Snake, Red Rat


Elaphe guttata guttata


Red rat snakes are slender with a length of 23-71 inches. They are usually orange or brownish-yellow, with large, black-edged red blotches down the middle of the back. On the belly are alternating rows of black and white marks, resembling a checkerboard pattern. Considerable variation occurs in the coloration and patterns of individual snakes, depending on the age of the snake and the region of the country in which it is found. Hatchlings lack much of the bright coloration found on adults.

Family

Colubridae

Order

Squamata

Class

Reptilia

Range

Red rat snakes inhabit the eastern United States from southern New Jersey south through Florida, west into Louisiana and parts of Kentucky. They are most abundant in Florida and the southeastern U.S.

Habitat

They prefer wooded groves, rocky hillsides, meadowlands, and wood lots, occupying barns and abandoned buildings.

Life Expectancy

The life span of this snake is up to 32 years in captivity, and generally much less in the wild.

Sexual Maturity

18-36 months

Diet

In the wild, young feed mostly on lizards and tree frogs, while adults feed on mice, rats, birds, and bats. In the Zoo, they are fed rats and mice.

Status

Florida - Species of Special Concern in the Lower Keys

Behaviors

Red rat snakes are primarily nocturnal, often active in early evening. They readily climb trees and enter abandoned buildings in search of prey. However, they are very secretive and spend most of their time underground prowling through rodent burrows. They often hide under loose bark and beneath logs, rocks, and other debris during the day. The breeding season of red rat snakes is from March to May. This snake is oviparous, depositing a clutch of 10 to 30 eggs from late May to July. Eggs are laid in rotting stumps, piles of decaying vegetation or other similar locations where there is sufficient heat and humidity to incubate them. The adult snakes do not care for the eggs. Once laid, the incubation period lasts from 60 to 65 days at approximately 82 F. Eggs hatch from July through September. Hatchlings are 9.75 to 15 inches long.

Adaptions

Red rat snakes are constrictors, using coiled bodies to suffocate prey before eating it. First a red rat snake will bite prey to obtain a firm grip. It then quickly wraps one or more coils of its body around the victim, squeezing tightly until the prey is suffocated. It swallows prey whole, usually head first. Red rat snakes have also been observed swallowing small prey alive.

Special Interests

Red rat snakes help to control rodent populations that may otherwise spread disease. They are the most frequently bred snake species for the pet trade. Red rat snakes are also known as corn snakes. The name red rat snake is believed to have originated from the similarity of the markings on the belly to the checkered pattern of Indian corn kernels.

Folklore

There is a serpent legend among the Northern Cree, in and around Bulkley Lake, British Columbia. This legend tells of a boy named Fast Bird, who was the messenger for his village. On one perilous trip he met an evil serpent. An old woman gave him three special arrow points and he was able to kill the serpent, and go on to become chief. There are other such stories. A Chippewa story tells of a hero, Nanabozho, who lived on the shore of Lake Superior. At the bottom of the lake lived the Great Serpent, along with a number of evil spirits, who were his servants. Nanabozho decided to kill the Great Serpent after the Great Serpent killed his cousin. He caused the water of Lake Superior to boil, forcing the snake out into the forest, where he fell prey to the arrows of Nanabozho. Before the Great Serpent died he caused a great flood to come upon the whole earth to kill everything. Nanabozho built a raft and saved mankind and the animals, just like Noah had done with the ark. The Comanches of the southwestern U.S. inherited the worship of the Jaguar god from the Mayan Indians to the south. They believed that the great serpent god, who lived in the center of the earth, shook the mountains with the coiling and uncoiling of his body. The most divine-like snake story is that which tells of the creation of the natural wonder called the ‘Wisconsin Dells’. A great snake wriggled down from his home near the ‘big lake’ and formed the Wisconsin River as he crawled. When he came to the sandstone ridge where the Dells begin, he merely pushed his head into a crevice in the rocks and pushed them aside to form the narrow, winding passage we call the Dells.

Conservation

Red rat snakes are often mistaken for copperheads and sometimes killed. Contradictorily, because of their docile temperament, they are often kept as pets. Sometimes they are taken from the wild to supply the pet trade. Since these snakes are readily bred in captivity, collecting wild individuals for the pet trade is strongly discouraged. Red rat snakes are not an endangered species. However, in the State of Florida they are listed as a Species of Special Concern. Habitat loss in the lower Florida Keys has reduced their population numbers.

Jacksonville Zoo History

This species first appears in the Zoo’s animal collection in March 1957. It has successfully bred here.

Exhibit

Wild Florida