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An Illinois River Almanac

Jason Haupt's Energy and Environment Blog

Animal of the Week: Rat Snake

If you have read some of my other blogs or articles, you are well aware of my stance on snakes. I believe that the only good snake is a hungry snake. Snakes have many benefits in the ecosystems where they are found. One of the most common snakes in Illinois is the Rat Snake and it is a beautiful example of the snakes found in Illinois.

There are two Rat Snakes found in Illinois - the Grey and the Black Rat Snake. There is some contention as to whether these two snakes are two species, Pantherophis spiloides and P. obsoletus, or subspecies of P. spiloides. However it is classified, two Rat Snakes are present in Illinois. The two are very similar in behavior and habitat selection, but they are very different in appearance and markings.

Both Rat Snakes are common throughout the state, though the Grey Rat Snake tends to be more common in the southern part of the state. Both Rat Snakes can be found in a number of habitats including open field, barnyards, rocky hillsides, and woodlands. Rat Snakes are excellent climbers and are able to climb up trees even without the aid of branches. They are also proficient swimmers. Though generally more apt to run away when threatened, if cornered they will mimic a Rattlesnake rearing up, kinking its body and shaking its tail, often in dry leaves attempting to scare whatever is posing a threat. If they are threatened, they will strike as well. They will also emit a musk that is unpleasant to make themselves seem less appealing.

Both Grey and Black Rat Snakes grow to be a large snake averaging between 42 and 72 inches in length. The Black Rat Snake is black, occasionally showing faint white traces along its body. It has a white chin and the underside of the body is checked white, black and grey. The Grey Rat Snake has a grey body blotched with brown. Unlike most other snakes, they do not undergo significant color changes as they progress from juvenile to adult. The head of both snakes is wider than the neck.

Rat Snakes eat a variety of prey though, as the name suggests, they tend to concentrate on rodents. They like mice and rats, though they are far from specialists. They also eat a number of other small vertebrates, including other snakes, frogs, lizards, birds, eggs, and other small mammals. Rat Snakes are constrictors and kill their prey by suffocating it. Rat Snakes are apex predators and, as adults, very little poses a threat to them. Eagles and hawks will pose an occasional threat, but these encounters can be as dangerous for the eagle or hawk as to the snake.

Fun Rat Snake Facts:

  1. Rat Snakes are considered to be one of the top predators of Purple Martins.
  2. In the fall, Rat Snakes will congregate in rock outcroppings and hibernate with other snakes, including Copperheads and Rattlesnakes.

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