Milk snakes, or Lampropeltis triangulum, are a non-venomous species of kingsnake. They are some of the most common snakes kept as pets in America and the rest of the world. There are many subspecies of milk snakes that often make them difficult to identify. So what does the average milk snake look like?
Most milk snakes are brightly colored, with bands or blotches of white, red, yellow, or black running down their bodies. They typically measure around 35 inches in length and are not usually very bulky. Milk snakes vary in terms of their colors and patterns.
In this article, we investigate the most prominent features of milk snakes and discuss the differences in the appearances of the most common subspecies.
10 Interesting Facts About Milk Snakes’ Appearance
1. All Milk Snakes Have Bands or Blotches
Many milk snakes appear to have a base color of white with bands of red, yellow, and black found at intervals across their bodies. The thickness of these bands varies greatly from snake to snake, and sub-species to subspecies. [Source]
Not all milk snakes have bands, though. Many subspecies are covered in blotches of the same color as their counterparts’ bands. This makes it tricky for the average person to identify milk snakes as they have no set list of characteristics.
The only certainty is that, regardless of the type of milk snake, it should have a pattern of either bands or blotches in red, brown, yellow, or black.
2. Milk Snakes Grow Quite Long
Most milk snakes reach an average length of around 35 inches. In captivity, a milk snake will very rarely exceed this length but there are many cases recorded of wild milk snakes growing up to 52 inches long.
The further south from the US you go, the larger the average size of milk snakes gets. Due to the fact that there are so many subspecies, you can’t really say, “A milk snake is always this,” or “A milk snake always looks like that.”
Some milk snakes originating in Latin America have been found at almost 6 feet long! [Source] The subspecies of milk snake that grows the longest is undoubtedly the black milk snake, as it consistently surpasses the 4-foot mark once it reaches maturity.
3. They Are Shiny Snakes
The name of milk snakes’ genus, Lampropeltis, is a Greek word meaning ‘shiny shields.’ [Source] This is a more-than-accurate description as people often wonder why milk snakes appear so glossy.
The reason for this lies in their 19 to 23 rows of scales. Each of the scales on a milk snake’s body have one thing in common, they are smooth and very shiny. This, along with the bright colors most milk snakes exhibit, makes them look incredibly glossy in the light. This factor is part of the reason why milk snakes are so popular as pets – not only are they non-venomous, they’re pretty too.
4. Their Pupils are Round
There is a common misconception circling the web that states non-venomous snakes all have round pupils, while venomous snakes have ‘cat-eyes’ or slit pupils. This is entirely false, as has been proven by many reputable snake breeders and handlers.
However, it is true that not all snakes have the same shape of pupil and, in the case of milk snakes, theirs are very much round.
5. They Have Relatively Slim Bodies
Compared to other species of snakes, milk snakes have thin bodies. They rarely get bulky and do justice to the ‘noodle’ part of the nickname ‘danger noodle’ that is often attributed to snakes.
Due to their relatively narrow shape, it may come as a surprise that they are constrictors. Their ability to kill prey in this manner stems from their incredibly powerful and agile body and tail.
6. Most Have a V-, U-, or Y-Shaped Marking on Their Head
One of the most prominent features taken into account when identifying a milk snake is that it almost always has a V-, U-, or Y- shaped blotch at the point where its head meets its body.
The color of this blotch usually matches that of the bands or blotches on the rest of the snake’s body.
7. Males and Females Differ Subtly in Size
Although milk snakes are sexually similar, meaning there is no difference in color and shape between males and females, males are usually found to be slightly longer than females. Females, on the other hand, can at times be a little bulkier than males.
This makes it difficult to know at a glance whether a milk snake is a male or female.
8. Different Subspecies of Milk Snakes Vary in Appearance
There are about two-dozen subspecies of milk snake. These different groups vary in appearance so greatly that many scientists have suggested splitting them into their own species entirely.
The smallest species of milk snake may never exceed 24 inches, while others could easily reach 6 feet in length. Some sub-species noticeably change color as they mature, others maintain the colorings of their youth.
Each subspecies also has various color morphs, which means even the snakes within that group may differ in coloring and appearance. Due to this, milk snakes are often mistaken for other snake species, with frequently fatal consequences for the snakes.
9. They are Sometimes Confused with Venomous Snakes
Since milk snakes are non-venomous and relatively docile creatures, they use a concept known as Batesian mimicry to keep themselves safe from other animals. Simply put, they copy the colors and patterns of other venomous snakes so that predators will think twice before attacking them. Some milk snakes even resort to shaking their tails, in an attempt to mimic the dangerous rattlesnake.
The two species of venomous snakes they are most often mistaken for are coral snakes and copperhead snakes.
The more easily disproven similarity is between copperheads and milk snakes. Most copperheads are much bulkier and have duller coloration than milk snakes. Copperheads tend to be more brown than red, and lack the V-shaped markings on their heads. Eastern milk snakes are most often mistaken for copperheads. They can be distinguished from each other by the fact that copperheads have dark bands of color, while Eastern milk snakes have blotches or broken bands.
A far trickier distinction is that between a coral snake and a milk snake. Both have bands of red, black, and yellow. In many cases, coral snakes don’t have any white on their bodies but this is not always true.
Milk snakes have elongated snouts, while coral snakes have shorter, more rounded snouts. Other subtle differences are related to behavior. Milk snakes are far more likely to be found in trees than coral snakes, but even so extreme caution should be taken if a snake is spotted that could possibly be a coral snake.
Due to these similarities, many milk snakes are, unfortunately, killed by people who mistake them for venomous snakes. It is incredibly difficult to tell the two apart and, if encountered in the wild, it is best to steer clear of the snake and get an expert to identify the species if it is necessary.
10. Albino Milk Snakes Exist
Albino milk snakes have unique features in that they lack any black or brown coloring. Albinism can occur in any subspecies of milk snake and usually results in a snake with much lighter bands overall.
In most cases, albino milk snakes will be almost entirely white, with bands or blotches of light red or yellow. Similar to other animals with albinism, their eyes will also appear red.
How Many Types of Milk Snakes are There?
There are currently 24 recognized subspecies of milk snakes. The scarlet kingsnake was once classified as a milk snake until the mid-2000s when this was disproven.
Only around half of these subspecies are available at pet shops, and all of them make excellent options for beginners looking to enter the world of snake husbandry.
The Sex of Milk Snakes are Temperature-Dependent
As is common for most reptiles, a milk snake’s gender is determined by the temperature of its surroundings at a critical point in the development of the embryo. This means the sex of unhatched milk snakes can be decided by the temperature at which the eggs are kept.
In the case of milk snakes, warmer temperatures will result in male snakes developing, while cooler temperature will give female snakes.
Once maturity is reached, however, there are almost no visible characteristics that can distinguish a male milk snake from a female one.
What are the Defining Features of the Different Subspecies of Milk Snakes?
Guatemalan Milk Snake
The Guatemalan milk snake is most easily identified by its thick bands of red, black, and orange-yellow. It reaches an average length of 24-36 inches and shares similarities in its appearance with deadly sea snakes.
Andean Milk Snake
Andean milk snakes are distinguished by their stripes of yellow, red, and black. Their scales are usually speckled with black dots. It is one of the largest subspecies of milk snake, reaching up to 6 feet in length.
Mexican Milk Snake
Also known as the Central Plains milk snake or pale milk snake, it is one of the subspecies most commonly mistaken for coral snakes. Mexican milk snakes have bands of red, black, and cream. The bottoms of their bodies are usually black and white.
Black Milk Snake
Black milk snakes begin their lives as brightly colored, banded snakes. As they grow older, however, their color begins to change and eventually their bodies become almost entirely black, hence the name. They are a large subspecies, being able to reach around 6 feet long.
Eastern Milk Snake
Native to North America, and probably the most well-known subspecies of milk snake, the eastern milk snake has incomplete bands of reddish-brown edged with black on a cream base. It is the most common milk snake kept as a pet and rarely surpasses 36 inches in length.
Sinaloan Milk Snake
Sinaloan milk snakes are unique in that they are mostly red with very thin bands of black and cream-yellow. Their heads are almost entirely black with only some cream-yellow blotches present.
Red Milk Snake
Red milk snakes have both bands and blotches. The bands of white or tan are thin and bordered by black. These alternate with red blotches. Their heads usually have a large red blotch bordered in black.
Nelson’s Milk Snake
Native to Mexico and the surrounding region, Nelson’s milk snakes are the most prone to exhibiting albinism. Adults come in at around 42 inches and, when not classified as an albino, they have 12 to 18 wide red bands bordered by thinner black ones.
Nelson’s milk snakes are often mistakenly classified as Sinaloan or Mexican milk snakes, but they are a subspecies on their own.
Milk snakes make excellent pets due to their docile nature and bright, interesting colors. There is also a huge variety in their appearances from the brilliantly white albino milk snakes to the almost entirely melanistic black milk snake.
If found in the wild, milk snakes are best avoided due to their striking similarity to venomous snakes like coral snakes and copperheads. There is no need to kill or harm a snake suspected of being venomous, simply leave it alone or get an expert to remove it from the area if required.
Regardless of where they are found, milk snakes are beautiful creatures who cleverly adapted their appearance and behavior to give themselves the best chance to survive.