Milk snakes, belonging to the same genus as king snakes, are native to the Americas. They can be found in almost all of the contiguous United States, and often show up in yards, barns, and sheds. Their bright red and black coloration can be startling.
We’re going to look into their behavior and biology, and learn exactly how much danger milk snakes pose to humans. We’ll discuss whether they have venom, what milk snake teeth are like, and whether they are ever aggressive toward people. Finally, we’ll discuss whether milk snakes make good pets.
- 1 Milk Snakes and Temperament
Milk Snakes and Temperament
Milk snakes, scientific name Lampropeltis triangulum, are a species of small-to-medium constricting snake native to the Americas. Various subspecies of milk snake can be found across Canada, the United States, Mexico and the northernmost parts of South America. They are a species of kingsnake, in the same genus as California kingsnakes and scarlet kingsnakes.
Enjoying a wide variety of prey, such as rodents and lizards, milk snakes can typically be found anywhere with a food source. This may include woodland areas, prairies, and agricultural land. You might even find a milk snake in your backyard.
Milk snakes are quite slim, with narrow heads and round eyes. They are relatively small (between 1.5 and 5 feet long as adults).
What Types of Milk Snake Are There?
The term “milk snake” is used to refer to any of 24 different subspecies. According to a study outlined in Systematic Biology, some of these subspecies are occasionally considered separate species. However, most of them are similar enough to interbreed.
Most types of milk snake are banded (horizontally striped). These bands are usually bright red, black, and yellow. The yellow bands range from white to orange in some species. The red bands are typically the widest. Their heads are usually black, occasionally with a red snout.
- Louisiana milk snakes
- New Mexico milk snakes
- Mexican milk snakes
- Honduran milk snakes
- Utah milk snakes
The most common milk snake in the U.S. is the eastern milk snake. They are found throughout the eastern two-thirds of the United States, as well as eastern Canada. They are whitish to grey in color, with reddish-brown saddles outlined in black.
Are Milk Snakes Venomous?
All subspecies of milk snake are part of the Colubridae taxonomic family. This family is home to several well-known species, such as corn snakes, racers, water snakes and hognose snakes. Almost all colubrids are constrictors, and do not possess fangs. The milk snake is no exception: they are nonvenomous.
The way that milk snakes hunt their prey is very similar to the method used by boa constrictors and the like. They strike at their prey, holding them by their teeth while they wrap their bodies around the animal. Then, they slowly apply pressure until the animal’s blood flow is fatally restricted.
This is such an effective hunting method that milk snakes have no need for venom. They rarely bite unless they intend to capture and constrict whatever they’re biting. When confronted by a predator, a milk snake is much more likely to try to escape than to bite.
Coral Snake vs. Milk Snake
Milk snakes are often confused with venomous coral snakes. This is because milk snakes are what’s known as “Batesian mimics.” Their colors and patterns have evolved to mimic those of the coral snake, fooling predators into thinking they’re dangerous.
Coral snakes have bright colored bands of red, black, and yellow (or white). As you know, milk snakes – and some other species of kingsnake – typically display similar colors.
The trick to distinguishing a coral snake from a milk snake is to look at the order of its bands. Coral snakes usually have red bands touching yellow, whereas milk snakes and kingsnakes have red bands touching black. There is even a rhyme: “red touch black, friend of Jack; red touch yellow, kill a fellow.”
However, this rhyme only works for standard North American coral snakes. Coral snakes in other parts of the world, and American corn snakes with genetic mutations, can display a wide range of color variants that do not conform to the rhyme.
Do Milk Snakes Have Teeth?
Fangs are designed for penetrating deep underneath an animal’s skin. This creates a wound which venom is then ejected into, through the fangs themselves, which are hollow. Because milk snakes do not possess venom, they do not have fangs.
However, milk snakes do have teeth: they are much smaller than fangs, and do not serve the same purpose. Milk snakes have four rows of tiny teeth on their upper jaw, and two rows on their lower jaw. The teeth are hooked, and point inwards towards the back of the snake’s head.
This helps to guide prey down the throat, and prevent it from falling out of the mouth. It also helps them to hold prey still while they’re constricting it.
Are Milk Snakes Aggressive?
Wild milk snakes are not generally aggressive towards humans. When approached by a human (or other large animals) their first instinct is to flee. The only time they may display aggression is if cornered, provoked, or picked up.
If it cannot escape the situation, a wild milk snake may hiss, coil up in a defensive stance, and musk (release a foul-smelling liquid from the cloaca). They may also strike, if they have no alternative.
Milk snakes make popular pets, as they are relatively easy to care for and do not grow very big. The usual milk snake temperament (captive-bred) is non-aggressive, though a bit nervous, especially when young.
Juveniles can be flighty, and prefer to move around. They will not always sit relaxed in your arms like a rosy boa or ball python would. They may even musk in self-defense, though they become more relaxed as adults.
Some reptile owners find certain species of milk snake to be less placid than others. Honduran milk snakes, Nelson’s milk snakes, and Pueblan milk snakes tend to be the most favored by snake owners. However, any milk snake can be tamed to accept humans with regular handling.
Do Milk Snakes Bite Humans?
Like most kinds of constricting snake, milk snakes will only bite humans if they feel severely threatened. They know that they possess no venom with which to paralyze or kill an approaching attacker, so biting is not usually their first form of self-defense. Instead, they are likely to flee.
When cornered and threatened, milk snakes may hiss or strike as a last resort. However, because their teeth are so small, they are not very good at penetrating human skin. A bite from a milk snake is not particularly harmful, and though it may hurt and bleed slightly, it isn’t a severe cause for concern.
Do Milk Snakes Eat Other Snakes?
Milk snakes are a type of kingsnake, meaning a snake which eats other snakes. In fact, in the wild, milk snakes eat almost any animal that they can overpower. They are not picky about what species or even family of animals the prey belongs to.
- Small mammals, such as mice, voles, and young rats
- Lizards, such as skinks
- Amphibians (toads, frogs, and newts)
- Birds and bird eggs
- Any snake, including venomous rattlesnakes.
Owners of captive milk snakes tend to feed them frozen-thawed mice and baby rats. Rodents provide all of a milk snake’s nutritional requirements, so there’s no need for them to eat anything else. However, pet milk snakes will still consume other snakes if given the opportunity. This is why you should never keep a milk snake with any other kind of snake (even another milk snake).
How to Take Care of Milk Snakes
As well as being very common in the wild, milk snakes make great pets. They are often recommended for beginners in the world of snake ownership, due to their small size and ease of care. As you now know, milk snakes are completely harmless and not usually aggressive. The odd bite from their small teeth won’t hurt.
Providing for milk snakes is relatively straightforward. You’ll need a secure enclosure containing a hide box, water bowl, and an absorbent substrate. A heat mat will help to keep the enclosure’s temperature consistent. You’ll need to feed your snake frozen-thawed rodents roughly once a week. For more information, check out our milk snake care guide.
If you’d like a pet milk snake, we would always recommend buying one from an experienced breeder. Do not attempt to catch and house a wild milk snake. Wild snakes often have trouble acclimating to captive environments, and may never become fully tame. If you see a wild milk snake, admire it from a distance.