Northern Pine Snake

Scientific Name:  (Pituophis melanoleucus melanoleucus)
Classification:  Nongame
Abundance:  Declining throughout their range

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Species Profile (PDF)

Co-Existing with Snakes (PDF)

          
Photo: Jeff Hall

     

The Northern pine snake is a large, non-venomous snake with a variety of common names, including bullsnake, black and white snake, pilot snake, horned snake, and white gopher snake.  While there are three subspecies of pine snakes in North America, only one – the Northern pine snake – is found in North Carolina. Northern pine snakes are large, heavy-bodied snakes with a white, tan or yellowish background color and dark brown or black markings that begin as heavy mottling on the head and gradually become distinct blotches toward the tail. The belly is white or yellowish and may contain some light mottling of brown, orange or pink. They average about 4 to 5 feet in length; however, some specimens measure more than 6 feet in length. Northern pine snakes are a burrowing species, spending much of their life underground and, therefore, are seldom seen. Despite this secretiveness, Northern pine snakes are thought to be declining throughout much of their range.

In North Carolina, pine snakes are found mostly in the Sandhills and southern Coastal Plain. A few specimens have been found in the southern mountains, specifically in Cherokee and Swain counties. In Swain County, one was spotted swimming in Fontana Lake.  Pine snakes prefer open areas within pine-oak forests with well-drained and sandy soils. In the Coastal Plain, they are found within the longleaf pine ecosystem. While they typically dig their own burrows, they also will use mammal burrows and tree root cavities or stumps.

For more information read the Northern Pine Snake species profile.

In North Carolina, the pine snake is state listed as a Threatened species and is identified in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need. As a state-listed species, pine snakes are protected in North Carolina and cannot be collected or taken from the wild without a special permit issued by the Wildlife Commission’s Executive Director.

 

The Northern pine snake is non-venomous. Many people fear snakes and worry for the safety of people and pets when snakes are present. In reality, snakes are shy creatures that pose little to no threat to us when left alone. Snakes are an important part of our environment, keeping populations of pests such as rodents, slugs, and insects in check. Plus, snakes are a food resource to other animals such as foxes, raccoons, bears, eagles, hawks, and owls. 

When someone encounters a snake, usually the person and the snake are both caught off guard. The best plan is to leave the snake alone and give it plenty of space. In most cases, given time, the snake will move out of the area on its own. Like all reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded, meaning that their internal temperatures follow that of the ambient temperatures where they are found. On a cool day, a  snake encountered basking may not yet have the energy to move away from you, so it may require more time and warmer temperatures before it can retreat. 

The Wildlife Commission does NOT send people out to trap and remove snakes. The best plan for citizens of North Carolina is to learn about snakes and alter habits to minimize negative interactions, and in the process, learn to coexist with snakes.

Pine snakes have a home range that can be as large as 100 acres. Because of this expansive home range, pine snake populations have plummeted in recent years, due to roads and habitat loss from development. In the southern mountains, where pine snakes are extremely rare, Commission biologists, working with the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, have been conducting surveys for pine snakes and their habitat. In areas where pine snakes have been seen recently or in areas with potentially suitable habitat, they have constructed drift fences, which are long, continuous barriers to interrupt movement by the snakes, and set them with trail cameras in hopes of documenting a snake.
In the Sandhills and the Coastal Plain, Commission biologists, along with biologists from the North Carolina State Museum of Natural Sciences (NCSM), have been monitoring pine snake populations. This monitoring has included walking areas searching for snakes, driving roads hoping to encounter them, and marking animals for potential recapture. Staff from the NCSM have also tracked numerous individual snakes using radio-telemetry over the past decade in partnership with the Commission to help understand management needs and determine conservation actions that might benefit the species.

The Wildlife Commission Needs Your Help!

If you see a pine snake in the wild, Wildlife Commission biologists want to know. Email pinesnake@ncwildlife.org with the following:

  • A photo (if possible)
  • Date and time the snake was observed
  • The location (GPS coordinates are best, but a detailed location description is acceptable)