Tonto National Monument is home to 16 species of snakes; four of which are venomous. Learn more about each of these species below.
Arizona Black Rattlesnake (Venomous)
Body Length: 15 - 65"
Diet: Rodents, birds, reptiles, and amphibians
This rattlesnake often appears black with thin white, yellow, or orange cross bars on its back. Younger snakes are usually lighter in color, with brown splotches and facial markings on a light gray background. Their neck is slender and their head is broad and triangular. At Tonto National Monument, they are rarely seen or found far from wooded canyon areas.
Body Length: 16 - 43"
Diet: Frogs, tadpoles, toads, crustaceans, and fish
Blackneck garter snakes are generally a dark olive-gray with a single orange-yellow stripe down the middle of the back and an additional white stripe on each side. Gater snakes are primarily active during the day and at dawn/dusk, and use their keen eyesight to track down prey such as canyon tree frogs and other amphibians. These snakes are particularly adept at hunting treefrog tadpoles when they emerge in April and May.
Although garter snakes are found commonly in certain parts of the US, in desert regions they tend to be confined to stream areas. At Tonto National Monument, the blackneck garter snake is seldom seen far from water, which occurs in only a few isolated springs and seeps.
Blacktail Rattlesnake (Venomous)
Body Length: 28 - 49 1/2"
Diet: Small mammals
Blacktails are large, brightly-patterned rattlesnakes that are distinguished by dark coloring above the rattles. It is the uniformly dark tail that distinguishes the Blacktail from the Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. Although considered mild-mannered, the size and toxicity of this snake makes it no less dangerous than other rattlesnake species. Blacktails are are often seen along the Upper Cliff Dwelling Trail.
Body Lenth: 36 - 102"
Diet: Small mammals, birds, lizards, snakes, and insects
Coachwhips are fast, day-active snakes. They are one of Arizona's fastest snakes, officially clocked at 3.6 miles per hour. An unusual feature of this snake is that it has a wide variety of coloration and markings. Across Arizona, the coachwhip is red, pinkish red, orange, rusty brown, or olive brown. It is the markings on the scales above the tail that give it the appearance of a banded whip. They are rarely encountered at Tonto National Monument, but are often seen at lower elevations, closer to Roosevelt Lake.
Body Length: 30 - 82"
Diet: Snakes (including rattlesnakes), mammals, and other vertebrates
The "king of snakes" is a very large snake which often has a black base coloration with white rings. Kingsnakes are opportunistic feeders, and will readily eat mice and other prey. Kingsnakes are constrictors, meaning they suffocate prey by encircling them.
Common kingsnakes are found throughout most of Arizona, although not often seen at Tonto National Monument. Unlike most desert snakes, kingsnakes are active both before and after dark, with their activity shifting to evening during the hotter months. While aggressive towards other snakes, kingsnakes have a reputation for being mild-mannered around humans.
Body Length: 36 - 110"
Diet: Rodents, rabbits, and birds
Gopher snakes, often called "bullsnakes", are found throughout the US, and are seen with some frequency at the Monument. The base coloration is tan, cream, yellow, orange-brown, or pale gray. A series of large brown, reddish brown, black, or olive blotches line the back.They are notorious impersonators of rattlesnakes- when alarmed, they flatten their heads, hiss, strike out repeatedly, and vibrate their rattle-less tails. Nevertheless, they usually become mild-mannered when handled, and are well-liked by some farmers because of the large number of rodents they consume.
The photograph of two male gopher snakes fighting on the Lower Cliff Dwelling trail was taken in Spring 1995; the fight occurred while visitors watched in late afternoon, and continued for at least two hours. Though rarely observed, such combat is probably common among male gopher snakes competing for territory or females. Each combatant tried to maintain the uppermost position and force his opponent's head to the ground.
Body Length: 8 - 18"
Diet: Small arthropods
Ground snakes are true ground-dwellers, as their name suggests. They live in rock crevices, feeding on arthropods such as spiders, centipedes, scorpions, and crickets. Small and secretive, ground snakes are rarely seen by humans. When found, they are easy to confuse with a variety of other snakes. In Tonto Basin, ground snakes often have dark heads (as in the photo) and resemble blackhead snakes. However, while ground snakes have whitish bellies, blackhead snakes are red or orange underneath.
Ground snakes and several other small snakes have small fangs in the rear of their mouths that deliver a mild venom. Their bite may immobilize their tiny prey, but is not as dangerous to humans. At Tonto National Monument, they appear to be most common on shallow slopes at lower elevations.
Body Length: 20 - 41"
Diet: Small snakes, lizards, and rodents
Banded in black, yellow, and/or red, longnose snakes are often confused with kingsnakes, but have less distinct bands and a more narrow nose. These snakes are relatively common at lower elevations in Tonto Basin. Excellent burrowers, they are almost never above ground during the day. When threatened, these snakes seldom bite, but may defend themselves by coiling, striking, vibrating their tail, defecating, and even bleeding from their rear vent.
The color of snakes is not always useful in distinguishing one species from the next. Some longnose snakes, for example, have prominent red blotches, and others have no red color at all. It was once thought that these black "clarus" snakes were a distinct subspecies - until 1963, when both types were found in the same clutch of eggs.
Body Length: 18 - 48"
Diet: Lizards, birds, rodents, and bats
This snake is named for the distinctive mark on the back of its head, which resembles the harp-like musical instrument of ancient Greece. Excellent climbers, lyre snakes are found in deep crevices and fissures on cliff and rock faces. They are rarely seen except at night following summer rains.
When disturbed, lyre snakes are one of several species which imitate rattlesnakes, flattening their head and "rattling" their trail against dry plants. Through grooved teeth they deliver a mild venom that has a greater effect on lizards, their primary food, then on small mammals. There is no evidence that their bite is harmful to humans.
Body Length: 12 - 26"
Diet: Lizards, small snakes, and amphibians
True to their name, night snakes are largely night-active, or nocturnal. This snake is gray or tan with small, dark, gray-brown blotches on their back. Like other nocturnal creatures, the pupils of their eyes are elliptical. It is thought that this feature gives nocturnal animals the ability to allow light to enter more selectively into their sensitive eyes. These snakes probably occur throughout Tonto National Monument. They are mildly venomous, with enlarged rear fangs, but are not harmful to humans.
Body Length: 8 - 30"
Diet: Small invertebrates, snakes, and lizards
Ringneck snakes are one of the most wide-ranging reptiles in the US, occurring in states as far apart as Florida, Maine, California, and Washington. Easily recognized by their yellow or orange ringed neck, these snakes are known to coil their tails in upturned spirals when provoked or handled, exposing their bright orange or red underside.
Because of its northern affinities, one might expect that ringneck snakes in Arizona would prefer moist areas at high elevations. However, they are surprisingly adaptable, and may be found in grasslands, riparian woodlands, oak woodlands, and even in the desert near riparian areas.
Ringneck snakes are rear-fanged and venomous to small snakes and lizards on which they feed.
Body Length: 24 - 67"
Diet: Birds, lizards, and frogs
This conspicuous day-active species is common throughout Tonto National Monument. This snake has blue-gray to gray-green coloration on the neck that grades to yellow-green at mid body and gray-brown toward the tail. The whipsnake's keen eyesight and speed are used to chase down lizards and other prey.
Whipsnakes seem to be as comfortable in trees as on the ground and they may be an important predator of birds such as cactus wrens and thrashers. When captured by humans, whipsnakes bite aggressively, often drawing blood. However they are not venomous.
Southwestern Blackhead Snake
Body Length: 5 1/2 - 15"
Although they do sometimes come to surface at night, blackhead snakes are fossorial, meaning they spend much of their time underground. These small and slender snakes are light brown, tan, or gray with a dark head cap. Though rarely seen, blackhead snakes occur throughout Tonto National Monument.
Western Coral Snake (Venomous)
Body Length: 13 - 21"
Diet: Lizards and small snakes
Coral snakes are brightly-colored with red, yellow or cream, and black rings that completely encircle the body. The red bands touch the yellow bands. Spending most of their time underground, they feed primarily on other fossorial snakes such as black and ground snakes. When encountered above ground, coral snakes exhibit a strange array of anti-predator behaviors, including hiding their head and using their tail as a decoy to "strike" at the predator. Coral snakes also make a sound by releasing air from their rear vent, a practice politely described by scientists as "cloacal popping".
Venom from this species, released from fixed fangs in the front of the mouth, is highly toxic. Although no human fatalities have been attributed to coral snakes in Arizona, probably because of their small size and generally nonaggressive nature, they should be left alone and never handled.
Coral snakes are rarely seen here, but they are likely common.
Western Diamondback Rattlesnake (Venomous)
Body Length: 30 - 84"
Diet: Rodents, rabbits, birds, and lizards
Diamondbacks are one of the most common snakes in Arizona, and are the most frequently seen snake at Tonto National Monument. These rattlesnakes are gray or tan with a row of large, brown, diamond-shaped blotches on the back. There are equal-sized black and white bands on the tail. Rattlesnakes are "pit-vipers", meaning they use heat sensing pits (one on each side of the face between the eye and nostrile) to detect warm-blooded predators and prey.
Though most active in spring and summer, diamondbacks may be encountered in any month of the year.
Western Patchnose Snake
Body Length: 20 - 46"
Diet: Eggs, lizards, small mammas, and insects
Patchnose snakes are tan or cream colored with two wide dark, irregular-edge stripes on their back. The sides of the body and the middle of the back between the black stripes are tan, peach, or yellow. Patchnose snakes regularly feed on the eggs of lizards and other snakes. Some scientists believe that the distinctive "patch nose" or enlarged nose scale, is an adaptation for excavating eggs. Patchnose snakes are day-active and are regularly seen on the trails at Tonto National Monument.