Black Racer (Coluber constrictor)

Photos by Amanda Hurst unless otherwise noted

Description: As their name implies, black racers are relatively large — to 60 in (152 cm) — fairly slender, solid black snakes. They have smooth scales, large eyes, and often have some white coloration under their chin. The belly is generally uniformly dark gray or black. Adult racers can be mistaken for any of the other large black snakes present in our region including black rat snakes (which are generally restricted to the Piedmont and Mountains in our region), black-phase eastern hognose snakes, eastern or black kingsnakes, or dark coachwhips. However, black racers are generally more slender and uniformly black than those species. Additionally, racers lack the upturned nose of hognose snakes and keeled scales of hognose and rat snakes. When observed from a distance, behavior is often the best way to differentiate a racer from other species. While rat snakes, king snakes, and hognose snakes generally freeze when approached, racers usually flee rapidly or sometimes stand their ground and attempt to strike.

Young racers do not resemble adults and are generally tan or grayish with a series of brown or reddish blotches running down the center of the back. These blotches are more rounded (less square) than those of young rat snakes and watersnakes. Additionally, young racers are more slender and have larger eyes than juveniles of most other snakes in our region. The juvenile pattern of young racers fades to black when the snakes are about 12 in long.

Range and Habitat: Black racers are found throughout the eastern U.S., from southern Maine to the Florida Keys. Other subspecies such as yellow-bellied racers are found in the Central U.S. and in scattered areas of the West. Racers are found in all areas of South Carolina and Georgia and among the most common snakes in nearly all habitats.

Racers are habitat generalists and can be found in nearly any habitat in the Southeast. However, they are most abundant in edge habitats such as forest edges, old fields, and wetland edges. They are also often found in moderately disturbed or agricultural habitats.

Habits: Black racers are only active during the daytime and are most active in warm weather. At night and during cool weather they take refuge in burrows or under cover such as boards or tin. Racers hunt by sight and are often observed actively foraging during the day. They are not active at night. They eat a wide variety of prey including insects, lizards, snakes, birds, rodents, and amphibians. In turn, they are preyed upon by a variety of predatory birds, mammals and snakes such as kingsnakes and larger racers. When captured, prey are not constricted and are consumed alive. Racers are faster than most other snakes, very agile, and generally flee when approached, often climbing into small trees or shrubs. If cornered, however, they do not hesitate to bite. Although primarily terrestrial, they climb well and are occasionally observed sleeping in vegetation at night. Racers mate in the spring, and females lay up to 36 eggs in early summer. Eggs hatch in late summer or early fall.

Conservation Status: Racers are common in our region and are not protected throughout most of it. This species is protected throughout the state of Georgia.

Pertinent References:

Plummer, M. V., and J. D. Congdon. 1994. Radiotelemetric study of activity and movements of racers (Coluber constrictor) associated with a Carolina bay in South Carolina. Copeia 20-26.

Account author: J.D. Willson