Black Rat Snakes: Climbing Constrictors
Black rat snakes can look pretty fierce, with specimens growing to more than eight feet in length and weighing five pounds or more. Non-venomous, they are omnivorous hunters, excellent climbers and able swimmers, allowing them to thrive across a range of environments and to feed on a variety of prey.
As their name implies, black rat snakes are almost entirely dark grey or black and often showing white around the mouth. Temperamentally they tend to be shy, avoiding confrontation if possible but employing a variety of strategies if pressed. If confronted, some may freeze in place while others may adopt a variety of defense strategies: coiling their bodies in a threat posture and shaking their tail in dead leaves in emulation of rattlers; snapping aggressively; and emitting a foul-smelling substance that is usually sufficient to discourage predators.
Black rat snakes inhabit a wide geographic range, from New England south to Florida, west across the gulf states, northward through the Midwest and even into parts of Canada. The snakes live at elevations ranging from sea level to the Appalachian Mountains. Their preferred habitat is heavily wooded areas, where they are able to climb trunks without the aid of branches, spending much of their time in trees. They are also at home on widely rocky hillsides and in flatlands.
Black rate snakes are constrictors, with a diet consisting primarily of rodents, making them beneficial to farmers with stored grain. They also dine on chipmunks, moles and other small rodents and because of their climbing ability, they also forage in birds’ nests both for eggs and for hatchlings.
Egg-layers, the snakes tend to hibernate in winter, emerging between March and May after which they begin to seek mates. The males normally wait for females to pass through their territories, upon which they secrete pheromones to communicate with the females and initiate mating.
Five weeks after mating, the female deposits up to 20 eggs in a hidden area and departs the scene. The eggs hatch between seven and eight weeks later, when they immediately begin foraging. The babies range up to 16 inches in length and reach full maturity in about four years. Given the right conditions, female black rat snakes and produce two clutches of eggs per year.
In the wild the snakes live for about 15 years while in captivity they can live up 30 with proper care and diet. Because of their appearance, size, calm temperament and ease of care, the snakes are popular as pets. But they involve a long-term commitment.
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