The Great Plains rat snake is found throughout much of the United States in grasslands, prairies, and savannahs. Its habitat includes the plains states of Kansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, and parts of Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, and Pennsylvania. It is usually seen basking on sunny days and nights; it may even bask in full sunlight. In the winter months, it hibernates underground.
Additional common names for Great plains Rat snake include: brown rat snake, Emory’s coluber, Emory’s racer, Emory’s snake, Gray Rat Snake, Mouse Snake, Prairie Rat Snake, Spotted Mouse Snake, Texas Rat Snake, Pantherophis emoryi, Western Pilot Snake.
The brown rat snake (Pantherophis emoryii) is found throughout most of Sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, it occurs in parts of southern Asia and Southeast Asia. This species is not considered threatened by the IUCN. However, in some countries such as India, it is hunted for food.
The Great Plains rat snake, commonly known as the Panteophis emoryi, is a species of nonvenomous, colubrid snake native to North America. It is one of six subspecies of the genus Pantherophis, which includes several other species including the black rat snake, the yellow rat snake, and the ribbon snake. This particular subspecies is most often encountered in the southern half of the United States, where it prefers dry savannas, woodlands, and lowland forests.
Like many members of the family Colubridae, the Great Plains rat snake has a distinctive pattern consisting of alternating bands of black and white. Its body length varies between three and five feet, and it averages about four inches in diameter. Like all colubrids, it possesses venom glands situated above the eye sockets. However, unlike most other colubrids, the Great Plains rat snakes are oviparous; females produce eggs rather than giving birth to live young. Eggs hatch within approximately 30 days, and the newly hatched larvae feed on insects and spiders. In addition to being nonvenomous, the Great Plains rat is also harmless to humans.
The Great Plains rat snake is one of three species of colubrid snakes native to North America. Members of the genus Elaphe are commonly known as “rat snakes”, although the term is often used generically to refer to many different types of venomous snakes. All members of the genus are primarily terrestrial; however, some species live in water or burrow underground. They are found throughout much of Canada and the United States, ranging south into Mexico and Central America. Most species are nocturnal hunters, feeding mainly on small rodents such as mice and rats. Their diet includes lizards and frogs, and occasionally birds and bats.
The Great Plains rat snake prefers open grasslands or lightly forested habitats. However, it can also be found on coastal plains, arid regions, semi-desert, moderately mountainous regions, and rocky, moderately hilly terrain. This species tends to avoid densely wooded areas, preferring areas where there are some trees, but less dense cover.
They are usually active during the day, but will become inactive during the hottest part of the day, and will emerge again at night. They are typically nocturnal, although they may be seen basking on sunny days. During the winter months, they hibernate underground.
Like most rat snakes, when disturbed, the Great Plains rat snakes will shake their tails vigorously, which by itself does not make much noise, but when shaken amongst dry leaves, it sounds very similar to a rattlesnake. When agitated, they will raise their head and neck slightly, exposing their throat. This behavior allows them to strike quickly without having to expose themselves further.
When threatened, they will hiss loudly, and if necessary, they will bite. If they feel cornered, they may coil up into a tight ball and vibrate their body rapidly.
As with most snakes, they feed on small rodents such as mice, rats, voles, gophers, and pocket gophers. They do not prey upon larger animals unless provoked. In fact, they will sometimes chase away larger predators such as raccoons, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, and even owls. They will also consume smaller reptiles, amphibians, birds, fish, and insects.
In captivity, they can live for over 20 years, and reach sexual maturity around 4 years old. Female snakes lay clutches of approximately 25 eggs each spring, and hatchlings measure about 5 inches long. Hatchling snakes are born blind, and must rely on smell and vibration to find food. As they grow older, they begin to hunt independently.
The species name emoryi honors American herpetologist Frank M. Emory.
The following books are recommended for further reading about snakes:
Conant R.(1975).A Field Guide To Reptiles Of The United States East Of Rocky Mtn.2nd Ed. New York:Holt, Rinehart & Winston.
Fitzpatrick K., ed. (2005).Field Guide to Reptiles And Amphibians Of Eastern and Central North Carolina.Caldwell, NC:McFarland.
Heimes J. (2008).Snakes Of Texas.Austin:University of Texas Press.
Schmidt KP, Davis DD (1941).Field Book of Snakes of the United States and Canada.New York: Grafton.
Stebbins RC (2003).A Field Guide to Western Reptiles and Amphibian.3rd Revised Edition.Hauppauge, NY:Barron’s Educational Series.
Wilson RE (1970).An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Reptiles.New York: Knopf.
Zim HS, Smith HM (1966).Reprinted Reprint edition.Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections Vol.133.