Since the fall of 2009, Wittenberg students and researchers have been working with a captive colony of Variable or Thayeri's kingsnakes (Lampropeltis spp.). Current goals of the program are threefold:
- Provide hands on experiences working with live animals for students in the field of wildlife ecology;
- Alleviate a misunderstood taxa by providing opportunities for novice students to gain an appreciation for the species;
- Use the colony to answer research questions that may allow better management of wild populations or a better understanding of how animals interpret their environment.
It is important to note here that the taxonomic status of the species (Lampropeltis thayeri) or subspecies (Lampropeltis mexicana thayeri) is in a state of flux. Our current taxonomy suggests three subspecies make up the mexicana complex (Lampropeltis mexicana):
- The Mexican kingsnake, L. m. mexicana
- The Greeri's kingsnake, L. m. greeri, and;
- The Variable or Thayeri's kingsnake.
We choose this model organism for several reasons. Logistically, this is an easy animal to maintain, reaches an ideal adult size of about 3 feet (though our animals may get considerably larger) and has a great disposition.
In the display we have 3 snakes. You can identify the year of hatch of each snake by reading the business card - many of our specimens are captive born right here at Wittenberg. Our oldest and largest snake is Leon. He was hatched in California in 2006 and weighs around 600 grams. He is very large for the species and more brightly colored than you would expect to see in the wild. Most are green to gray to brown and are thought to closely match the background substrate in areas of their range. There is also a milksnake phase, with wider-bands, that is often considered a coral snake mimic. Although no kingsnakes are venomous, by resembling venomous species, it may afford them some protection from predation.
Students have produced scientific products addressing the role of temperature on growth and feeding in kingsnakes, the role of temperature in fluctuating asymmetry, and the impact of passive integrated transponders on growth.
Future directions may further examine food intake and weight gain and assess genetic heterozygosity based on phenotype.