New York Status: Endangered
Federal Status: Not Listed
The Queen snake is a relatively small, slender species, ranging in size from 15 - 24 inches, with a maximum reported size of 37 inches total length. The scales are keeled, or have a lengthwise ridge along the top of each scale, giving the species an overall rough texture. Their color may vary from tan or olive to dark brown or black, with a ventral surface or belly color of yellow to cream, which extends onto the lower jaw, and down the length of the body on the top of the second scale row. Two broad, brown stripes running the length of the body cover the sutures of the first scale row and the outer margins of the ventral scales. There are also two centerline stripes running the length of the belly that may become intertwined or obscured towards the tail. Three dark dorsal stripes may be visible on adults in some localities, and on juveniles that may fade as the animal reaches maturity.
Distribution and Habitat
Although this species of snake is widely distributed throughout the eastern United States and may be common within certain localities, it can be considered one of the rarest snakes encountered in New York State. With only a handful of records attesting to its occurrence in the western reaches of the state, it is most frequently encountered in riparian corridors, along streams with ample shrubby floodplain and adjacent wetland habitats. Such streams are typically shallow, warm and have a rocky bottom. Cover can include overhanging vegetation, aquatic plants and streamside rocks. Queen snakes may be found basking in shrubby vegetation over water amongst streamside debris and aquatic vegetation. If similar conditions exist, queen snakes may also be found along the edges of ponds, ditches and canals.
There is little known about the biology of queen snakes in the northeast, however, they appear to be most active diurnally, or during the day, and may exhibit nocturnal activity during the heat of the summer months. This species emerges from their overwintering retreats in early April and remain active until October. They will use a variety of structures for overwintering, including muskrat lodges, crayfish burrows, and other underground structures such as earthen or stone dams and possibly beaver dams. Mating occurs in spring, likely during the month of May, and from late July through early September queen snakes can give birth to 10-14 live young. A mere 7-9 inches at birth, growth of young has been shown to increase by as much as 80% in the first year, and within two years time either sex is reproductively mature, although they likely do not breed until their third year.
The foraging ecology of the queen snake is of a rather selective nature, with freshly molted crayfish being nearly the sole item consumed. Surveys of the stomach contents from snakes originating in western New York show that 99% of the contents are newly molted crayfish, with a very small percentage being freshly molted invertebrates. This illustrates the importance of a healthy population of crayfish in areas occupied by queen snakes.
Although queen snakes are a state endangered species, New York State is the edge of their overall distribution in the United States, and this species is considered common in other parts of their range. Much of their occurrence in New York may still be undocumented. Agricultural practices may have a negative effect on their populations, as runoff is a potential detriment to the crayfish they are so closely associated with. Additionally, there is a negative association between brush clearing along aquatic habitats and their overall habitat use.
Management and Research Needs
Management requirements of queen snakes have received little attention in New York, likely due to this species limited distribution. Fencing along pastured streams deemed appropriate for queen snake habitat has been demonstrated to be effective in maintaining ample shrubby vegetation and stable water temperatures. The effects of siltation from agricultural or urban sources combined with various forms of pollution are detrimental to this species, as it directly affects the crayfish populations on which this species of snake so critically depends.
Additional research should start with comprehensive surveys to determine the extent of queen snake distribution in New York, with an emphasis on threats to known, viable populations. Another facet of queen snake conservation that deserves further study is the potential impact of the invasion of exotic, competitive species of crayfish which might replace native crayfish and be unpalatable to queen snakes. This has yet to be determined.
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Harding, J.H.1997.Amphibians and Reptiles of the Great Lakes Region. The University of Michigan Press. Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Homyack, J.D. and W.M. Giuliano.2002.Effects of Streambank Fencing on Herpetofauna in Pasture Stream Zones. Wildlife Society Bulletin, 30(2) pp. 361-369.
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