— BugsInTheNews is a VIEWER-PARTICIPANT WEBSITE. This article by Jerry Cates, Tammy D. (Alvin, TX), and T.K. (near Dripping Springs, TX), first published on 15 April 2012, includes revised and updated content from previous articles originally published by Bugsinthenews.com between 1999 and 2010, and was last revised on 12 July 2012. © Bugsinthenews Vol. 13:04(02):
This article is undergoing revision to reflect recent changes in the taxonomical nomenclature for the Texas ratsnake, and for all species and subspecies previously assigned to the genus Elaphe.
Tammy D. (who’d sent in some photos of a western cottonmouth on 28 August 2011) wrote the following on 16 April 2012:
“Good Morning Jerry,
It’s Tammy D. from Santa Fe, TX. I usually email you from (a different e-mail address) but that account has become overrun with junk mail, so I’m sending this from my work email. I’m pretty sure this is a Rat snake. It’s so cool how he is climbing the fence. Are Rat snakes the only ones that do this? This one is in Alvin, TX at my daughter’s house. They killed an even bigger one and I told her not to do that any more, because they are “good” snakes. Please confirm so I can assure and educate her on the difference between them and Copperheads, I know they have similarities.
Thanks in advance.
Note: as with all photos on this website, a larger version is accessible by clicking on the photo. The square thumbnails at left crop much of the photo, but the full extent of the image will be displayed in the larger version…
Tammy’s snake was just hanging out (literally) and lounging around near the city of Alvin, Texas, catching a few photons on a fine, cool, sunlit Texas spring day. Evidently it was not scared off by Tammy’s presence and posed for her in several positions, threading the chain link fence while executing a number of semi-acrobatic stunts.
For those who don’t know, the Texas city of Alvin is situated in northeast Brazoria County, a few miles southeast of Houston. Most of the land thereabouts was originally granted to the Houston Tap and Brazoria Railroad. In 1872, after establishing a flag station near Mustang Slough, the Santa Fe Railroad hired a man named Alvin Morgan to take charge of the cattle at the stock pens. Morgan built a house — the first in the area — in 1879, and before long others settled nearby as well. Two years later, 1881, the settlement had grown large enough to have its own post office, which meant it needed a name. In honor of its founder, the settlement was first named Morgan, but there was a problem: another Texas settlement had that name already. Stymied, yet resolved to do honor to its founder anyway, the settlement’s inhabitants choose his given name, Alvin. It stuck. It is said that Morgan was rarely seen without his companions, which consisted of a dog, a goose, and a white buzzard (Blanchette, Handbook of Texas Online).
Alvin was mostly known to residents of Round Rock, Texas, as the place where Nolan Ryan, our famous Major League baseball pitcher, spent most of his formative years growing up. More recently, all over the U.S., the city became known as the place where Lt. Col. Roy Lin Tisdale, a decorated veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan grew up. Sadly, on 28 June 2012 Tisdale was fatally wounded by one of the men under his command at Fort Bragg, N.C. He was laid to rest in College Station, Texas, on 9 July 2012, in a moving ceremony that was attended and assisted by scores of his fellow Texas Aggies…
The Texas rat snake is often mistaken for a copperhead, and the end result is usually as took place with the other large rat snake Tammy mentioned. Most people are surprised to learn that none of the copperheads look anything like our famous — and very beneficial — Texas rat snake. The Texas rat snake has a yellowish-orange background color that causes the unfamiliar observer to say “Ah! Copper looks kinda like that, so this must be a copperhead…”
And so it (copper) does. But no, it (the yellowish-orange snake) isn’t a copperhead. Copperheads don’t have the yellowish-orange coloration, common to the Texas ratsnake, anywhere on their bodies…
But it is no surprise that so many people think “copperhead” when they see a large snake with a yellowish-orange body.
Fact is, copper displays a wide array of colors as it ages and oxidizes. Pure, untarnished copper has a pinkish, rather than an orangish, cast to it (like you see in a brand-new copper penny, straight from the Mint), and it was that shade that led to the copperhead’s common name. Pinkish copper, however, is not observed too often in ordinary life. Untarnished copper turns yellowish-orange soon after it is exposed to ordinary air, and that is the color we naturally think of when copper comes to mind.
Sadly, Texas rat snakes sport the tarnished copper shade we are most familiar with, and are often so humongous as to be truly awe-inspiring, not to mention intimidating… big enough, in fact, to scare the bejeezus out of the bravest soul alive. Small wonder, then, that these magnificent — and essentially harmless — snakes (see, for example, the awesome specimen held by T.K., in the case history that follows this one, below) are regularly dispatched to an early grave by courageous men and women who wield hoes, rakes, axes, machetes, butcher cleavers, shotguns, rifles, and revolvers in a determined (and usually successful) effort to protect themselves and their family, friends, and the public in general from what they erroneously perceive as something that poses a malignant threat of gargantuan proportions.
Much as courage is to be honored, it is hoped that all those who read these words will not be that person henceforth…
Once you get a good idea of the coloration and markings of the copperhead in your mind it becomes difficult, if not impossible, to mistake one for a Texas rat snake. I urge all who read this to look over the photos on the following articles on the southern copperhead, and the broad-banded copperhead, to see why that is so.
Tammy asked if rat snakes are the only snakes that climb the way her specimen did. Actually, lots of snakes are capable of climbing trees, fences, and vertical surfaces, but few are as good at it as the rat snakes. Among the rat snakes, those — like the Texas rat snake — in the genus Elaphe, and more specifically, the common rat snakes/chicken snakes in the species Elaphe obsoleta (four subspecies, including the Texas rat snake, are recognized) are specially equipped for climbing. Their bodies, in cross-section, are “D” shaped, so their belly scales (which form the vertical stroke of the “D”) lie flat against the surface they are climbing, giving them an extra edge on snakes whose bodies are more oval or round in cross-section.
T. K. wrote the following on 15 April 2012:
“Dear Mr Cates
I appreciate very much your excellent descriptions and photos.
My wife Diana and I have a property about 7 miles north of Dripping Springs
She raises chickens and turkeys.
She found two mid-sized dead chickens in her chicken house a couple of nights ago, obviously killed by a constrictor, which then tried to swallow each victim but only managed to intake the head to shoulders of each before yielding the effort.
Tonite, she was surprised by a long snake tail dropping from above a sliding barn door after dark, which frightened and excited her so enormously that she rushed back to the house to obtain my help in catching the beast.
I was able to coax the snake out from the space between the sliding door and the outer wall of the building. To my surprise, it was just under 6.5 feet long. We captured a number of photographs and then released the specimen into the wild about five or six miles away from our residence and in a more remote area away from roads and people.
I am inserting a couple of the photos here. Hope you find them interesting, since the specimen you identified as a wren killer in one of your web links seemed to you to be a long specimen that likely had been hunting the area for years. Well, here is a longer specimen, for the record that’s me in the photo and I am 5’10” in the shoes I am wearing this fine evening. This was taken 2012 04 14 at 9 PM.
We have more photos, let me know if you are interested in others and I will forward those to you.
I replied that yes, I’d love to see more photos of this handsome specimen of a Texas rat snake. It is gratifying that so many folks — like T.K. and his wife, Diane — understand how beneficial so many of our serpent species are, and thus take care to keep them alive to continue killing the rats, mice, and other rodents that plague the Texas countryside. This year — as distinct from 2011 — will likely have a bumper crop of rodents because the welcome rainfall of the late winter, spring, and early summer has produced a bounty of grasses to feed the rodents with their seeds and grains. This magnificent specimen will do a great job of not only decimating the rodents within its range but also in producing more of its kind to help in the effort.
- Phylum Chordata: animals that have, at some point in their life cycle, a hollow dorsal nerve cord, pharyngeal slits, an endostyle, and a post-anal tail.
- Subphylum Vertebrata: chordate animals with backbones and spinal columns;
- Class Reptilia: vertebrate animals that breathe air, lay shelled eggs (or, less often, give live birth), and have skins that are covered in scales and/or scutes. Our specimen, the Texas rat snake, is covered dorsally with scales that are smooth on the sides and weakly keeled near the spine, and the young are laid in a clutch of 5-20 white, non-granular shelled eggs (Werler & Dixon, 2000, p.121), usually in hollow logs or stumps, mounds of sawdust or decayed vegetable matter, and manure piles. The young are 10-16 inches long on emergence from the eggs usually in August or September.
- Order Squamata: reptiles whose skins bear horny scales or shields, and who possess movable quadrate bones that enable them to move their upper jaw separately from the bones of their braincase;
- Suborder Serpentes: elongated, legless, carnivorous reptiles without eyelids and external ears;
- Family Colubridae: The largest family of snakes worldwide, with 304 genera and 1,938 species. This is not a natural grouping, but a catch-all for serpents that are not easily assigned to other families. The familial name was crafted by the German naturalist Nicolaus Michael Oppel in 1811, in his book Die Ordnungen, Familien und Gattungen der Reptilien als Prodrom einer Naturgeschichte derselben, or The Orders, Families, and Types of Reptiles, from the Latin noun colluber, a general reference to snakes, signifying that the family was to include the common, run-of-the-mill (and usually non-venomous) species.
- Genus Pantherophis Fitzinger, 1843 (North American Ratsnakes): Herpetological authorities (Utiger et al., 2002) recently divided Elaphe into eight Old World genera, transferring all New World Elaphe to a separate clade outside the Old World species. The generic epithet Pantherophis Fitzinger, 1843, was resurrected for most North American species. Later authorities (Burbrink and Lawson, 2006) demonstrated that the New World Elaphe should be included with the New World Lampropeltini and are not closely related to Old World Elaphe. However, the genus Pituophis Holbrook 1842 renders Pantherophis a paraphyletic group. The name Pituophis, being one year older than Pantherophis, would normally have priority over the clade name, but — for sake of convenience — the name Pantherophis has been retained as a temporary measure while additional analyses are carried out. Nine North American (north of Mexico) species are presently recognized; scalation (skutellation) details reported in the following are derived primarily from a single authority (Schultz, K-D, 1996), supplemented with materials from two other authorities (Tennant, 1998; Werler & Dixon, 2000); note that since all New World Pantherophis species have a divided anal scale, that character is not repeated in each of the species accounts described below:
- Eastern ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis, Holbrook, 1836): often called a black ratsnake, inasmuch as it tends to darken at maturity; found from Georgia eastward, and north to Vermont and southern Ontario; possibly a subspecies of Pantherophis obsoletus.
- Baird’s ratsnake (Pantherophis bairdi, Yarrow, 1880): weakly keeled midbody scales in 27, rarely 29 rows, 47-61 dark brown to black body crossbars or dumbbells 2-2.5 scales wide (patternless when 2 years old), 33 to 54 inches in length; coloration highly variable; juveniles typically light to dark gray ground color, adults typically orange-yellow, bright yellow, or darker salmon background color; ground color overlaid with four vague, longitudinal stripes extending from neck to tail at middle age; belly gray to yellow, darker caudally, 234-264 ventrals, 81-105 subcaudals; has dark spots and speckles on top of head but lacks spearpoint marking on dorsal crown in juveniles and adults; brown streak crosses prefrontals and postocular stripe extends from eye to angle of mouth; preys mostly on rodents, then birds; juveniles eat lizards; evenly tempered; oviparous, female lays 4-12 eggs that hatch in 60-83 days; hatchlings 12-14 inches (30-35cm) long; prefers semi-arid, rocky habitats.
- Great Plains ratsnake (Pantherophis emoryi, Baird & Girard, 1853): weakly keeled midbody scales in 27-29 rows; 197-236 ventrals, 47-76 subcaudals; up to 80 saddles or blotches dorsally, 24-36 inches in length typical, record 60.25 inches; common in central and eastern United States, from New Jersey to Nebraska, to Colorado, south to Texas, and into northern Mexico; similar to the cornsnake (Pantherophis guttatus), but drab by comparison; shares with the latter the fact that the first blotch on the dorsal neck bifurcates forward onto each side of the head, then proceeds forward over the crown, coming together as a conjoined spearpoint or remaining proximate but separate, as with the tines of a fork, between the eyes to form a marking that is prominent in juveniles and adolescents but that fades in middle age and is faint to invisible in older specimens; the species shares with P. guttatus the presence of undertail striping of two dark peripheral stripes from vent to tip of tail, and a dark eyemask that crosses the dorsal forehead, passes through the eyes and proceeds backward to and beyond the mouthline and usually onto the neck; dorsal blotches — on a background of light gray — are dark gray, brown, or olive-brown and may be so numerous and narrowed transversely as to appear as bands.
- Eastern foxsnake (Pantherophis gloydi, Conant, 1940): previously considered a subspecies of the western fox snake (Pantherophis vulpinus), now considered a separate species; frequents freshwater marshes of Lake Erie and Lake Huron, thus commonly found in Michigan, Ohio, and Ontario, and though once found in New York all native populations there are now believed to have been extirpated; threatened over most of its range due to habitat loss and collection for the pet trade; predator of small mammals and birds;
- Corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus, Linnaeus, 1766): 25-29, rarely 30-31 midbody scale rows weakly keeled dorsally, smooth laterally; 203-240 ventrals, 47-76 subcaudals; oviparous, lays 5-25 eggs that hatch in 60-75 days, hatchlings 8-14 inches (20-35 cm) long.
- Texas ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoletus, Say, 1823): 25-27 (rarely 23 or 29) midbody scale rows weakly keeled laterally, strongly keeled dorsally; 218-246 ventrals, 63-90 subcaudals; lacks spearpoint marking on dorsal crown of head, as first blotch on neck bifurcates forward onto nape of neck then fades on reaching parietal skutes; usually 1-3 small dark spots on crown of juvenile, lost in adult; juvenile eyemask narrow, crossing forehead, passing through eyes, extending back to but not beyond mouthline, lost entirely in adult as dorsal head darkens to uniformly dark gray; typical adult 42-72 inches long, record 86 inches; mate in April or May, producing clutch of 5-20 nongranular white eggs 1.625-2.75 inches long, laid in hollow logs, stumps, decaying vegetation, manure piles, hatching in August or September, hatchlings 10-16 inches (25-41 cm) long;
- Slowinski’s cornsnake (Pantherophis slowinskii, Burbrink, 2002): long believed to be an intergrade subspecies of the Corn Snake (P. guttatus) and Great Plains Ratsnake (P. emoryi), and recently elevated to species status; medium-sized, grayish-brown with large, alternating, chocolate-brown blotches often bordered in black, a spearhead marking on the head, a maize-marked belly (checkered black and white); though similar to the Western Rat Snake (P. obsoletus), the dark bar that runs through its eye extends through the jawline onto the neck while that of the Western Rat Snake stops abruptly at the jawline; nocturnal and secretive, is an excellent climber and often arboreal, and thus is rarely encountered by humans once past adolescence; in temperament similar to the Great Plains Rat Snake (P. emoryi), which relies on camouflage for defense and rarely bites; preys on small mammals and birds, employing constriction and consumed. Presumably, it follows an activity pattern similar to other rat snakes: hibernate through winter, breed in the spring, and lay eggs in the summer; known from isolated portions of southeastern Arkansas (Drew County) and considered rare.
- Central ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides, Duméril, Bibron & Duméril, 1854): 25-27 (rarely 29) midbody dorsals; 227-258 ventrals, 70-92 subcaudals;
- Western foxsnake (Pantherophis vulpinus, Baird & Girard, 1853): adult without conspicuous head markings; juvenile with dark eyemask from eyes across forehead, through eyes backward from eye to angle of jaw; adult and juvenile boldly blotched on ground coloration of yellowish to light brown (ground color lighter in juvenile); belly yellow, strongly checkered with black; oviparous, lays 7-15 eggs that hatch in 35-65 days, with hatchlings 12-14 inches (30-35 cm) long; adults 36-54 inches in length typical, record 70.5 inches;
Note in the current species list, above, that no subspecies are listed. One may presume this state of affairs is only temporary, and that this list will be broadened to include a number of subspecies as it is subjected to several revisions over the coming months and years. For those used to the older nomenclature for the Texas ratsnake, the following notes are applicable:
- Genus Elaphe: This genus was named by the Austrian zoologist Leopold Joseph Franz Johann Fitzinger (1802-1884) in 1833 at the age of 31. The etymology of the name appears to derive from the Greek word ελαφος “elaphos” = stag or hart, and according to one authority (Schulz, 1996, p. 13) likely was chosen because many species in the genus display, at some time in their development, a marking on the dorsal head resembling a stag’s horn. Our Texas rat snake does this as a juvenile, but the pattern fades at maturity into a uniform gray or orangish brown.
- Species obsoleta: The specific name obsoleta was first described by the American naturalist Thomas Say (1787-1834) in 1823; the etymology of the word, insofar as it applies to this strictly New World species is obscure. Five subspecies are presently recognized.
- Subspecies lindheimeri: The subspecies name was assigned by Baird & Girard in 1853, in honor of the German-American naturalist Ferdinand Jacob Lindheimer, who is credited with collecting the first specimen for scientific purposes in New Braunfels, Texas.
Anatomy: in process
Behavior: in process
Common Names: in process
Distinguishing Characteristics: in process
Distribution: in process
Physiology: in process
Mythology: in process
Similar Families: in process
Links to older Internet articles by this author:
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 15 May 2007, Fort Worth TX, Joanne P.
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 18 May 2007, Lake Austin TX, Karen S.
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 4 May 2007, Austin TX, Robyn C
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 4 May 2007, McKinney TX, Jennifer B.
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 4 May 2007, Tomball TX, Ms. M.
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 30 Apr 2007, Austin TX, Todd H.
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 22 Mar 2007, Flower Mound TX, Anne J.
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 2006, Lake LBJ TX, Gail K.
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri, juvenile) 8 Oct 2004, Austin TX, Richard D.
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 14 Aug 2004, Austin TXm D.Y.
- Juvenile Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) Oct 2003, Frisco TX, S.M.
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 12 May 2003, Eustace TX
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) 4 Jun 2002, Round Rock TX
- Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) Jul 2001, Round Rock TX
- Juvenile Texas Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta lindheimeri) Temple TX
References to Scientific Articles, Papers and Books:
- Blanchette, Ida M. Alvin, Texas. Handbook of Texas Online (Texas State Historical Association).
- Cates, J. 2012. Index to North American Snake Families, Genre, & Species.
- Conant, R., and J. T. Collins, 1998. Reptiles and Amphibians — Eastern/Central North America, Third Ed. Peterson Field Guides. Houghton Mifflin Co.
- Greene, H. W., 1997. Snakes: the Evolution of Mystery in Nature. University of California Press.
- Schulz, K-D. 1996. A Monograph of the Colubrid Snakes of the Genus Elaphe Fitzinger. Koeltz Scientific Books.
- Tennant, A.,1998. A Field Guide to Texas Snakes, Second Ed. Gulf Publishing.
- Werler, J. E., and J. R. Dixon. 2000. Texas Snakes. University of Texas Press.
- Wickler, W. 1968. Mimicry in plants and animals. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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