By Bonnie Long from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality
As winter fades away and the earth heats up with springtime sun, many hibernating critters begin to emerge from their long winter sleep. Be on the lookout for reptiles seeking warmth as you explore!
Did you know that some snakes hibernate? A common North American group of closely related species are the Black Rat snakes. They often spend cold winters in dens with other species of snakes, including Copperheads. Unlike Copperheads and Rattlesnakes, Black Rat snakes are non-venomous and very helpful to humans, especially in barns and around gardens because they naturally control pest populations.
Black Rat snakes are a type of snake called constrictors. This means they squeeze their prey until it suffocates. Black Rat snakes usually feast on small rodents, including mice, rats, chipmunks, and even moles. Sometimes they will find and eat frogs, small birds and bird eggs, swallowing them whole.
Black Rat snakes like to live in the woods, and they are great at climbing trees. You might also find these snakes in barns, sheds, fields or gardens if there aren’t any woods nearby. They are also good swimmers. The Black Rat snake is very common throughout most of the eastern United States. They grow to be very long, usually between 3 feet and 6 feet, but the world record for longest snake in North America was more than 8 feet long! Adults are black with a white underbelly, and babies are gray with brown patterns on top.
Don’t squash that snake!
Frequently, Black Rat snake hatchlings–baby snakes–are mistaken for Copperheads because the pattern on their scales is somewhat similar. However, Copperheads have a more rusty coloration that Black Rat snakes. If you look closely, you can also see that the head shape is more triangular for Copperheads and more rectangular for Black Rat snakes. The shape of the markings on their backs also differ; Copperheads have hourglass-shaped markings (although they can be irregular, as in the one below), whereas Black Rat snakes have more rectangular blotches.
Black Rat snakes are very shy and usually slither away quietly if left undisturbed. Unfortunately, fear of snakes leads to people killing them, or destroying the habitat, and the snakes have no where to go. Many of them are run over by cars on roads or killed if they get too close to a house.
Other predators of Black Rat snakes are hawks, owls, minks and sometimes other snakes. By using their tongue to smell the air, snakes can detect predators and prey before they see them. Since these snakes don’t have venom to defend themselves, they use mimicry instead. If the snake feels threatened, it can rattle its tail under leaves to sound just like a Rattlesnake.
But you don’t have to be fooled. Next time you see a snake, don’t panic! Maintain a safe distance and try to take a photo. You can submit your photos to the Great Nature Project and get help identifying what you saw! Other helpful, vermin-eating snakes in North America include Black Racers, Milk snakes, and Garter snakes. None of these are venomous, but just like anything else with jaws can bite if it feels threatened.
Submit your photos of snakes and other living things to the Great Nature Project. You can keep track of your observations and get help from other people to identify what you saw. Browse or search the photo stream to see what other people like you observed. Create an account to your share your photos of plants and animals.
More to learn and do at National Geographic Education
For Teachers: Ever heard of a snake migration? Share this article with your students.
What is it that causes the seasons, anyways? Can your students explain why? Try this activity: The Reason for the Seasons (35 minutes) Grades 2-5, Ages 7-11.
Bonnie Long is a graduate of Virginia Tech and holds a B.A. of Geography, with a focus in Geospatial and Environmental Analysis. She currently works at the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality and enjoys exploring the Texas Hill Country in her spare time.