Masticophis (Coachwhips and Whipsnakes) complex

The genus Masticophis (Baird in Baird and Girard, 1853) was resurrected by Ortenburger (1928), based upon morphological criteria, to distinguish the whipsnakes from the similar racers. This arrangement has been criticized over the years by various authors, most notably by Auffenberg (1955, morphology) and Dowling et al. (1983, immunology), who maintained that only the genus Coluber was justified. Despite this, the consensus has been to retain Masticophis as distinct from Coluber.

Recently Utiger et al. (2005), based upon a limited sampling of two mitochondrial gene sequences (only three species from the two genera were sampled), proposed to lump Masticophis into Coluber once again, largely for cladistic reasons (Masticophis is paraphyletic to Coluber on their cladogram). Their mtDNA results were strongly supported statistically, however.

Considering that phylogenies based upon small/incomplete mtDNA samples from a given group can render misleading conclusions [e.g., Burbrink and Lawson (2007)], we at SWCHR do not feel that the Utiger et al. (op. cit.) study is sufficiently rigorous to justify altering the long-standing taxonomic arrangement of the Coachwhips and Whipsnakes. We acknowledge that the Utiger et al. proposal may, in fact, be correct but we prefer to await the results of further studies that are more thorough and perhaps utilize varying methodologies.

Consequently, in keeping with our philosophy to avoid rashly adopting taxonomic changes to long-standing arrangements, we at SWCHR follow Collins and Taggart (2008) in retaining the genus Masticophis for the Coachwhips and Whipsnakes.


Literature Cited

Auffenberg, W. 1955. A reconsideration of the racer, Coluber constrictor, in eastern United States. Tul. Stud. Zool. 2(6): 87-155.

Baird, S.F. and C. Girard. 1853. Catalogue of North American Reptiles in the Museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Part I. Serpents. Washington: Smithsonian Inst.

Burbrink, F.T. and R. Lawson. 2007. How and when did Old World rat snakes disperse into the New World? Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 43(2007): 173-189.

Collins, Joseph T. & Travis W. Taggart. 2008. A proposal to retain Masticophis as the generic name for the Coachwhip and Whipsnakes. Journal of Kansas Herpetology. 27: pp. 12.

Dowling, H.G., Highton, R., Maha, G.C., and Maxson, L.R. 1983. Biochemical evaluation of colubrid snake phylogeny. J. Zool. Lond. 201(3): 309-329.

Ortenburger, A.I. 1928. The whipsnakes and racers, genera Masticophis and Coluber. Mem. Univ. Mich. Mus. 1(1): 1-247.

Utiger, U., Sch├Ątti, B. & N. Helfenberger. 2005. The oriental colubrine genus Coelognathus Fitzinger, 1843 and classification of Old and New World Racers and Rat Snakes (Reptilia, Squamata, Colubridae, Colubrinae). Russian Journal of Herpetology. 12(1): pp. 39-60.

13 Aug 2009
SWCHR Committee on Common and Scientific Names
Tom Lott, Committee Chair
Terry Cox
Riley J. Campbell

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