Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta)

May 14, 2001, Georgetown, Texas

The body of this snake was between 24 and 36 inches long. The scales were shiny and slick. Rattlesnakes have dull bodies with prominent scales that are not shiny. Of course, rattlesnakes also have rattles on their tails that give their identity away, and copperheads, whose bodies are smooth like the rat snakes, have distinctive, copper-colored markings.

The tail was tapered to a fine point. That, too, is used by some as a sign that it is not venomous, since rattlesnakes have blunt tails (but Copperheads, which are venomous, have pointed tails, so this is not a good marker to use). Coral snakes have tapered tails, but their distinctive coloration is so remarkable that they would never be mistaken for a rat snake like this one.

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This hapless fellow got all tangled up in deer netting that was intended to keep deer from browsing the vegetation it protected. Unfortunately, the little squares were just large enough to allow the snake's head to get through, but not enough to admit its body at mid length (possibly the snake had eaten something earlier that had increased its girth). When I found it, several days had already passed since its imprisonment. The bulge that had prevented it from getting through the net had been digested, but by that time the snake had become hopelessly entangled in the netting and was not a happy camper.

The snake's head was triangular in shape, and slightly swollen at its neck. This is a common feature in many non-venomous snakes, making them appear to the untrained observer as having venom glands. Venomous snakes often, but not always, have much wider heads that are swollen above the neck with venom glands, giving their heads an arrowhead shape. Rat snakes also have a slight to strong arrowhead shape to the head, because their jaws are designed to open wide to swallow large prey such as mice and rats and this gives the head a slight bulge just above the neck. Since rats and mice carry disease and tend to mess with our foodstuffs, snakes that prey on them are, by and large, extremely beneficial members of our neighborhood. That goes double if they are non-venomous rat snakes like this one.

Even though it was not venomous, this snake was extremely aggressive and more than willing to bite the hand that was attempting to free it from its prison of deer netting. Such aggressive behavior is not uncommon for rat snakes, especially if they are cornered. Unfortunately, this often results in their demise at the hands of their human hosts, even though their bite is not dangerous (note the absence of fangs in this specimen). 

The designation of "Rat Snake" is not very scientific. "Black Rat Snake" is more definitive for this specimen. Most reference books describe the species as Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta. Snakes of this species have dominant colors ranging from blue to black, as in this specimen. A close cousin, Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri, known as the Texas rat snake, has dominant colors of brown, orange and red (see the snake photographed on July 12, 2001). The head of the adult is of a uniform coloration above, with a white chin. Its belly is white or gray, sometimes with vague mottling. The saddle-shaped markings on its back, irrespective of dominant background/foreground coloring, are typical for most snakes of this genus.