This absolutely beautiful snake is a male of a species known commonly as the VARIABLE KING SNAKE or NUEVO LEON KING SNAKE. In the wild this species lives in and around the dry montane regions of several north-eastern Mexican states including Tamaulipas and Nuevo Leon, hence one of its common names.
The other common name for this species, the variable king snake, comes from the fact that this is an unusual species which naturally occurs in many very different colour forms (or morphs) in the wild. These include the classic tricolour (or three-colour) form as seen here, an all black (melanistic) colour form and also a huge range of other colours and patterns including one which is quite like the lovely King Julian my grey banded king snake!
In late 2012 I ran a competition to find a suitable name for this beautiful individual and was overwhelmed by the response both via email and through my Facebook & twitter pages! The winning suggestion was made by Clare Duncan of Cirencester in Gloucestershire who suggested the name RAYA, which is a Spanish word meaning stripe. As Spanish is the main language spoken in Mexico, and based on his beautiful pattern, this seemed an ideal choice. Here he is looking quite a bit smaller than he does now!
One of the greatest things about this particular species is that you can breed together two snakes which look exactly the same and yet all of the different potential colour and pattern morphs can emerge from the same clutch of eggs. It must make breeding this species so much fun as you literally never know what you are going to get!
Raya himself was bred by a fantastic breeder on the south coast of England and was hatched on July 12th 2012. I hand picked him from several individuals because of his perfect markings.
Tricoloured king snakes like Raya, along with the closely related milk snakes, are said to be mimics of venomous coral snakes in parts of their range. The coral snake's colours serve as a warning to predators not to attack due to the potential danger from the snake, whereas the non-venomous king and milk snakes are just 'pretending' to be dangerous by having these same three colours to deter predators!
I was lucky enough whilst visiting Costa Rica in December 2013 to encounter a venomous coral snake in the wild, here it is:
If you compare the pattern of this coral snake and Raya my variable king snake (along with the many species of milk snakes) you will notice a significant difference.
This is the pattern of a coral snake, where the red and cream/yellow bands always touch and the red and black bands never do.
This is the pattern of a variable king snake or milk snake, where the red and black bands always touch but the red and cream/yellow bands never do.
If you are in Mexico or central America this distinction is very important as you can be sure that a snake with red and black bands touching is harmless, whereas one with red and yellow bands touching is venomous. I often teach children a little rhyme I learned as a child myself to remember which is which, it goes like this:
'Red touching black is a friend of Jack, red touching yellow can kill a fellow!' There are many variations on the rhyme including 'venom lack' instead of 'friend of Jack' but they all basically mean the same thing!