I ask that question from time to time.
“Uh, because it’s Regina?”
I never liked that answer. If ‘Queen Snake’ springs from Regina, the name of its genus, then where does Regina come from? If it’s the other way ’round, then who is responsible? Sorting this out has been less than satisfying, very confusing, and frustrating to some degree.
It looks as if the Queen Snake first enters the taxonomy without her fancy name. Thomas Say described Coluber septemvittatus in 1825, describing it as “brownish, with three blackish lines; beneath yellow, with four blackish lines…” Say provides no common names, but handles mentioned in other writings include ‘seven-lined snake’, ‘leather snake’, ‘willow snake’, and ‘moon snake’ (that last one is pretty cool). From this point forward, things get muddy and confused, and her royal highness gets tagged with additional names, both common and scientific.
From Thomas Say and 1825 we have to jump further back in time, and then forward again, in order to get some back story. In 1788, Linnaeus, in his Systemae Naturae, described the serpent Coluber leberis. Papa Karl was just doing his thing and is not at fault here – later workers mistakenly assumed that his description referred to the Queen Snake, and cited Coluber leberis as a synonym. This lasted until 1917, when Leonhard Stejneger and Thomas Barbour smelled a rat and worked out that Linnaeus was probably describing Storeria occipitomaculata, the Red-bellied Snake. From 1917 on, Linnaeus and leberis are out of the picture.
From 1788 and 1917, we then time-hop to 1853. Spencer Fullerton Baird and Charles Girard, working out of the Smithsonian Institute, erected the genus Regina, and designated Regina leberis (being unaware that Linnaeus meant some other snake) as the type representative. They published the description in the Smithsonian’s Catalogue of North American Reptiles, and this time, the snake under Regina leberis was the correct snake, with Coluber leberis and Coluber septemvittata listed as synonyms. Unfortunately, Baird and Girard included no common names, and left us with no clue as to why they chose the regal Regina. Seriously guys, would it have killed you to add a single extra sentence like “named for Her Majesty Queen Victoria, in honor of the newly re-built Westminster Palace”? (This might have some slight credence; Westminster was re-opened for Parliamentary business in 1852.)
Later (and I’m leaving out a large chunk of further taxonomic tomfoolery), the Queen Snake acquired its rightful epithet of septemvittata, leaving leberis behind. And for a while, the Queen and her relatives were dumped into Natrix, losing their regal status, and forced to hang out with common water snakes. Fortunately, this bourgeois treatment did not last*, and the line of Regina was restored, perhaps for good this time. These days, the genus Regina contains R. septemvittata and R. grahamii, or Graham’s Crayfish Snake.
So I’ve learned the who and the when of Regina, but not the why, and I still don’t know who came up with ‘Queen Snake’. I can find no mention of that name in the literature prior to Baird and Girard; in 1854, Baird himself** refers to his Regina leberis as the ‘Yellow-Bellied Snake’. For me that’s pretty much the clincher that Regina did not spring from the common name of Queen Snake. My best guess is that any number of folks who looked at B and G’s description thought “Regina, eh? Guess we’ll call it a Queen Snake.” So in the end, “uh, because it’s Regina?” is probably an acceptable answer. I myself like the name Queen Snake – it beats ‘Leather Snake’ or ‘Seven-striped Crayfish Snake’, and it serves as yin to the Kingsnake’s yang. Regina septemvittata may not look very regal to you, but consider this – it rarely eats anything other than crayfish, and only freshly molted, soft-bodied crayfish at that. An exclusive meal, fit for a queen; minnows and frogs are best left for the common water snakes.
*Regina septemvittata is rescued from Natrix in 1960, by Hobart M. Smith and James E. Huheey, in their paper ‘The Watersnake Genus Regina’, published in the Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science, Vol. 63 No. 3. The paper also gives an explanation of why Storeria occipitomaculata is not named Storeria leberis.
**S.F. Baird, ‘On the Serpents of New-York’ in The Seventh Annual Report of the Regents of the University of the State of New York, on the Condition of the State Cabinet of Natural History, and the Historical and Antiquarian Collection. January, 1854.
The earliest mention I can find of ‘Queen Snake’ is by W. S. Blatchley, in the Journal of the Cincinnati Society of Natural History, Vol. 14, 1892.
Andrew Durso, in his fine blog Life Is Short, But Snakes Are Long, proposes that the Queen Snake should be the state serpent for Maryland, and for very good reasons.
Alfaro and Arnold’s ‘Molecular Systematics and Evolution of Regina and the Thamnophiine Snakes‘ places Regina septemvittata and Regina grahamii in a clade of aquatic snakes that also includes Nerodia. A fascinating paper for many other reasons as well. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Vol. 21, No. 3, December, pp. 408-423, 2001.