Natural History Post of the Month – Black Rat Snake
Driving home along the country road, I rounded a sharp turn and immediately saw a snake stretched out on the pavement, soaking up the warmth of the sun.
Unfortunately, and surprisingly to me, snakes get little respect, even here in the county, and people will swerve across lanes to make sure they run over and kill a snake—any kind, anywhere. Meanwhile, a hay barn, not 20 yards away, is probably infested with enough mice to keep several blacksnakes employed full-time.
Determined not to let this snake become another victim, I stopped, and using a stick, tossed it in the back of the truck. It would stay there long enough to get to the house where I could release it in the relative safety of the back pasture.
At home I used another stick to lift it out of the truck and placed it where I could take some photos.
Note: The Black Rat Snake is not venomous. It, however, has lots of sharp teeth and can deliver a nasty bite to the careless handler. While the safe way to pick up a snake is to grasp it firmly, but not too tightly, directly behind the jaws, I prefer not to handle them, simply because I do not want to bruise or break tissue and small ribs in the neck.
Adult Rat Snakes are typically long slender snakes, three to five; even six feet long. The black Rat Snake is mostly black on its back and side with flecks of white visible between the scales. The belly is mostly white. White is clearly visible on the underside of the head and jaws. Young Black Rat Snakes are gray with a blotched pattern which helps camouflage the young snakes. This pattern may be dimly visible in some adults. The scales are slightly ridged.
There are several species of Rat Snakes. The Black Rat Snake is probably the most well known, but other species include, the Yellow, Gray, Texas, and Everglades Rat Snakes. They are essentially the same except for coloration and pattern. For example, the Yellow Rat Snake is yellow with four evenly spaced black stripes running along its back and sides. Rat Snakes are found throughout the eastern United States south of southern New England and the Great Lakes to all Atlantic and Gulf Coast states and several hundred miles west beyond the Mississippi River.
Rat Snakes, as their name suggests, eat rats and mice, as well as other small mammals. They will also eat birds’ eggs and baby birds. Juvenile rat snakes will eat small frogs, lizards and small rodents.
They are, originally, woodland snakes and are strong climbers. They can be found in the rafters of barns hunting for rodents and squirrels. We frequently found them in the ceiling of the basement of our house. While no one in my house was particularly afraid of snakes, we agreed they belonged in the wild or at least out in the barn. My father, and later I, would get an empty feed bag, put the snake(s) in the bag and relocate it to a more suitable location.
When approached in an open area, most Rat Snakes will simply turn and attempt to slither away to safety. If cornered or threatened, they will assume a threat or attack position with the forward third of the body arranged s-shaped sections, in preparation to strike, if necessary. As a warning, they may rapidly vibrate the tip of their tails. In dry leaves, this sounds very similar to the buzz of a rattlesnake’s tail.
During the spring and fall, they are active during the day. During the summer, when nights are warm, they are more active at night. They rely on the sun or a warm environment to provide needed body heat. They hibernate in rock dens over the winter, often with other snakes of different species.
Like all snakes, they constantly “taste” the air with their tongues. This is essentially how they “smell.”
Black Rat Snakes are not dangerous and are NOT a threat to people. They are not particularly aggressive, but they will strike and bite in self defense. If bitten, the wounded area should be well cleansed and disinfected to prevent an infection. Signs of swelling and persistent redness should be treated by a physician and may require an antibiotic.
For Those that Have to Know
The Black Rat Snake’s scientific name is Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta. (All North American Rat Snakes belong to the genus Elaphe and most are assigned species name obsoleta. The third name is the subspecies name. The Black Rat Snake is E. o. obsoleta, while, for example, the Yellow Rat Snake is E. o. quadrivittata.)