Bites, species, predation and life-cycle
Author: Anders Nielsen
Adult rat snakes are typically 3-5 ft (91-152 cm), but large individuals may be more than 6 ft (183 cm) long.
It is common belief that all Rat snakes are non-venomous. However, recent studies show that some Rat snakes, such as the Asian Rat snake, are venomous indeed.
Even though most Rat snakes may be slightly venomous, their venom is not a problem for humans. As predators, Rat snakes are known as constrictors only.
Rat snakes hibernate every year. They hibernate in hibernacula on rocky, south-facing slopes, preferably with some trees for basking. In a study by Prior and Weatherhead (1996)2, it was found that per rat snake, 0-11 trees were used for basking, and that their preferred trees were older oaks, as they have numerous cavities and trunks for cover.
Their lifespan in the wild is up to 15 years, males living a little longer than females. In captivity they can live up to 25 years, reaching maturity after 18-24 months.
The gestation period of females is approx. 1 month, and up to 30 eggs are laid in a clutch, with variation between sub-species.
A study by Stake et al. (2005)3 explained how rat snakes behaved during predation at a songbird's nest. First of all, they ate all eggs. Secondly, they spent an average of 13? minutes at the nest, and it took them on average two minutes before eating the first egg
Rat snakes enter people's homes rather frequently, the reason being that they are good climbers and their prey are in abundance close to residential areas. Ratsnakes are not dangerous and mostly not aggressive although they will vibrate their tails and behave aggressively towards anybody trying to corner them.
When threatened, Rat snakes freeze, and many are killed in traffic because of this habit. Their bite looks very much like a human bite, and as they can grow rather large, a bite can be very painful.
Constrictors & non-venomous
Rat snakes are constrictors and feed on a varied diet of rodents, birds, frogs, squirrels, and eggs. They play an important role in many ecosystems by keeping the population of rodents (some of which are disease carriers) at a constant, low level. Therefore rat snakes are liked by farmers. Rat snakes use their sight and their Jacobsen's organ inside their mouth to detect prey and are experts at finding and killing small rodents.
Rat snakes in North America belong to either the genus Pantherophis or the genus Bogertophis. Pantherophis are the more abundant of the two. In fact, only Bogertophis rosaliae, the Baja California Rat snake, and the Bogertophis subocularis, can be found in small confined habitats in the US, whereas several common Pantherophis species are prominent throughout most of the southeastern US. The table below shows where the different Pantherophis species are found.
Eastern Rat snakes
The Black Rat snake is one of five subspecies of the Eastern Rat snake and is one of the largest snakes in the US, reaching lengths of more than eight feet. They are not venomous, so they kill their prey by constriction. They are uniformly black except for a white underside, and are found on the ground, in trees and in water.
Other Eastern Rat snake sub-species include the Yellow Rat snake, the Gray Rat snake, Everglades Rat snake, and the Texas rat snake.
Yellow Rat snakes are yellow (or variations of yellow) with four dark stripes. They are the same size as black rat snakes and are known to interbreed with black rat snakes. They are often found in trees or under rocks searching for prey. They will bite if they feel threatened, and rat snakes tend to have a low threshold with respect to people handling them carelessly. They are most active during night and are often found in suburban areas.
Gray Rat snakes are smaller than black and yellow rat snakes, as they only reach a length of six feet. They can be quite aggressive and must be handled with caution. They have a gray hue with with blotches of orange and yellow and are also called silver racers, and may interbreed with gray, yellow, and black rat snakes.
Everglades Rat snakes are found in Florida only. They are orange with four grey longitudinal stripes. They are also called glades rat snakes, or orange rat snakes, and interbreed with yellow rat snakes. Unfortunately, the population of everglades rat snake is in decline.
Texas Rat snakes are quite aggressive and will bite anyone coming too close. They are constrictors and non-venomous. Some mistake the Texas rat snake with the western rat snake, but they are not the same sub-species.
Something called a «combat dance» has been observed (Rigley, 19714) in male Rat snakes where the snakes have their tails intertwined, and the rest of their bodies are coiled and twisted. The role of this strange behavior is not known.
Rat snake bites
Rat snakes, such as the Black Rat snake or the everglades rat snake, are more aggressive than corn snakes and will bite if handled incorrectly, or if they feel uncomfortable.
Although rat snakes are not venomous and they lack two fangs seen in venomous species, a bite from any rat snake can be rather painful, as the saliva of the snake may contain bacteria causing an infection that must be treated.
Furthermore, rat snakes can secrete an ill-smelling substance they can release on any predator. The substance, a musk, acts as a deterrent.
Red Rat snakes or corn snakes
Corn snakes are more popular as pets than rat snakes, and for beginners, corn snakes are easier pets than any other rat snake. They come in a number of beautiful colors and varieties. Keepers should buy captive-bred corn snakes at respected pet-stores.
Rat snakes may enter a home looking for food and take residence in areas like basements, crawl spaces and sheds. Although they are not life-threatening, their bites can be painful and infectious. Regardless of your method, catching rat snakes requires great care.
List of Items Needed
- Burlap bag
- Glue board
- Plywood board
- Vegetable oil
Slowly approach the rat snake.
Place a bucket on the floor near the snake.
Carefully sweep and guide the snake into the bucket with a broom.
Dump the rat snake into a burlap bag and hold it shut with your hands.
Release the snake into the wild, away from residential areas.
Glue Board Method
Place a glue board on plywood with the sticky side facing up. Colorado State University recommends a 1/4-by-24-by-18-inch flat piece of plywood with 144-square-inches of glue board, but this is not a requirement. Glue boards function like large fly paper traps. A snake becomes stuck to the board if it passes over the object.
Pour vegetable oil on the snake to dissolve the glue. Drop the snake into a burlap bag.
Monitor the trap every day and get rid of a snake as soon as you see it. Replace the trap after each use.
Purchase a quality glueboard labeled for use as a snake trap from a home and garden store or a farm supply outlet. Glueboards contain a sticky side similar to fly paper that traps a snake to the board when it comes in contact with the glue without seriously injuring the snake.
Place the glueboard along the edge of a wall in an area of your home where you have seen the snake. Rat snakes prefer to move along the edges of walls rather than in the open when indoors; locating glue traps in corners increases the chances of capturing the snake quickly.
Inspect the glueboard several times each day to see if the snake has been trapped. Rat snakes are active during the day and at night, so regular monitoring of the trap is needed to ensure you remove the snake soon after it is trapped to minimize the stress caused to the snake and to reduce the anxiety of other people in the home.
Put the rat snake in a cage and take the snake outdoors, far away from your home. Pour vegetable oil over the snake to free it from the glue. The snake will quickly slither away once it's free.