Next to the infamous Rattlesnake the Kingsnake is probably the most well known North American snake species. The name "Kingsnake" alone has a persona about it that makes it stand out amongst even non snake enthusiasts. When talking snakes to the general public the Kingsnake seems to be the most known and tolerated species. "That's the snake that eats Rattlers, right" ? when answering yes thy follow with, "that's the only snake I don't kill when I see it on my property" .
Kingsnakes like all snakes are coldblooded, meaning that their body temperature varies with its environment. Their body temperature will rise or drop with the temperature of the item that they are in contact with, like a rock a log or any piece of artificial cover. This allows them to thermoregulate to their desired temperature. After eating, Kingsnakes will need to find a warm spot to rest and digest its meal. The digestive enzymes of a Kingsnake will not digest properly if they do not do this. The meal can actually spoil within the snakes stomach and they will have to regurgitate the undigested meal .
California Kingsnake overtaking a southern Alligator Lizard
As its name suggests the Kingsnake in North America is the "King" of all snakes. Kingsnakes are ophiophagus meaning they eat other snakes, they have a high tolerance for Pit Viper venom and occasionally will eat Cottonmouths, Copperheads and Rattlesnakes.
Kingsnakes are not only snake eaters they are very opportunistic feeders eating just about anything they can swallow. Each subspecies has its favorites within its own habitat and range their diet reflects prey items that are found within that range. Kingsnakes that live in rocky outcroppings may feed almost entirely on lizard, while the same subspecies that lives in a meadow at the base of that outcropping may feed solely on rodents. I will go more in depth on specific prey items and feeding habits within the sections of each specific subspecies.
Kingsnakes can eat snakes as long as themselves and also prey items with twice the girth. Elastic like tendons, muscles, and ligaments give the jaw remarkable flexibility. They work the prey item in with a side to side motion, each side of the upper and lower mandibles working separately reaching forward and snagging the prey with its teeth and pulling it deeper in with each bite. Once it is in the throat the snake will lift its head and front portion off the ground and use specialized muscles to move it down the esophagus ending in the stomach.
When having trouble swallowing larger items they will use the ground or a inanimate object to help force the item deeper into its throat. This combined with the side to side grabbing of the mandibles the elastic tendons, ligaments, muscles and the lubricating saliva give the snake an extraordinary ability to swallow whole items much larger in girth then themselves. Now in the stomach the next step is to find a warm place to rest so the item will properly digest.
A young California Kingsnake with a large meal found thermoregulating under the piece of plywood that it is photoed on.
Special cells in the stomach secrete enzymes and gastric juices that breakdown proteins for digestion. Once broken down the food passes through a valve and into the small intestine. It is here in the small intestine where nutrients, water, vitamins, minerals, and fats are absorbed into the blood through tiny blood vessels and delivered to the snakes entire body. Then moving into the large intestine where the liver and the pancreas also aid in digestion by secreting more digestive enzymes. It then travels to the cloacal chamber which is divided into two chambers, one for feces and the other for urine. The cloaca also aids in re-absorption of water.