There are as many as 4 different species and subspecies of rat snakes in Virginia, and each one has its own distinct colors and habitats. Aside from being residents to Virginia 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 Virginia’s rat snakes as well as look at some pictures of them.
The 4 Different Species of Rat Snakes in Virginia
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.
Disclaimer about black rat snakes: Both the eastern rat snake and the western rat snake are both commonly called black rat snakes, which is confusing if you’re trying to identify a species.
Having said that, the 4 species of rat snakes in Virginia are the black rat snake, yellow rat snake, 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 rat snakes find themselves at the northern edge of their range in Virginia, but along the coastal plain 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 most common in western and northwestern areas of Virginia. 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 Virginia’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 in central areas of the state.
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.
4. Black rat snake
Scientific name: Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta
The black rat snake is one of the most common species of rat snakes in the US and can be found from New England to Georgia in the East, including areas of Virginia. Black rat snakes are shiny black in color with a white belly and faint hints of white between some scales.
Although people interchangeably call western and eastern rat snakes black rat snakes, they are slightly different genetically and in color.
The black rat snake is also one of the largest rat snakes in North America, being able to grow up to 6 feet in size. During the colder months, black rat snakes will brumate, which is similar to hibernating. During brumation, the snakes are sleeping but still awake for activities such as drinking water.