. While these snakes are agile climbers, they prefer to be on the ground and often hide under rocks, logs, or in old rodent burrows.

The opposite of their western cohorts, eastern fox snakes live in open prairies, marshes, and cultivated fields; they prefer wetter environments These snakes tend to favor ground-nesting birds and rodents.

Like all rat snakes, fox snakes are excellent climbers and can go just about anywhere seeking a meal; during the spring and fall they’re primarily diurnal, but during the summer can also be active at night. Juveniles of both species will eat lizards and amphibians, and develop a taste for warm-blooded prey as they grow.



Fox Snake’s Scientific Name

These Pantherophis genus snakes are members of the Colubridae family and are closely related to king snakes and gopher snakes. Pantherophis means “panther snake,” after their spotted pattern. Fox snakes don’t look like foxes; however, like foxes, they release a horrible-smelling musk when they feel threatened.

The eastern fox snake’s scientific name, Pantherophis vulpinus means “Fox-like panther snake,” it’s also a bit of a play on words. They’re named after Rev. Charles Fox (1815–1854), who collected the species’ holotype.

Scientists named the western fox snake after Joseph Ramspott, hence, Pantherophis ramspotti; Ramspott was a graduate student working in the Crother-White lab at Southeastern Louisiana University when he passed away in 2004.

Types of Fox Snakes

There are two recognized fox snake species that divide at the Mississippi; eastern fox snakes (P. vulpinus) and western fox snakes (P. ramspotti). When biologists originally named the western fox snake, they suggested dividing the two species at the Mississippi, and unsurprisingly, their ranges don’t overlap in areas where that great river flows.

These two species were considered the same for a long time, and only in the last 15 years (give or take), were they recognized as separate species. So, on a lot of pages, you’ll see P. vulpinus listed as a western fox snake and a western fox snake (P. ramspotti) listed as P. vulpinus. Either snake may be listed as Elaphe vulpina. Yes, it’s really that confusing.

Eastern fox snakes crossbreed with wild gopher snakes, and because they are rat snakes, they are also closely related to king snakes, making that type of hybridization in nature a possibility as well. There’s no evidence that the western fox snakes crossbreed in the wild but anything is possible.

Fox Snakes: Population and Conservation

In most areas, both fox snake species have stable populations. A few states in which they occur list them as threatened or vulnerable, but both the western and eastern fox snakes are on the IUCN Redlist as Least Concern.

Mistaken identity is the biggest threat to these snake species; however, they’re also vulnerable to being hit by cars on roads and pushed out of their environment by real estate development.

Identifying Fox Snakes: Appearance & Description

The eastern fox snake has a tan or golden brown background with dark brown or reddish-brown spots down the length of its body. It has a yellow and black checkerboard pattern on its belly, and its head ranges in color from copper to bronze with a short, flattened snout. Hatchlings and juveniles are similar but have a grey background instead and might have a dark line between their eyes on top of their heads, and another one behind the eyes, extending down to the neck. These lines fade as they mature.

West of the Mississippi, the western fox snake only really differs in its base color; it tends toward having a grey base color throughout its life.

Both snakes are long and thin but don’t often exceed 4.5 feet. Their average adult length is somewhere between 3 and 4 feet but can reach 6 feet in length. Their pointed tails have dark and light bands.

As with other snake species, fox snakes are able to flatten their heads when they feel threatened, so the head shape is not a reliable factor in determining whether it’s venomous; however, both fox snake species have round pupils instead of the cats-eye pupils of the vipers.

Fox Snakes Pictures and Videos

How Dangerous are Fox Snakes

They’re not dangerous at all; however, before handling one of these you should be fully confident that you’ve identified it correctly. The high volume of misidentifications makes it that much more important that you get it right the first time.

These non-venomous, harmless snakes can only bite and spread stinky musk on you. The bite you’ll need to clean like any scratch, the musk will take some washing. Some reports say that it sticks to you almost as badly as skunk spray.

Their basic threat response goes like this:

  • It may freeze in place, hoping you pass by without seeing it; or it will try to slither away before you get close enough to see.
  • Then, it will probably coil up and rattle its tail. It may also try to strike at this point. The tail rattling is reminiscient of rattlesnakes, but some argue against mimicry; they observe that many snakes around the world exhibit the same behavior – even where rattlesnakes don’t live.
  • If the biting attempts and posturing weren’t enough to scare you off, its final option is to release musk from its cloaca. According to witnesses, this stuff smells much like fox excrement; hence the snake’s name.

Fox Snake Behavior and Humans

You’re more likely to encounter an eastern fox snake; they’re drawn to water, much the same as humans. They also live further north than do western fox snakes. Both species are beneficial and desireable animals to have around. They are effective rodent control and will do everything they can to stay out of your way.

They are not aggressive or dangerous to humans at all, and even older adults tend to be reluctant to bite.

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About the Author

Gail is a musician, author, and artist with more ideas than time. She loves learning about the Earth and its animals; her upcoming book, Pebble Worms and Fast Walkers is filled with all the random bits that kids love! She lives in north Texas with her husband, twin sons, dogs, cat, and a ball python named Nagini.

Fox Snakes FAQs (Frequently Asked Questions) 

Are fox snakes venomous?

No, this species is a type of non-venomous rat snake.

How do fox snakes hunt?

These snakes are active daytime hunters in the spring and fall, but during the summer they also hunt at night. They grab their prey and quickly wrap around it; essentially crushing it to death.

Are fox snakes aggressive?

No, not at all. They favor retreat above aggression in almost all cases. If you corner one, however, it will rattle its tail, strike at you, and if that fails to send you away, then it will release musk from its vent.

Where do fox snakes live?

They inhabit areas from about Missouri northward into southern Ontario, Canada.

What do fox snakes eat?

Their favorite foods include mice, birds, and other small mammals. Juveniles also eat small reptiles and amphibians, but those don’t appear to be a favorite.

Sources
  1. Reptile Database | Eastern Fox Snake, Available here: https://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/species?genus=Pantherophis&species=vulpinus
  2. Reptile Database | Western Fox Snake, Available here: https://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/species?genus=Pantherophis&species=ramspotti
  3. Western Fox Snake | MN Dept. of Natural Resources, Available here: https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/reptiles_amphibians/foxsnake.html
  4. Michigan State University | Natural Features Inventory, Available here: https://mnfi.anr.msu.edu/species/description/11505/Pantherophis-gloydi
  5. Illinois Natural History Survey | Herpetology Collection, Available here: https://herpetology.inhs.illinois.edu/species-lists/whats-the-difference-between-a-fox-snake-and-a-massasauga/
  6. What is a Fox Snake? | Ontario, Canada, Available here: https://www.ontario.ca/page/eastern-foxsnake
  7. Western Fox Snake | IUCN Redlist, Available here: https://www.iucnredlist.org/species/203567/2768778
  8. (1970)

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