Rat Snakes are a fascinating family, and are some
of my favorite snakes. This fellow is holding a Black Rat Snake, and seems
quite happy about it. The Rat Snakes are a genus of the Harmless Snakes
called Elaphe, and some grow quite large; the Black Rat can grow
to over 8 feet. They are (in the East) the Black, Yellow, Gray,
Texas, Everglades (all in the species E. obsoleta), and Baird's rat
snake, Corn Snake and Fox Snake.
Here is a picture of a baby Black Rat Snake. Notice how large the head is in proportion to the body. This is why I say do not go by head shape.
All of these folks mate in the Spring, and lay eggs in
the late Summer. They live in woods, fields and farm land, anywhere their
favorite food is to be found, namely rats and mice. They will also take
small birds and eggs, and the occasional lizard or frog. All are harmless,
and incidentally make excellent captives, and are to be found in almost
every pet shop which sells snakes.
They are constrictors, wrapping themselves around their prey and strangling it to death before they eat it. They can often kill a mouse or rat faster than a venomous snake.
This an especially lovely Corn Snake. They are a Rat Snake,
and follow the habits and many of the habitat preferences of the others,
except where the others are often to be found in the trees, this one is
usually in rodent burrows under ground searching for a meal. The name doesn't
come from them eating corn, but some say they are so colorful, and look
like Indian corn, and others say they hang out near corn fields. I have
a link here to a picture of a Corn Snake eating.
This is not for the faint of heart, so be warned!
Corn snakes are often mistaken for Copperheads, and are killed because of this. They and some of the Water Snakes mimic Copperheads, a trait that may protect them in the wild, but doesn't protect them from the ignorance of Humans!
Bull Snake Pine and Bull snakes, including the Gopher Snakes of the Western US are all of the same species, "Pituophis melanoleucus". They are pretty much rodent specialists. They are known for standing up, hissing loudly, and generally scaring the bejabbers out of you when you encounter them in the field. They rarely bite, and generally live well in captivity, as the link above will show. Also notice that the snake has "diamonds" on its back, not a good criterion for identifying venomous snakes. These folks lay eggs like many of their family, and the young hatch in late summer.
Here are some nice photos of a Speckled King Snake sent to me from a
doctor in the Mid West. This is a youngster, and when he gets grown, the
speckled pattern will cover him completely.
The above link shows a Black King Snake, a form of the
King Snake found west of the Appalachians. The Eastern form has a chain
like pattern on the back that ranges from white in some individuals to
butter yellow. They are known for eating venomous snakes, and indeed they
have a natural immunity to the venom of our native venomous snakes, but
they will eat most any snake venomous or not, and also mice, lizards, and
turtle eggs. They lay their own eggs in mid to late Summer. They make very
good captives, and can be found in most pet shops (the California form).
A very fascinating member of this group is the Milk Snakes, a species with
extreme variation across their range (from Canada to South America), and
mimic some famous venomous snakes; the Eastern Milk Snake mimics the Copperhead,
and the Scarlet King Snake mimics the venomous Coral Snake.
Racers and Whipsnakes are another very common group of harmless snakes that are found across much of our range. This is a picture of a Northern Black Racer courtesy of Herp Pictures.These snakes are said to be very fast, and they are, and are said to chase people. They are masters of the bluff, and if you don't call their bluff, they will indeed chase you. When encountered in the field, they will often run a short distance and circle around and come back to get a look at what startled them. If it runs, they will chase it, to get it out of their territory. If it moves toward them (as I usually do), they will take off like a black streak, not to be seen again. If caught, they will squirm around, emitting musk, and will bite, and they make rotten captives, being nervous and refusing to eat. They usually succumb to skin sores and starvation.
Racers are in the species Coluber constrictor, and Whipsnakes (including the Eastern Coachwhip) are in the genus Masticophis. There are several species. All lay eggs, and are hunters of mice, lizards, snakes, frogs, and generally anything smaller than they are.
This is a great picture kindly provided by Randy Emmitt
whose page can be found at Wateringhole
in the Backwoods . It is a fine picture of a Banded Water
Snake taken in the Okefenokee Swamp. Here you can see that many of the
Southern Water Snakes mimic the Cottonmouth in coloration and head shape.
Many people think that any snakes found in or near water are venomous.
NOT SO!! Most of them are members of the Harmless Water Snake genus Nerodia.
They are quite happy to dart away, but will fight if cornered. Their bites
are bloody, but not dangerous. Just wash off the blood and apply antiseptic.
They also put out a foul smelling musk from their vent when first handled.
All of these snakes live near water, and feed on fish and frogs. They bear live young in the late summer. There are so many different kinds that it is unwise to approach or try to restrain any snake found in the water in Cottonmouth territory, unless you are a well trained Herpetologist (student of Reptiles). Just admire them from a distance. We'll talk about Cottonmouths and their kin later on.
Other snakes found in or near water are the Queen Snake and Crawfish Snake (members of the genus Regina), Swamp Snakes (Seminatrix), and the lovely Mud and Rainbow Snakes (Farancia). All of these can be viewed at the website Herp Pictureshttp://gto.ncsa.uiuc.edu .
Next we'll talk about some of the unusual little snakes who can be found in unusual places. They include the Earth Snakes, Ringnecks, Crowned Snakes, and Worm Snakes. Most of these little fellows live under ground or beneath logs, rocks or anything fallen on the ground, like an old board. Some will be passed off as worms, others are easily recognized as snakes. None of them are venomous, though Ringnecks can emit a foul smelling musk from the corners of the mouth. All are hard to keep in captivity, and should be admired and allowed to go their way.
The next group I will talk about before
we go on to venomous snakes is the Hognose Snakes.
There are two species of this genus (Heterodon) in the Southeast, the Northern and Southern Hognose. The Northern has two color morphs (forms), one a brightly colored orange or brick red, and the other is completely slate gray. They are toad and frog specialists, and are immune to the skin gland poison of all North american frogs and toads. They have enlarged rear teeth which help them deflate their prey, but have no venom. A slightly upturned snout enables them to dig for their prey, hence the "Hognose" name. They do not bite when confronted in the field, but their behavior is totally entertaining!
Upon first being encountered by a Human, a Hognose will spread and flatten the forward portion of its neck, and flatten the head, looking for all the world like a Cobra (which is not found here by the way), and will begin hissing VERY loudly, looking like the most dangerous serpent imaginable! If further harassed, it will make striking motions (keeping the mouth closed; we wouldn't want to hurt anyone now, would we?) and generally acting horribly dangerous. If this fails to rout the intruder, the snake begins to lash and writhe around as though wounded, and finally will turn over on its back, mouth open and tongue out (ARGH!! You've KILLED me!), and lie still as though dead. If you then turn the snake over on its belly, it will quickly flip itself BACK over, as though to say "hey, leave me alone. Can't you see I'm dead?" It will then wait for a time, and when left alone, will go about its business.
They make fair captives, but will lose their behavior of spreading and hissing if handled, and the job of finding toads and frogs for them to eat is becoming increasingly difficult. With the increasing rarity of toads and frogs in some areas, the Hognose's future looks bleak. They are egg layers, and the tiny babies hatch in late summer or early fall.
I am not going to cover any more of
the harmless folk; there's just too many of them. For the venomous snakes,
go to the NEXT PAGE --->