Western Black Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus)
Fall is a time for berries and brightly colored leaves, a time for birds migrating south, and as I mentioned in September’s post it is also a time for snakes. Here in Mid-Missouri November might be a little too late for much snake activity, most are burrowed or hunkering down to hibernate (or brumate) over winter. But in early fall snakes can often be encountered on park trails as they search for a good place to spend the winter, and this western black rat snake was found back in October. Yes, this is a black rat snake, but this is the juvenile. Adults are shiny and black with a light belly, whereas the juveniles are grayish- tan and have a pattern of blotches going down their back and sides. The juveniles also have a distinctive, black band that goes across their eyes and down to their mouths as you can see in this picture.
Black rat snakes are one of Missouri’s larger snake species, reaching 3.5 to 6 feet in length. They belong to the family Colubridae which is mostly composed of constrictors, snakes that constrict to subdue their prey before consuming. Black rat snakes are not venomous, venom is another method for subduing prey…remember snakes do not have limbs to take down their prey, so they rely on these other methods. Interestingly other constrictors snake like boas (in the family Boidae) are believed to be able to respond to their prey’s heartbeat, allowing them to know when to apply more pressure and when to stop constricting. Mind blown!
Snake modulates constriction in response to prey's heartbeat (nih.gov)
Anyways, many people like rat snakes, as they are good at keeping down small rodent populations. Unfortunately, when it comes to the juveniles, people often mistake them for copperhead snakes or rattlesnakes, which are venomous, and want to get rid of them. It irks me to no end and is really frustrating when people so quickly jump to an identification and especially an incorrect one. However, I have been called out for ridiculing a friend of mine once for not knowing the difference between two bird species, to me they were obviously very different….but why should she know the difference? Now I bite my tongue and try to be less judge-y myself. But still the question exists….why would people think this little guy is a copperhead?
There are many great resources for distinguishing a venomous snakes from non-venomous snakes in North America. In fact, this site has a nice set of pictures showing juvenile snakes of the racer, rat snake, and a copperhead.
How NOT to Identify a Venomous Snake | by Micha Petty | The Natural World | Medium
Note the copperhead juvenile has a different splotchy pattern (the Hershey kiss pattern), and they also have bright – almost neon-yellow tipped tails and rat snakes do not. The head shape is also different, but head shape…like many other traits…can be deceiving, as many non-venomous snakes will flatten their head making it look broader and more triangular, like that head of a copperhead. Rat snakes will also shake their tails, which when it is in the leaf litter might make it get mistaken for a rattle snake, but rat snakes do not have rattles like rattlesnakes. So let’s all try to be a little less judge-y and quick to react. If you see snake here in the US, chances are it is non-venomous…and regardless of whether you come across a venomous or non-venomous snake…..if you do not want to be near one….just walk away.
Some folks may wonder how I can tell apart these animals and snakes so easily…it comes down to practice, the more you look and study them, the more it will become evident how different these two snakes really are. And as this article explains…repetition is key to being able to readily identify species. There are lots of resources online and also Facebook has some very good snake identification pages, a community of people helping to identify snakes that people send pictures of, these sites are educational, and the moderators are really good at trying to keep everyone civil and ensure that no one is afraid to ask questions. I have been really impressed with the page, and have noticed several people mention that they were once deathly afraid of snakes, or once had the philosophy of the only good snake is a dead snake, until spending time on the snake identification FB page, where they learned a great deal and are no longer themselves so quick to judge.
Education is key which reminds me of one of my favorite quotes:
“In the end, we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand and we will understand only what we are taught.”
― Baba Dioum
Happy Snake ID’ing
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