By Andrew Stuart
Say “snake” and “West Texas” – and the mind buzzes with the image of a certain venomous character. But rattlers are hardly the full picture. Our region’s truly distinctive snakes are less fearsome, but more striking.
The gray-banded kingsnake is one of them. Ringed in bands of lustrous orange, it combines beauty with mystery. Sightings are rare.
In the 1970s, a Sul Ross State University student turned his attention to this secretive animal. Dennie Miller went on to have a varied career – including a quarter century as director of the Chihuahuan Desert Research Institute. But in his early work, he laid the foundation for understanding a unique West Texas creature.
In the early 50s, snake hunting was an unusual hobby. Miller was an early adopter. At 9 years old, he and an uncle were snake-hunting across his native New Jersey.
His fascination deepened with age. A herpetologist at New York’s Natural History Museum became a mentor. Miller kept snakes at home. He spent school vacations traveling the country, hunting snakes.
Miller was drafted in 1965, and stationed at Little Rock Air Force Base. On the East Coast, he’d heard tantalizing talk of a new kingsnake species, found only in the mountains of Trans-Pecos Texas. Now, in Arkansas, he got actionable intelligence.
A visiting scientist mentioned a family in Langtry, Texas – the Chamberlins – who’d found the gray-banded kingsnake on their property.
“He said, ‘If you ever go out to West Texas, look these people up, because that’s where the kingsnakes are, right out there,’” Miller said. “So we did – and we found three of them.”
Finishing military service, Miller, and a longtime snake-hunting companion, Pete Mooney, moved to Alpine and enrolled at Sul Ross. Miller was drawn by the landscape – and the snakes.
Each summer, the two spent a month in Langtry, in kingsnake pursuit.
“You learn a lot doing that,” Miller said, “because you’re going out snake hunting every night. So I got better and better at it. I think in the four years I was down there I caught close to a hundred of them.”
The snakes are nocturnal. “The new moon in June” proved the best time to hunt. Miller found most of the snakes on just four hills.
Commercial collection was then regarded as laudable. Dealers would pay Miller $60 a kingsnake. Along with the GI Bill, that paid for college.
Miller worked closely with Sul Ross professor Jim Scudday. And when Miller decided to pursue a master’s, Scudday suggested the kingsnake as a focus.
Drawing from his unparalleled field experience, Miller finished his “Life History Study of the Gray-Banded Kingsnake” in 1979.
The snakes are primarily lizard-eaters. By hunting at night, they can “corner” their prey, Miller said.
“It’s really hard for a snake to catch a lizard,” Miller said, “and I think that they find their food at night. I think that’s why they’re out prowling. And they get them in holes, crevices, stuff like that, where the lizards have no escape.”
There are two main color “morphs”: in the Trans-Pecos mountains, the snake’s orange-red bands are generally thinner, the gray background darker. To the east, the lighter coloration may be an adaptation to a limestone landscape.
But the snakes are unusual for their diverse coloration. Some lack red bands altogether. It suggests they’re still evolving to the desert. They’re found in Northern Mexico, and in Texas, from the Hueco Mountains to Del Rio.
They’re found exclusively on rocky slopes. Most sightings occur on roads or road cuts. But just because they’re elusive, doesn’t mean they’re rare, Miller said.
“Now, if you knew exactly how to look for them,” Miller said, “if you knew what exactly what kind of cracks they want to go in, how deep they want to go in the cracks, if you could access them – they may be very common.”
Miller’s thesis became a “bible” for snake enthusiasts – and a revenue source in CDRI’s cash-strapped early days.
“So we decided to just use the copy machine,” Miller said, “and we took my thesis and we’d staple them and put bookbinding tape on it, and we sold them for $3 a piece. And the first two years, we sold about 900 of them.”
Retired, Miller still hunts snakes – to photograph, not to collect. Gray-banded kingsnakes have been bred in captivity. But, in the wild, they remain a secretive West Texas wonder.