Description: Adult rat snakes are
typically 3-5 ft (91-152 cm), but large individuals may be more than 6 ft (183
cm) long. The appearance of rat snakes varies greatly throughout the geographic
range. Black rat snakes are more northern in distribution and are characteristically
black on top with a faint hint of white between some of the scales. Yellow rat
snakes are greenish, yellow, or orange with four dark stripes running the length
of the body. Gray rat snakes are dark to light gray with darker gray or brown
blotches. The juveniles of all subspecies resemble the gray rat. The belly is
whitish in color near the head and becomes checkered or mottled toward the tail.
The body cross section is loaf-shaped and not round. Rat snakes have weakly keeled
scales and the anal plate is divided.
Range and Habitat: Rat snakes
are found throughout every southeastern state and most of the eastern and midwestern
states as far north as southern New England and southern Michigan. In our region,
black rat snakes are found in the mountains and Piedmont regions of central Georgia
and South Carolina. Yellow rat snakes are found along the coast and gray rat snakes
are found in southern Georgia and along the Savannah River in Southern South Carolina
. Rat snakes occupy a wide variety of habitats including rocky timbered hills,
hardwood forests, river floodplains and swamp margins. They are commonly found
in abandoned buildings and barns and are often the most common large snake in
Habits: Adult rat snakes primarily eat mice, rats,
squirrels, and birds, as well as bird eggs. They are a common predator on wood
duck eggs. Juveniles eat small frogs, lizards, and small rodents. Rat snakes are
constrictors, and adept climbers that can scale brick walls as well as tree trunks.
When frightened they often assume a “kinked” posture and remain motionless. They
will vibrate the tail and expel malodorous musk.
Conservation Status: Rat snakes are very common in the
Southeast and are not protected throughout most of it. This species
is protected throughout the state of Georgia.
Weatherhead, P.J., G. Blouin-Demers, and K.A. Prior. 2002.
Synchronous variation and long-term trends in two populations of black rat snakes.
Conservation Biology 16: 1602-1608.
Blouin-Demers, G. and P.J. Weatherhead.
2001. Habitat use by black rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) in fragmented
forests. Ecology 82: 2882-2896.
Note: Genetic studies have led some
experts to consider the North American species of rat snake to be in the genus
Pantherophis and to suggest that some of the subspecies represent distinct
Account author: Trey Dunn - edited by Whit Gibbons