Species Dive 10: Fastest snake in the west

The Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) is a species of nonvenomous snake found throughout the southeastern United States. In Mississippi, they are found in the Longleaf Pine forests of the south, and are apparently patchy in distribution today. These snakes are known for their long, slender bodies and lightning speeds. In Mississippi, they tend to have dark-brown heads, yellow-orange eyes, and sport a wide color gradient of brown to tan to nearly white at the tail. This whip-like pattern gives them their namesake. Due to their coloration and behavior they are hard to get a good look at in the wild unless you are lucky. The Coachwhip generally grows to 4-6 feet in total length, but the known record is a whopping 8.5 feet long (Florida Museum n.d.).

A typically patterned Coachwhip (male) from Mississippi

Coachwhips primarily occur in in areas with sandy soils, often areas described as ‘sandhills.’ They use these soil types for burrowing and nesting. These snakes are active during the day and are often seen basking in the sun to mate or hunt for prey. One of the Coachwhip’s primary food sources is small rodents, such as mice and voles. They are also known to eat lizards, birds, small mammals, and other snakes. Coachwhips are opportunistic hunters and will eat almost anything they can catch. They use their speed and vision to chase down prey, subduing them with their jaws rather than constricting.

Coachwhips provide value by controlling rodent populations in they areas they inhabit. Their predator role helps to keep these populations in check, and this has positive impacts for both natural and human communities. Those who are not fans of venomous snakes will enjoy hearing coachwhips occasionally predate those species as well. Overall, their presence in an area can indicate a healthy ecosystem with abundant prey and suitable habitat, especially in Mississippi where Longleaf Pine forests are restricted. Their anecdotal decline throughout their range in the state may indicate habitat degradation.

Despite their ecological importance, coachwhips, like most snakes in Mississippi, are misunderstood and feared by many people. This could be due to their quick movements and defensive behavior when threatened. However, coachwhips are not at all dangerous towards humans or pets and will typically bolt when approached. As with any snake, venomous or not, they should be respected and observed from a safe distance. That is, if you can get close enough before you’re left with a flittering of leaves.

Adult female looking fierce in a defensive posture


Florida Museum. n.d. Eastern Coachwhip. Florida Snake ID Guide. <https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/florida-snake-id/snake/eastern-coachwhip/>. Accessed 28 Apr 2023.

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