Not Dangerous (Non-poisonous) - This snake does not have venom that is dangerous to most humans.
Mildly venomous. Not considered dangerous to humans.
Enlarged non-grooved teeth in the rear of the upper jaw and mild venom which may help to incapacitate small prey.
The typical total length of an aådult Ring-necked snake (Diadophis punctatus) varies somewhat by subspecies but in general it is about 11 - 16 inches (28 - 42 cm.)
Hatchlings are much smaller and longer specimens are sometimes found.
The record length is 33-5/8 inches (85.4 cm.)
A small, thin snake with smooth scales.
Color and Pattern
Gray, blue-gray, blackish, or dark olive dorsal coloring, with a bright orange to reddish underside, speckled with black markings.
The underside of the tail is a bright reddish orange.
A narrow orange band around the neck, 1.5 - 2 scale rows wide.
From Contra Costa County south to San Diego County Western Black-headed Snakes and Ring-necked Snakes might be found in the same location.
Both are small slender long-tailed snakes with a ring around the neck and red coloring on the belly.
Click the photo below to learn how to tell them apart easily.
Life History and Behavior
Secretive - usually found under the cover of rocks, wood, bark, boards and other surface debris, but occasionally seen moving on the surface on cloudy days, at dusk, or at night.
When disturbed, coils its tail like a corkscrew, exposing the underside which is usually bright red. It may also smear musk and cloacal contents.
Diet and Feeding
Eats slender salamanders and other small salamanders, tadpoles, small frogs, small snakes, lizards, worms, slugs, and insects. The mild venom may help to incapacitate prey.
Lays eggs in the summer, sometimes in a communal nest.
The subspecies D. p. modestus is endemic to California. Found along the southern California coast from the Santa Barbara area south along the coast to San Diego County, and inland into the San Bernardino mountains, with a wide range of intergradation with D. p. pulchellus north into the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Kern County.
The species Diadophis punctatus - Ring-necked Snake, has a very wide range, occurring along the entire east coast of the United States west to the Great Lakes and southwest from there through the Midwest into Arizona, with scattered isolated populations throughout most of the western states including the western half of California, Oregon west of the Cascades, and south central Washington.
In 2010 a ring-necked snake was found on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada (where it had not been found before) .5 miles east of the Inyo/Tulare county line, making it only the second of this species recorded in Inyo County.
(Herpetological Review 41(3), 2010)
In 2014, D. punctatus was documented from the Piute Mountains in Kern County. (Herpetological Review 45(3), 2014)
Notes on Taxonomy
Many herpetologists no longer recognize the traditional morphologically-based subspecies of Diadophis punctatus, pending a thorough molecular study of the whole species. One ongoing study (Feldman and Spicer, 2006, Mol. Ecol. 15:2201-2222) has found all of the D. punctatus subspecies in California (except D. p. regalis) to be indistinguishable.
Based on research published in 2021,
it appears that D. punctatus is composed of several distinct lineages that do not follow the geographic ranges of the subspecies.
In a phylogeographic analysis of the species, Fontanella, et. al (2008) identified fourteen lineages of Diadophis punctatus. They did not recognize these lineages as separate species, pending a full taxonomic review that will require further dna sampling and evaluation, including populations in Mexico.
In our area, they recognized four distinct lineages, which loosely follow existing subspecies boundaries, but merge the seven subspecies into 4 groups:
1 - A southern California lineage, which includes the San Diego and San Bernardino subspecies, D. p. similis, and D. p. modestus.
2 - An eastern California lineage, which includes the Coral-bellied subspecies, D. p. pulchellus, and some of the northern intergrades with D. p. occidentalis.
3 - A Coastal California lineage, which includes the Monterey subspecies, D. p. vandenburghi, the Pacific subspcies, D. p. amabilis, the Northwestern subspecies, D. p. occidentalis, and snakes from one region of the western Sierra Nevada currently recognized as D. p. pulchellus, along with the southern intergrades in the Tehachapi mountains region.
4 - A Great Basin lineage which presumably includes the Regal subspecies, D. p. regalis, found in isolated locations in the eastern Mojave desert.
Using new samples, nuclear genes, and morphology, Fontanella, et al, (2021), confirmed the three California lineages (not including D. p. regalis) shown in the mtDNA study of Fontanella, et al in 2008, described above, and implied that they are species-level taxa, but they did not formally describe them as new taxa.
Showing seven subspecies of Diadophis punctatus in California
is clearly inaccurate now, but since it is closer to the new three or four species interpretation than it would be to show them all as one species, I will continue to show these seven subspecies until someone formally describes them as three or four species.
A rough interpretation of the ranges of these four lineages is illustrated in the map below.
Red: Southern lineage
Orange: Eastern lineage
Purple: Coastal lineage
Light Blue: Great Basin lineage
Gray: Area where the lineage is uncertain because of a lack of
Alternate and Previous Names (Synonyms)
Diadophis punctatus - Ring-necked Snake (Stebbins 2003, 2012) Diadophis punctatus modestus - San Bernardino Ringneck Snake (Stebbins 1966, 1985)
Diadophis punctatus modestus (Wright & Wright 1957)
Diadophis amabilis modestus - (Stebbins 1954)
Los Angeles ring-neck snake / San Bernardino ring-necked snake (Ditmars 1936)
Van Denburgh's ring-neck snake; western ring-neck snake (Ditmars 1907)
Diadophis - Latin - diadema - crown and Greek -ophis - snake -- "generally w/a light ring on the occipital region."
punctatus - Latin - dotted - refers to spotted belly of species modestus - Latin - calm, modest, unpretentious
Stebbins, Robert C., and McGinnis, Samuel M. Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of California: Revised Edition (California Natural History Guides) University of California Press, 2012.
Stebbins, Robert C. California Amphibians and Reptiles. The University of California Press, 1972.
Samuel M. McGinnis and Robert C. Stebbins. Peterson Field Guide to Western Reptiles & Amphibians. 4th Edition. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2018.
Stebbins, Robert C. A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibians. 3rd Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.
Behler, John L., and F. Wayne King. The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. Alfred A. Knopf, 1992.
Powell, Robert., Joseph T. Collins, and Errol D. Hooper Jr. A Key to Amphibians and Reptiles of the Continental United States and Canada. The University Press of Kansas, 1998.
Bartlett, R. D. & Patricia P. Bartlett. Guide and Reference to the Snakes of Western North America (North of Mexico) and Hawaii. University Press of Florida, 2009.
Bartlett, R. D. & Alan Tennant. Snakes of North America - Western Region. Gulf Publishing Co., 2000.
Brown, Philip R. A Field Guide to Snakes of California. Gulf Publishing Co., 1997.
Ernst, Carl H., Evelyn M. Ernst, & Robert M. Corker. Snakes of the United States and Canada. Smithsonian Institution Press, 2003.
Wright, Albert Hazen & Anna Allen Wright. Handbook of Snakes of the United States and Canada. Cornell University Press, 1957.
Fontanella , Frank M., Chris R. Feldman, Mark E. Siddall, & Frank T. Burbrink. Phylogeography of Diadophis punctatus: Extensive lineage diversity and repeated patterns of historical demography in a trans-continental snake. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 46 (2008) 1049–1070. 2008.
Frank M. Fontanella, Emily Miles, and Polly Strott. Integrated analysis of the ringneck snake Diadophis punctatus complex (Colubridae: Dipsadidae) in a biodiversity hotspot provides the foundation for conservation reassessment. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, 2021, XX, 1–15
The following conservation status listings for this animal are taken from the November 2020 California "Special Animals List" and the November 2020 "State and Federally Listed Endangered and Threatened Animals of California" list, both of which are produced by multiple agencies and available here: https://www.wildlife.ca.gov/Data/CNDDB/Plants-and-Animals. You can check the link to see if there are more recent lists.
If no status is listed here, the animal is not included on either list. This most likely indicates that there are no serious conservation concerns for the animal. To find out more about an animal's status you can go to the NatureServe and IUCN websites to check their rankings.
NatureServe Global Ranking
The species is: Secure—Common; widespread and abundant.
This subspecies is Imperiled - Vulnerable.
There are taxonomic questions associated with it.
NatureServe State Ranking
Imperiled in the state because of rarity due to very restricted range, very few populations (often 20 or fewer), steep declines, or other factors making it very vulnerable to extirpation from the state.