Coachwhip Snake: Habitat, Diet, & Characteristics Explained

The coachwhip snake, Masticophis flagellum, is a beautiful reptile that inhabits large parts of the southern United States.

A coachwhip snake
In their shades of tan and brown, coachwhips are beautiful.
Image credit: u/hohenbuehelia (via Reddit.com)

These snakes move at high speeds and often frighten the wits out of those who encounter them. Join us as we clear up some common myths and discuss how to live with coachwhips.

Coexisting With Coachwhips

People often think there’s some trick to getting along with coachwhips, and there is: leave them alone.

While you may cross paths with one of these snakes, they want as little to do with you as you do with them.

As long as you don’t corner one of them, or try to enter a territory that the snake is guarding, the snake will leave you alone.

Closeup of Coachwhip snake head
Coachwhips aren’t aggressive, and won’t pursue you if you leave them alone.

These snakes aren’t venomous and make an excellent addition to the garden where they keep to themselves and help control pest populations.

Coachwhips are unlikely to attack you, unless you give them a reason, and some people even keep them as pets.

If you decide to keep one of these snakes, please purchase one from a breeder. Wild snakes don’t like being captured and can react violently if you do.

Removing animals from the wild also harms wild populations.

If the snake is in a place where it might get hurt, or where it could be dangerous (like a children’s playground) contact your nearest snake handler or humane society to remove it.

Other than that, leave them be and they won’t harm you.

Coachwhip Snakes Habitat and Behavior

There are seven subspecies of coachwhip, and each has a different distribution.

As a species, this snake has an extremely wide distribution which includes everything from southeastern North Carolina to the Sonoran Desert in Mexico. 

Coachwhip Snake against a black background
Different subspecies of coachwhip have slightly different appearances.

Let’s take a closer look at the distribution of the subspecies:

  • Eastern Coachwhip, M.  f. flagellum – Ranges from the northern half of California to eastern Florida. Also, Eastern Texas to Eastern Kansas.
  • Lined Coachwhip, M.  f. lineatulus – A resident of the southern half of Mexico.
  • Sonoran Coachwhip,  M.  f. cingulum – Inhabits the southern half of Arizona and the Sonoran desert in Mexico.
  • Western Coachwhip,  M. f. testaceus – This species has been recorded in Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. It also inhabits a large swathe of Mexico.
  • San Joaquin Coachwhip, M.  f. ruddocki – The San Joaquin coachwhip is found only in the San Joaquin Valley in California.
  • Red Coachwhip, M.  f. piceus – Range includes Arizona, Nevada, Southern California, and Southern Utah.
  • Baja California Coachwhip, M.  f. fuliginous This snake inhabits the Californian peninsula in the Baja region. 

Now that you know where these snakes live geographically, let’s discuss their preferred habitats.

In Mexico, these animals are frequently observed in playa lake environments. A playa is a depression in the desert plains, which fills up during the rainy seasons.

In the Sonoran, and the rest of their range, you can find these non-venomous snakes anywhere there’s loose soil.

From desert scrub to sand dunes and leaf litter, coachwhips can make themselves at home in most environments.

For the most part, they prefer mountain flanks, rocky hillsides, with ground litter, and desert scrub. In California, you can also find them among the palmetto Flatwoods.

Hunting and Feeding

Unlike many other snakes in dry desert areas, coachwhips aren’t venomous snakes, nor are they sit and hunt predators.

One of the names for this snake is “whip snake” since they’re extremely fast and look like braided whips when they move.

They actively hunt for food and are efficient predators.

These snakes take advantage of the natural resources in the rocky hillsides they inhabit and have a diverse diet. If they can catch it, they’ll probably eat it.

Small mammals, small rodents, other snakes, and even birds aren’t safe from these hunters.

They’re good climbers, which gives them an edge when hunting prey, like birds, in trees. 

Coachwhip Snake Size and Appearance

Although the coachwhip, Masticophis flagellum, isn’t a bulky species, it’s not small either.

These slender snakes tend to be longer than other snakes in the region. There may be some regional differences between the seven subspecies. 

coachwhip subspecies
All the coachwhip subspecies have round pupils.
Image credit: u/EvolutionDG (via Reddit.com)

According to the Florida Museum, Masticophis flagellum typically reaches lengths of up to 60 inches.

The different subspecies have slight differences in appearance, though most of them are either dark brown or have tan coloration.

Eastern coachwhips are dark brown, nearly black. The red whip snake has a reddish-brown hue, and some of the others are uniformly tan.

One common characteristic that all the subspecies share is smooth scales in the middle of their bodies.

There are 11 rows of smooth scales in the center of the upper surface of eastern coachwhips and their kin. The scales on their stomachs are also smooth.

Some of the subspecies have light brown cross-banding, and others lack small brown crossbars. The cross-banding contributes to the woven look that many coachwhips have.

These snakes have round pupils which help them make the most of the light. You can read more about the advantages of round pupils in our article about reptile eyes.

Are Eastern Coachwhip Snakes Poisonous?

The eastern coachwhip is one of the best-known subspecies of Masticophis flagellum, and people are often unsure if it’s poisonous.

First, we must state that the eastern coachwhip isn’t poisonous. The term poisonous refers to something that can harm you if you eat it.

While some cultures still eat snakes regularly, it’s not a common food source. Unless you eat a snake’s venom glands, eating it probably won’t harm you (and coachwhips lack these altogether).

What people generally mean to ask is, is the eastern coachwhip venomous? Can it kill you by biting you?

The answer to this question is also no. Unlike some other snakes in the region, the venom of the coachwhip isn’t harmful to humans.

Even though the coachwhip’s bite doesn’t contain toxins that are harmful to humans, you may still suffer an allergic reaction to the proteins in it.

If a snake bites you, it’s usually a good idea to get checked out by a medical professional, in case of negative effects.

Baby Coachwhip Snake

Juveniles and hatchlings have pronounced bands of dark pigmentation, making them look quite different from adults. Their bands are darkest towards the head, and fade gradually towards the tail.

Baby coachwhips are adorable creatures, but you’re unlikely to encounter them in the wild.

Females lay their eggs every year between June and August. She buries the clutch inside the burrow of small rodents or mammals.

When the eggs hatch, they can make the most of the natural resources (i.e. a nest full of baby rodents to prey on) before moving on to fend for themselves.

Thanks to the habitat coachwhips live in, it may take a while for a hatchling to find suitable prey, so their natural history has taught females to lay eggs near a ready food source.

One of the reasons for their presumed large population is the effectiveness of females in giving their babies the best chance at survival.

Although the mother abandons her eggs, they hatch in the early summer when the hot weather means abundant prey.

The hatchlings hatch at a length of between 12 and 16 inches, ideal for hunting small prey.

Do Coachwhip Snakes Chase You?

According to American folklore, coachwhips capture humans, wrap them in their coils, and then slowly bludgeon them to death with their whip-like tails.

Coachwhip Snakes
While they look fearsome, coachwhips want nothing to do with you, and won’t chase you.
Image credit: u/RPBot (via Reddit.com)

Some stories even claim that the snake checks if the human is still breathing so that it knows whether to keep whipping.

Honestly, it’s a load of nonsense. Snakes, including coachwhips, are terrified of humans.

A coachwhip tries to run away from large predators and is unlikely to fight.

If you corner it and try to catch it, it may put up a fight though. Males may also defend a territory during the hottest summer weather when these snakes mate.

If you encounter a coachwhip that seems grumpy, Leave it Alone. If you don’t bother it, it will leave you alone too. If you upset it, it may raise its head and try to get you to leave.

Do Coachwhip Snakes Kill Rattlesnakes?

As we mentioned earlier, coachwhips are happy to eat anything they can catch, and that includes rattlesnakes.

Black Coachwhip Snakes crawling
Coachwhips will eat any small animal they can catch, including rattlesnakes.
Image credit: u/kemherps (via Reddit.com)

Will a coachwhip specifically target rattlesnakes? Probably not, but it would happily eat one if it comes across it.

Can a Coachwhip Snake Whip a Person

As with the question about coachwhips chasing humans, this theory is absolute bunkem.

The ONLY way a coachwhip is likely to whip a human is by accidentally slapping them in its rush to get away.

It wouldn’t hurt either, because a snake IS NOT a whip. These animals can’t use their bodies as whips, even though they’re extremely quick.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, you might want to check out some of our other fantastic snake-related content.

We have a full ID guide to Florida snakes, an article about the most venomous snakes, and even a discussion about snake lifespans.

If you like learning more about native reptiles, you might also enjoy our article about Californian lizards.

Have you met a coachwhip in the wild? Let us know in the comments below.

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