All About the Black Ratsnake

The black ratsnake is a country classic that probably shouldn’t get the same treatment as a rattlesnake or copperhead might require.

| July/August 2015

If you’ve ever lived on a farm in the eastern or central United States, then you’ve probably spied a shiny black ratsnake slithering through the grass. If so, what was your reaction? Curiosity? Fear? Revulsion?

Actually, appreciation might be the most appropriate response. The nonvenomous western ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoletus), or Texas black ratsnake as it is sometimes called, is an asset to farmers. Often confused in the East with the black racer snake (Coluber constrictor), black ratsnakes are capable hunters and highly efficient at catching rodents. The black ratsnake helps to control the population of mice and rats – which eats grain, fouls your toolbox and spreads disease.

Pleased to Meet You

How do you know if you’ve spotted a black ratsnake? As its name implies, this snake is black, sometimes with gray blotches. Young snakes of the species can be confused with small copperheads or other species, since in their youth – typically the first two years of life – their appearance can feature dark brown or black blotches (blotches are typically longer than they are wide) on a light gray ground color. A splash of white accents the reptile’s chin and may be visible on its underbelly.

One of the largest snakes in North America, the black ratsnake can grow up to 6 feet in length. It has a wedge-shaped head and round, lidless eyes.

Survival Skills

The black ratsnake is well equipped for survival. Though it has many predators – from raccoons, coyotes and foxes to dogs, cats, pigs and other snakes – this snake has a variety of defense mechanisms. First it freezes in place. If the threat persists, the black ratsnake may coil up and rap its tail against a hard surface (or leaves), imitating the sound of a rattlesnake. If further provoked, it may also strike or wrap its body around the predator. If seized, the black ratsnake releases a foul-smelling musk. The disgusted predator may drop its prey, though not likely, leaving the snake to slither off. Black ratsnakes typically live for 15 years, although they’ve lived up to nearly 30 years in captivity.

The black ratsnake is a stealthy hunter. It hunts by sight or smell, swimming and climbing trees with ease. These skills allow the snake to consume frogs, lizards, insects, birds, bird eggs, squirrels, moles, cottontails and shrews – as well as mice and rats. This creature maximizes camouflage by staying still and laying out flat in a lazy “S” shape, thus emulating a stick – used mainly as a protection mechanism against predators.

9/7/2015 1:23:46 PM

I've never been very comfortable around snakes. Since moving to the country 12 years ago, I've developed a respect for the black ratsnake. I may jump when startled by one, but then we come to an agreement of sorts. The snake can stay if it doesn't simply jump out in front of me. Last night I came home after dark. As soon as I reached to put the key in the lock, something dropped at my feet. It was a 2 ft snake that had climbed the wall and had been sitting on the light fixture. I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't scream, but simply waited for it to move on. I'm making progress.

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