Eastern Rat Snake

STATUSLeast Concern

COMMON NAME (SCIENTIFIC NAME)Pantherophis obsoletus

DIETMice, eggs, lizard, frogs, chipmunks

RANGEFrom New England south to Georgia and West to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Wisconsin

HABITATTrees, rocky hillsides, farmland

Eastern Rat Snake

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Program and General Information

Black rat snake are a subspecies of the common rat snake. There are 5-7 subspecies of rat snake. A few of the subspecies include the yellow rat snake, gray rat snake, Everglade’s Rat Snake and Texas Rat Snake.

Black rat snakes are constrictors and nonvenomous. Being a constrictor they will wrap around their prey. Every time that animal breathes in they will tighten their hold to suffocate their prey and kill it before ingesting it.

Common Physical Features

As the snake’s name implies it is a black snake with a white chin/under belly. They can have patterning on their stomach like a corn snake. An adult rat snake is on average 42-72 inches long (3.5-6ft) and 1.5 inches in diameter at its widest point. Hatchlings of this species do not look the same and can often be confused with the Eastern Milk snake. Hatchlings are pale gray with black blotches along its back. As the snake reaches adulthood the blotches become darker giving it the all black appearance. As adults they can be confused with Black racers who are known to be more aggressive. Black racers are jet black while the black rats tend to have the pattern underneath their black.

Habitat and Global Range

Black rat snakes can be found from New England south to Georgia and West to Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Wisconsin. There are also isolated populations in Southern Canada. The black rat snake is the most widely distributed common rat snake.

Rat snakes can live in a variety of habitats as there are many subspecies. The black rat snake is an avid climber and can often be found in trees. They have also been found on rocky hillsides, on mountains and flat farmlands.

Diet

At the zoo Sirius is offered mice weekly. Black rat snakes in general will eat anything they come upon. They are excellent climbers and have been known to get into bird nests and eat the eggs. Juveniles tend to eat small lizards, baby mice, and small frogs. Adults will also eat birds and small mammals (mice, rats, chipmunks).

Behavior and Life Cycle

The black rat snake tends to be shy and avoid confrontations. They normally remain motionless when spotted but may strike or coil up and vibrate their tails to simulate a rattlesnake if aggravated. These snakes will also release a foul smelling musk which acts as a deterrent to predators or people wishing to pick them up in the wild.

The typical breeding season for this snake is from May to late June. During this time, male snakes search for females and will fight one another for the right to mate with a female. A female will lay between six and two dozen eggs, usually in late July. The eggs may take between five and seven weeks to develop and hatch. Hatchlings will stay near their hatching site for up to two years.

After coming out of hibernation the rat snake will seek a mate. This normally occurs between April and June. Males tend to wait for females to cross into their territory and will find the female using pheromones. Five weeks after mating the female will lay 12-20 eggs in a hidden area such as an abandoned burrow or under a log. Within 65-70 days the eggs will hatch. The young are able to care for themselves upon hatching. If conditions are good the female can lay up to 2 clutches a year.

Rat snakes reach sexual maturity around the age of 4. This holds true for both males and females. The average lifespan of a black rat snake is about 34 year under human care. The average age of a black rat snake in the wild is unknown but most likely shortened due to environmental factors such as predators and food scarcity.

Fun Facts

  • Rat snakes are in the family Colubridae which means harmless snake. This is the largest order of snakes representing 2/3s of all known snake species.
  • They can shake their tail to rattle it which mimics a rattlesnake. They do this when threatened.
  • They are often mistaken for black racers which are a smaller more aggressive snake.
  • As juveniles they look very similar to an Eastern milk snake.

Conservation Messaging

The black rat snake’s population is considered stable. However, these snakes are often mistreated by humans who are frightened of them. Although black rat snakes do not usually attack when threatened, there have been extreme cases of black rat snakes charging at predators. Despite making occasional appearances throughout the summer, black rat snakes are actually very shy and at the sight of danger will either freeze or slither away. Black rat snakes also produce a strong foul odor when scared to deter predators and humans.

Black rat snakes are currently listed at least concern throughout the range they are found except in Michigan where they are a special concern. This is due to land development and the cutting of trees. Black rat snakes are important for our environment. They are a great pest control for rodents. Unfortunately, they are often killed when seen due to lack of human knowledge and fear of snakes.

It is always important to research before getting any animal as a pet. Black rat snakes as well as the other subspecies can be found in the pet trade. These snakes can grow to be 6 feet long and housing them can then become difficult. Snakes can have issued shedding if they do not have the proper temperature and humidity. Reptiles can also suffer from metabolic bone disease if not care for properly. These snakes can also live into their 20s and 30s, therefore making them a pet you will have around for a very long time.