Masticophis flagellum is a species of nonvenomous colubrid snake, commonly referred to as the coachwhip or the whip snake, which is endemic to the United States and Mexico. Six subspecies are recognized, including the nominotypical subspecies.

Masticophis flagellum
Western coachwhip (M. f. testaceus), Santa Fe, New Mexico
Scientific classification Edit this classification
Domain: Eukaryota
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Colubridae
Genus: Masticophis
M. flagellum
Binomial name
Masticophis flagellum
(Shaw, 1802)





The generic name, Masticophis, is derived from Greek mastix, meaning "whip", and ophis, meaning "snake", in reference to the braided appearance of the tail.[3] The subspecific name, ruddocki, is in honor of Dr. John C. Ruddock who was medical director for the Richfield Oil Corporation.[4]



Six subspecies of Masticophis flagellum are recognized as being valid, including the nominotypical subspecies.[2]

Image Species Common Name
  M. f. cingulum

Lowe & Woodin, 1954

Sonoran coachwhip
  M. f. flagellum

(Shaw, 1802)

Eastern coachwhip
M. f. lineatulus

H.M. Smith, 1941

Lined coachwhip
  M. f. piceus

(Cope, 1892)

Red coachwhip, red racer
  M. f. ruddocki

Brattstrom & Warren, 1953

San Joaquin coachwhip
  M. f. testaceus

(Say, 1823)

Western coachwhip

Nota bene: A trinomial authority in parentheses indicates that the subspecies was originally described in a genus other than Masticophis.


Eastern coachwhip (Masticophis f. flagellum), Weeks Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, Alabama

Coachwhips are thin-bodied snakes with small heads and large eyes with round pupils. They vary greatly in color, but most reflect a proper camouflage for their natural habitat. M. f. testaceus is typically a shade of light brown with darker brown flecking, but in the western area of Texas, where the soil color is a shade of pink, the coachwhips are also pink in color. M. f. piceus was given its common name because specimens frequently, but not always, have some red in their coloration. Coachwhip scales are patterned so at first glance, the snake appears braided. Subspecies can be difficult to distinguish in areas where their ranges overlap. Adult sizes of 127–183 cm (50–72 in) in total length (including tail) are common. The record sized specimen, of the eastern coachwhip race, was 259 cm (102 in) in total length.[5] Young specimens, mostly just over 100 cm (40 in) in length, were found to have weighed 180 to 675 g (6+12 to 24 oz), whereas good-sized mature adults measuring 163 to 235 cm (64 to 93 in) weighed 1.2 to 1.8 kg (2 lb 10 oz to 3 lb 15 oz).[6][7]

Distribution and habitat


Coachwhips range throughout the southern United States from coast to coast. They are also found in the northern half of Mexico.[2][8]

Coachwhips are commonly found in open areas with sandy soil, open pine forests, old fields, and prairies. They thrive in sandhill scrub and coastal dunes. However, they prefer oak savannas in eastern Texas. [9]



Coachwhips are diurnal, and actively hunt and eat lizards, small birds, and rodents. They do not discriminate prey size, as they are opportunistic hunters.[10] They have been described as "sit-and-wait" predators or ambush hunters.[11] Coachwhips subdue prey by grasping and holding them with their jaws and do not use constriction.[12] They tend to be sensitive to potential threats, and often bolt at the first sign of one, and will readily strike if cornered. Their bites can be painful, but generally are harmless unless they become infected, as is the case with any wound. They are curious snakes with good eyesight, and are sometimes seen raising their heads above the level of the grass or rocks to see what is around them. They are extremely fast-moving snakes, able to move up to 4 miles per hour.[13]


Western coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum testaceus), Grant County, New Mexico (22 August 2010)

The primary myth concerning coachwhips, that they chase people, likely arises from the snake and the person both being frightened, and both just happening to be going the same way to escape.[14] Coachwhips are fast snakes, often moving faster than a human, and thus give an impression of aggression should they move toward the person.

The legend of the hoop snake may refer to the coachwhip snakes.

Another myth of the rural southeastern United States is of a snake that, when disturbed, would chase a person down, wrap him up in its coils, whip him to death with its tail, and then make sure he is dead by sticking its tail up the victim's nose to see if he is still breathing. In actuality, coachwhips are neither constrictors (snakes that dispatch their prey by suffocating with their coils) nor strong enough to overpower a person. Also, they do not whip with their tails, even though their tails are long and look very much like a whip.

In parts of Mexico, where ranching is a way of life, these snakes are believed to wrap around the legs of cows and feed on their milk as if suckling leaving the nipple dry. They allegedly hook onto any other mammal that produces milk, leaving the baby dehydrated.

Ranchers also tell stories of chirrioneras, which hypnotize women then latch onto their breasts to feed. If the woman has a crying hungry baby, the snake is said to stick its tail in the baby's mouth to keep the baby quiet while feeding, then leaves, undetected. This leaves the baby malnourished and getting weaker while the mother cannot feed her baby because her breasts have been sucked dry. The story goes that the only way to know if the snake has been there is if the baby has sores around the mouth.

In 1888, a farmer near Orlando, Florida, is said to have seen a sixteen-foot coachwhip with a head four inches wide. After seeing the snake swallow a rabbit the man moved forward to shoot, when the snake reared its head as high as a person and "began racing back and forth towards him".[15]



  1. ^ Hammerson, G .A.; Frost, D. R.; Santos-Barrera, G.; Vasquez Díaz, J.; Quintero Díaz, G. E. (2007). "Masticophis flagellum". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. 2007: e.T62235A12583206. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2007.RLTS.T62235A12583206.en. Retrieved 22 February 2022.
  2. ^ a b c Masticophis flagellum at the Reptile Database
  3. ^ Wilson, Larry David. "Masticophis." (1973).
  4. ^ Brattstrom, Bayard H.; Warren, James W. (1953). "A new subspecies of racer, Masticophis flagellum, from the San Joaquin Valley of California". Herpetologica. 9 (4): 177–179. JSTOR 20171284. (Masticophis flagellum ruddocki, new subspecies).
  5. ^ "Eastern Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum flagellum)". Florida Museum of Natural History. Retrieved 2012-07-26.
  6. ^ Mitrovich, Milan J.; Diffendorfer, Jay E.; Fisher, Robert N. (2009). "Behavioral response of the coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum) to habitat fragment size and isolation in an urban landscape". Journal of Herpetology. 43 (4): 646–656. doi:10.1670/08-147.1. JSTOR 25599266. S2CID 43558183.
  7. ^ Dodd CK, Barichivich WJ (2007). "Movements of large snakes (Drymarchon, Masticophis) in North-Central Florida" (PDF). Florida Scientist. 70 (1): 83–94. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2007-07-15. Retrieved 2012-07-26.
  8. ^ Powell R, Conant R, Collins JT (2016). Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, Fourth Edition. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. xiv + 494 pp., 47 plates, 204 figures. ISBN 978-0-544-12997-9. (Coluber flagellum, pp. 370-371, Figure 177 + Plate32).
  9. ^ Johnson, Richard W.; Fleet, Robert R.; Keck, Michael B.; Rudolph, D. Craig. 2007. Spatial ecology of the coachwhip, Masticophis flagellum (Squamata: Colubridae), in eastern Texas. Southeastern Naturalist. 6(1): 111-124.
  10. ^ Whiting, Martin & Greene, Brian & Dixon, J. & Mercer, A. & Eckerman, Curtis. (1992). Observations on the foraging ecology of the western coachwhip snake, Masticophis flagellum testaceus. The Snake. 24. 157-160.
  11. ^ Jones, K. Bruce; Whitford, Walter G. (1989). "Feeding Behavior of Free-Roaming Masticophis flagellum: An Efficient Ambush Predator". The Southwestern Naturalist. 34 (4): 460–467. doi:10.2307/3671503. ISSN 0038-4909.
  12. ^ Saviola, Anthony; Bealor, Matthew (2007). "Behavioural complexity and prey-handling ability in snakes: gauging the benefits of constriction". Behaviour. 144 (8): 907–929. doi:10.1163/156853907781492690.
  13. ^ Wilson, Larry David (1968). The Coachwhip Snake, Masticophis flagellum (Shaw): Taxonomy and Distribution (PhD thesis). LSU Historical Dissertations and Theses. Vol. 1525. Louisiana State University. pp. 180–181. Retrieved 2020-08-21.
  14. ^ Willson, J. D. "Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum)". Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. Retrieved 8 April 2021.
  15. ^ "Farmer Near Orlando". Chronicling America. 1888-10-19. Retrieved 17 February 2022.

Further reading

  • Behler, John L.; King, F. Wayne (1979). The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 743 pp., 657 plates. ISBN 0-394-50824-6. (Masticophis flagellum, pp. 328–329 + Plates 469, 491, 553–554, 556, 558).
  • Boulenger GA (1893). Catalogue of the Snakes in the British Museum (Natural History). Volume I., Containing the Families ... Colubridæ Aglyphæ, part. London: Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History). (Taylor and Francis Printers). xiii + 448 pp. + Plates I-XXVIII. (Zamenis flagelliformis, pp. 389–390).
  • Conant, Roger; Bridges, William (1939). What Snake Is That? A Field Guide to the Snakes of the United States East of the Rocky Mountains. (With 108 drawings by Edmond Malnate). New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Company. Frontispiece map + 163 pp. + Plates A-C, 1-32. (Masticophis flagellum, pp. 47–50 + Plate 6, figures 17–18).
  • Goin, Coleman J.; Goin, Olive B.; Zug, George R. (1978). Introduction to Herpetology, Third Edition. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company. xi + 378 pp. ISBN 0-7167-0020-4. (Masticophis flagellum, p. 129).
  • Schmidt, Karl P.; Davis, D. Dwight (1941). Field Book of Snakes of the United States and Canada. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons. 365 pp., 34 plates, 103 figures. (Coluber flagellum, pp. 127–131 + Figure 29 on p. 122 + Plate 13).
  • Shaw G (1802). General Zoology, or Systematic Natural History, Vol. III., Part II. London: G. Kearsley. vii + pp. 313–615. (Coluber flagellum, new species, p. 475).
  • Smith, Hobart M.; Brodie, Edmund D., Jr. (1982). Reptiles of North America: A Guide to Field Identification. New York: Golden Press. 240 pp. ISBN 0-307-13666-3 (paperback), ISBN 0-307-47009-1 (hardcover). (Masticophis flagellum, pp. 192–193).
  • Wright, Albert Hazen; Wright, Anna Allen (1957). Handbook of Snakes of the United States and Canada. Ithaca and London: Comstock Publishing Associates, a division of Cornell University Press. 1,105 pp. (in two volumes). (Masticophis flagellum, pp. 432–450, Figures 130–133, Map 37).