There are 3 species of rat snakes in North Carolina, and each one has its own distinct colors and habitats. Aside from being residents to North Carolina and other U.S. states, rat snakes are popular in the exotic pet trade. They’re nonvenomous, have simple care needs, and have a docile personality. Similar to many other types of snakes, rat snakes kill by constriction and are not a threat to humans. They have ways to appear more dangerous, but it’s all for show. In this article we’ll learn about North Carolina’s rat snakes as well as look at some pictures of them.
The 3 Different Species of Rat Snakes in North Carolina
There are over 45 known rat snake species globally. They are separated into two categories: Old World (Eastern Hemisphere) and New World (Western Hemisphere) snakes. However, the New World rat snakes in North America are actually genetically closer to kingsnakes than Old World rat snakes.
Having said that, the 3 species of rat snakes in North Carolina are the eastern rat snake, gray rat snake, and the red rat snake (aka corn snake).
1. Eastern Rat Snake
Scientific Name: Pantherophis alleghaniensis
The Eastern rat snake lives exclusively in the US along the southeastern coastal plain, southern Georgia, and Florida. Eastern North Carolina is within their range. They are completely black on the back and sides, making them almost identical in appearance to a black rat snake. Eastern rat snakes have small keels on their scales, a white underbelly near their chin, and irregular black spots that turn solid gray near their tail.
The Eastern rat snake can grow 3 to 6 feet in length. Juvenile snakes are light gray with dark brown square markings along their spine that fade as they age. Although not venomous, they can release a strong foul odor when threatened to deter humans and predators.
2. Gray Rat Snake
Scientific Name: Pantherophis spiloides
Gray rat snakes are the most common rat snake species found in western North Carolina. People sometimes refer to them as “chicken snakes.” Animal control companies have reported gray rat snakes like to hide out in attics where it is warm and has rodents or birds.
Gray rat snakes are gray to black in color with a white belly. Southern gray rat snakes retain their juvenile markings, so they also have gray or dark brown saddle blotches. They are usually between 3 to 6 feet in length and have rough scales with larger keels than other species.
3. Red Rat Snake (cornsnake)
Scientific Name: Pantherophis guttatus
Another name people call the red rat snake is the corn snake, which is one of the most popular pet snakes there are. They are one of North Carolina’s smaller rat snake species, ranging from 1.5 to 3 feet in length. You can normally find them living in barns or other manmade structures.
Red rat snakes are orange or bright tan with a distinctive V-shape marking between their eyes. They have dark red or brown saddles down their backs and a black and white checkerboard pattern on their bellies. This pattern looks like kernels of flint corn and is where their corn snake name comes from.
6 FAQs About Rat Snakes
1. What Do Rat Snakes Eat?
As their name suggests, rat snakes eat rats. Most people who know they aren’t venomous see them as great pest control pets. They also eat birds, bird eggs, frogs, lizards, and other small rodents, such as mice, chipmunks, and voles.
2. How Do Rat Snakes Hunt?
Rat snakes will wait to ambush their prey before constricting them to death and swallowing them whole. Rat snakes are known to continue hunting after eating since they are covered in the prey’s scent and more likely to catch another meal.
3. Are Rat Snakes Endangered?
Some species of rat snakes are endangered in certain states in the US. For example, the eastern and black rat snakes are endangered in Massachusetts, and red rat snakes are endangered in the Florida Keys. It is illegal to kill a nonvenomous snake in North Carolina, making rat snakes protected throughout the state.
4. Can Rat Snakes Climb and Swim?
Even without legs, rat snakes are efficient climbers. When hunting for bird eggs or small birds, they can easily climb tree trunks using only the bark. According to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, rat snakes are great swimmers. The Everglades rat snake in Florida often swims away from predators.
5. How Do Rat Snakes Reproduce?
Rat snake breeding habits vary based on the species, however, they all lay eggs. The gray rat snake that’s found in North Carolina for instance, will lay 12 to 20 eggs per clutch. All baby rat snakes will hatch after around two months and are independent, not receiving any parental care.
6. Are Rat Snakes Poisonous?
Rat snakes are non-venomous and are no threat to humans. However, they have a couple of tricks to appear scarier than they are. They can emit a foul odor that makes it appear like they are releasing poison. Rat snakes will also sometimes “rattle” their tail to make themselves appear venomous.