Desert striped whipsnake (Coluber [Masticophis] taeniatus taeniatus)

Closeup of a pair of hands holding a coiled desert striped whipsnake
A desert striped whipsnake 
Category: Reptiles
Family: Colubridae - Colubrids
Ecosystems: Shrubsteppe
State status: Candidate
Vulnerability to climate change (More details)

Low-
Moderate

If you see this species, please share your observation using the WDFW wildlife reporting form. Providing detailed information such as a photo and exact coordinates will improve the confidence and value of this observation to WDFW species conservation and management.

This is a subspecies of striped whipsnake. It is the state’s longest snake and one of its rarest, known only to exist in two areas in Grant County, Washington. 

Some threats include conversion of habitat to agriculture, degradation of native shrubsteppe habitat from invasive weeds and other impacts, plus increasing vehicular traffic on roads and highways that bisect one of the last occupied areas. 

Description and Range

Physical description

This is a long, slender, striped non-venomous snake. Adults range in size from 30 to 72 inches total length. The belly is white and the underside of the tail is pinkish or coral colored. The eyes are large and the pupil is round.

The only other large striped snakes in Washington are the gartersnakes: common, northwestern, and terrestrial. The striped whipsnake differs from these in having smooth scales, 15 dorsal scale rows, and a dark mid-dorsal area between the lateral stripes.

For more details about the desert striped whipsnake, see the Washington Herp Atlas

Ecology and life history

In Washington, striped whipsnakes are shrubsteppe obligates and occur primarily in the driest areas of the central Columbia Basin. Washington occurrences, historical and extant, are below 1,500 feet elevation. Most lands below this elevation in the Columbia Basin have been converted to agriculture or inundated by reservoirs for the Columbia Basin Irrigation Project. In addition, the habitat has been insidiously degraded by cheatgrass and other invasive weeds that have altered the understory of shrubsteppe habitat by colonizing the interspaces between native shrubs and perennial bunch grasses. This is particularly problematic for this active, visual predator, as well as the ground-dwelling lizards on which it preys.

The loss of lower shrub branches can be significant for striped whipsnakes and their lizard prey as shrubs without their lower branches do not provide the same cover from the heat or predators. This can occur from cattle grazing when cattle push their heads under shrubs to eat the grass under the shrub. The habitat of the two existing populations includes basalt outcrops with areas of high quality shrubland.

Striped whipsnakes use communal dens (i.e., hibernacula) in basalt outcroppings for winter dormancy. This species has high fidelity to hibernacula, returning each year to overwinter. Identification and protection of hibernacula sites is essential for conservation of this species.

In Washington, striped whipsnakes become surface active in March as soon as temperatures become suitable for activity, although they remain in the vicinity of the hibernacula until daytime temperatures are more consistently warm in April.

Breeding takes place after they emerge in the spring. Females lay eggs in July, and clutch sizes range from three to seven. The incubation period is 44 to 58 days. Striped whipsnakes are active during the day.

They are fast, visual, predators that actively chase down their prey. Small ground dwelling lizards, such as the side-blotched lizard, are the predominant prey, but small mammals, snakes, young birds, and insects are also eaten. 

They are a long-lived snake (up to 20 years).

Geographic range

Striped whipsnakes reach the northern limit of their geographic range in Washington. Evidence indicates the species was never common in Washington and appears limited to the driest areas of the central Columbia Basin.

This map from the Washington Herp Atlas illustrates the known distribution of desert striped whipsnake in Washington as of 2016.

Desert striped whipsnake state distribution map as of 2016: Grant, Yakima, Lincoln, Benton, and Walla Walla counties
Washington Herp Atlas (2017)

For a map of range-wide distribution and conservation status of the striped whipsnake species (Coluber [Masticophis] taeniatus), check out NatureServe Explorer

Climate vulnerability

Sensitivity to climate change

Low-
Moderate

Overall, a lack of information exists regarding sensitivity of the striped whipsnake to climate change. Sensitivity of this species may be influenced by its occurrence in shrubsteppe habitats, which are sensitive to changes in precipitation, invasive weeds, and altered fire regimes. Striped whipsnakes appear to show some specificity for selected den sites, at least in some areas; unfortunately, the basis of that specificity is unclear, so linking it to potential changes in climate is uncertain. Striped whipsnakes are a largely saurophagous (lizard-consuming) species that in Washington are highly dependent on side-blotched lizards for prey in the only known populations remaining in the state. Hence, climate change impacting the side-blotched lizard could directly impact this species. In northern Utah, desert striped whipsnakes are locally heavily dependent on sagebrush lizards; if other populations of desert striped whipsnake exist in Washington State, they could be tied to favorable sagebrush lizard locations, so climate impacts on that species could also have impacts on this snake.

Confidence: Low

Exposure to climate change

Moderate

  • Changes in precipitation
  • Increased invasive weeds
  • Altered fire regimes
Confidence: Moderate

Regulations

Licenses and permits

Be advised that collection of this species is only permitted under a WDFW Scientific Collection Permit for research and educational activities.

Conservation

This species is identified as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need (SGCN) under the State Wildlife Action Plan (SWAP). SGCN-classified species include both those with and without legal protection status under the Federal or State Endangered Species programs, as well as game species with low populations. The WDFW SWAP is part of a nationwide effort by all 50 states and five U.S. territories to develop conservation action plans for fish, wildlife and their natural habitats—identifying opportunities for species' recovery before they are imperiled and more limited.
This species is identified as a Priority Species under WDFW's Priority Habitat and Species Program. Priority species require protective measures for their survival due to their population status, sensitivity to habitat alteration, and/or recreational, commercial, or tribal importance. The PHS program is the agency's main means of sharing fish and wildlife information with local governments, landowners, and others who use it to protect priority habitats for land use planning.

Conservation Threats and Actions Needed

  • Resource information collection needs
    • Threat: Lack of information on status and distribution.
    • Action Needed: Currently, only two extant populations are known in Washington. Inventory efforts and outreach must continue to determine if other populations occur in the state.
  • Fish and wildlife habitat loss or degradation
    • Threat: Loss and degradation of suitable shrubsteppe habitat that this species relies upon in Washington.
    • Action Needed: Because of the apparent rarity of this species, lands where it occurs needs to be protected from agricultural conversion.
    • Threat: Shrubsteppe habitat degraded by irrigation water.
    • Action Needed: Protect habitat at risk for conversion to irrigated cropland that could provide suitable habitat within or between occupied areas.
    • Threat: Changes in vegetation may result from unsustainable grazing through the removal of too much vegetation, the introduction of invasive weeds, crushing of mammal burrows (used by the snakes) and damage to the lower branches of shrubs from grazing under shrubs.
    • Action Needed: Provide technical assistance to producers grazing within vicinity of known striped whipsnake hibernacula.
  • Invasive and other problematic species
    • Threat: Changes to vegetation/habitat. This species, and its lizard prey, requires habitat with bare ground between plants. Non-native, invasive species such as cheatgrass create dense ground cover.
    • Action Needed: Prevent land use practices that increase non-native invasive plant species. Where these plants already occur, find ways to remove and/or prevent expansion.

See the Climate vulnerability section for information about the threats posed by climate change to this species.

Our Conservation Efforts

WDFW has partnered on striped whipsnake conservation projects with the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) Wenatchee Office, Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR), U.S. Army-Yakima Training Center, and U.S. Geological Survey.

Concern about the species’ status in Washington was triggered by lack of observations during large scale herpetological inventories in the 1990s and surveys at historical striped whipsnake sites by DNR’s Natural Heritage Program from 1998 to 2004. Moreover, WDFW received only three observation reports from 1990 to 2003. A confirmed report of a striped whipsnake in western Grant County in 2004 triggered surveys at the observation site by DNR’s Natural Heritage Program, the BLM, and WDFW. In 2005, a cooperative project was initiated between the BLM and DNR’s Natural Heritage Program to describe habitat use and life history of striped whipsnakes at this same site and to evaluate the status of the species in Washington.

Whipsnakes are elusive and have proven difficult to find even where they are known to occur. Searching for shed skins eliminates many of the difficulties associated with finding the species. A corridor of native habitat supporting healthy lizard populations still remains between the two sites. WDFW continued to conduct these surveys annually at the occupied sites to monitor the populations. Numbers of shed skins found has remained small but relatively consistent from year to year, including the most recent surveys in 2012.

The Yakima Training Center (YTC) has provided shed skins to WDFW for identification. In 2012, WDFW surveyed an area on the YTC for the third time since 2006 that was known to have whipsnakes in the 1970s. Although the habitat appears suitable, none of the survey efforts resulted in evidence that whipsnakes still occur on the YTC. Shed skins from striped whipsnakes have been collected and stored since 2005 as vouchers for future genetic research. In 2010, researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey were able to isolate genetic material from a small sample of these shed skins.

Living with wildlife

Snakes are among the most misunderstood of all animals. Of the dozen or so species of snakes found in Washington, only the western rattlesnake is capable of inflicting a venomous bite, which it seldom does. All snakes are an important part of the natural food chain, eating a variety of prey—from mice and birds to frogs and insects.

Observe snakes, like all wild animals, from a respectful distance. Learn more about living with snakes.

Resources

References

Crother, B. I. (editor). 2017. Scientific and standard English names of amphibians and reptiles of North America north of Mexico, with comments regarding confidence in our understanding. 8th edition. SSAR Herpetological Circular 43:1-104. https://ssarherps.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/8th-Ed-2017-Scientific-and-Standard-English-Names.pdf [Updates in SSAR North American Species Names Database at: https://ssarherps.org/cndb]

Hallock, L. A. 1998. Herpetofauna of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Grant, Franklin and Benton counties, Washington. Unpublished report submitted to The Nature Conservancy, Seattle, Washington. 43 pp.

Hallock, L. A. 1998. Herpetofauna inventory of Bureau of Land Management sites in Douglas, Franklin, Grant, Lincoln, and Klickitat counties, Washington. Unpublished report, Natural Heritage Program, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Olympia, Washington. 14 pp.

Hallock, L. A. 1999. Herpetofauna inventory of northern Moses Coulee, Douglas County, Washington. Unpublished report, Natural Heritage Program, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Olympia, Washington. 15 pp.

Hallock, L. A. 2006. Summary report on the striped whipsnake (Masticophis taeniatus) in Washington. Washington Natural Heritage Report 2006-05, Washington Department of Natural Resources, Olympia, Washington. 47 pp. Prepared for the Bureau of Land Management, Wenatchee.

Nussbaum, R. A., E. D. Brodie, Jr., and R.M. Storm. 1983. Amphibians and Reptiles of the Pacific Northwest. University of Idaho Press, Moscow, Idaho. 332 pp.

Parker, W. S. and W. S. Brown. 1973. Species composition and population changes in two complexes of snake hibernacula in northern Utah. Herpetologica 29: 319-326.

Parker, W. S and W. S. Brown. 1972. Telemetric study of movements and oviposition of two female Masticophis t. taeniatus. Copeia 1972 (4): 892-895.

Pilliod, D. S., et al. 2020. Conservation Genetics of the Imperiled Striped Whipsnake in Washington, USA in Herpetological Conservation and Biology 15(3):597-610. http://www.herpconbio.org/Volume_15/Issue_3/Pilliod_etal_2020.pdf

Stebbins, R. C. 1985. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians, 2nd Edition. The Peterson Field Guide Series. Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston. 336 pp.

Storm, R. M. and W. P. Leonard (Coordinating Editors). 1995. Reptiles of Washington and Oregon. Seattle Audubon Society, The Trailside Series, Seattle, Washington. 176 pp.

WDFW publications

PHS Program

WDFW educational resources

Other resources