The rat snake is not a single snake; there are several species of rat snakes. The species has been divided into "old world" and "new world" category, and the snakes in them belong to different genera. The "new world" snakes are considered to have a calmer temperament than their old world brothers.
These snakes are distributed widely over the Northern Hemisphere. Not only in the wild, but many of these snakes are popular as pets, which has expanded their range. The corn snake is one such type of rat snake which is known for its beauty and docile nature.
This species contain some of the longest snakes in the world; a full-grown can reach a length of over 6 feet. some species might grow up to 10 ft in length. The newborn hatchings are only about 9 - 11 inches. The body color of an adult ranges from shades of brown to yellow, and sometimes, even orange.
The newborns have a grayish color, covered with brown blotches, and also might have an arrow-like pattern on their head. These snakes change color as they grow older, and their patterns become more subdued, while the blotches become almost indistinguishable.
Furthermore, the color on the top of the head of an adult rat snake changes to slate gray or blackish, while it is white underneath.
Different species have different ranges, and varied habitats like abandoned buildings and barns, rocky hills, riversides, and forests. These are most commonly seen in the suburban areas.
As the name itself implies, their primary diet is mice and rats. This is the reason that these snakes are commonly seen in fields and country homes. As they pose no threat to humans, farmers often favor or protect them as they are a natural form of rodent control.
However, if the population of the rodents is scarce, then they are known to eat small birds, bird eggs, frogs, squirrels, etc. Some Incidents have been reported where they have climbed trees as high as 30 feet to get to a bird's nest.
These are constricting snakes, meaning that they kill their prey by suffocating them before swallowing. The suffocation is caused by coiling its body very tightly around the prey. They can also swallow a live prey, larger than their mouths. The presence of strong acids in their stomachs help break down and digest the food.
They might even strike,though their bite is hardly serious. When threatened, they freeze in a "kinked" position and expel some musk. They might also coil up, raise their head, strike continuously, and shake their tail against the ground which makes a buzzing sound. This sound may cause one to mistake them for rattlesnakes (Go for the tail at such times!)
These are mostly nocturnal and come searching for their food at night or during the twilight hours. They have highly-developed sensors that allow them to sniff their prey's scent. In the colder regions, these snakes are known to hibernate, while in tropical regions, they are seen soaking up the sun. They are great climbers and climb on brick walls and poles.
A new research has revealed that though these snakes are said to be completely non-venomous, some may possess a little venom. Anyway, their venom is not toxic to humans, and there have been no serious cases recorded so far. Though the bite is not harmful, it can be painful.
They reach sexual maturity at 2 - 3 years of age, depending on the species. Some hibernate in the winter and when they wake up in spring, the mating season starts. They start looking for a mate. A male tracks the female by the scent that is expelled from its musk glands.
When more than one male pursues a female, the males fight in a "combat dance". One male crawls over the other and then they both wrap their bodies around each other. Raising their heads, each tries to push the other down on the ground. The winner pins down the loser, and then lets it go.
The winner and the female mate, and then the female lays eggs in the summer. The eggs are laid in clutches, which can number anywhere from 4 - 30 eggs. The young ones hatch in about 1 - 2 months and are not taken care of by the parents.
Rat Snakes as Pets
As these are not harmful for humans, they are very often kept as pets. They can be tamed very easily and are excellent pets when bred in captivity. Corn snakes are considered so easy that they can be kept by first-timers too.
However, it is important to remember that the personality of snakes can change over a period of time (especially while shedding), and hence, one always has to be very careful around them. If bred and kept in captivity, these snakes can live up to 25 years; while out in the wild, the average life span of the rat snakes is 15 years.