ID Guide to RATSNAKES Found in Iowa! (2 species)

There are 2 types of rat snakes that live in Iowa.

Common Ratsnakes in Iowa

 

But before we begin, I wanted to define exactly what I mean when I say “rat snake.”

 

First, rat snakes are members of the family Colubridae, and most of the species in North America are in the genus Pantherophis.

 

Second, they are constrictors, and their favorite prey is rodents, such as mice and rats. As you can probably guess, this is how they get the name RAT snakes. 🙂 Because of their affinity for rodents, you can often find rat snakes in Iowa near barns and abandoned buildings where their favorite food tends to hang out.

 

Lastly, rat snakes are non-venomous and mostly docile, although they can become defensive when threatened or grabbed. In fact, certain types of rat snakes are some of the most popular snakes kept as pets.

 

Enjoy! I hope you learn how to identify the different types of rat snakes that live in Iowa!

 


#1. Western Ratsnake

  • Pantherophis obsoletus

Types of Ratsnakes found in Iowa

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults range from 42 to 72 inches in length though individuals up to 101 inches have been recorded.
  • Coloration varies. Adults can be completely black to gray to pale brown with black, brown, yellow, or gray blotches.
  • In Iowa, Western Ratsnakes are typically completely black.

 

Western Ratsnakes occupy various habitats in Iowa, including agricultural areas, dense woodlands, forested river valleys, and rocky hillsides. They’re excellent climbers and are found often in trees, and will frequently use cavities in trees for shelter.

western rat snake range map

Western Ratsnakes are active hunters and constrictors preying on small mammals, nestling birds, bird eggs, tree frogs, and lizards. They suffocate larger prey with their coils but often swallow smaller prey without constriction.

 

When disturbed, these snakes often freeze to avoid detection. If harassed, they will raise their heads and vibrate their tails to mimic a rattlesnake. And if they continue to be provoked or grabbed, they will strike their attacker as a last defense.

 

This species is susceptible to habitat destruction, fragmentation, and alteration. They’ve also been impacted by Snake Fungal Disease and are sometimes mistaken for rattlesnakes and killed.

 


#2. Western Foxsnake

  • Pantherophis ramspotti

Ratsnakes species that live in Iowa

 

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults range from 36 to 50 inches in length.
  • Coloration is gray, tan, or light brown with large dark brown or reddish-brown blotches down the length of the black and smaller blotches down each side.
  • The head is often rust or copper-colored with faded markings, and the underside is off-white or light-yellow with black checkerboard markings.

 

Western Foxsnakes occupy various habitats in Iowa.

 

Look for them in agricultural areas, grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands near water. They’re often found in or around barns and abandoned buildings where rodents and places to hide are abundant. They’re fairly bold snakes and will often travel near humans or other animals.

Foxsnake Range Map

Map depicting the approximate distributions of the two foxsnake mtDNA lineages as hypothesized from this study. The light shaded area represents the range of Pantherophis ramspotti, and the dark shaded area represents the range of P. vulpinus. The Mississippi River is a historical barrier yet either side has haplotypes from the other side (the hatched area).

The light shaded area represents the range of WESTERN FOXSNAKES, and the dark shaded area represents the range of EASTERN FOXSNAKES. The Mississippi River is a historical barrier, yet either side has individuals from the other.

 

These rat snakes primarily feed on rodents, birds, and bird eggs but will also consume frogs. They’re constrictors and use their coils to suffocate larger prey before consuming it. However, smaller prey may be swallowed whole without constriction.

 

If disturbed, Western Foxsnakes will often coil and vibrate their tail, producing a noise that sounds like a rattlesnake when it’s in dry leaves. They’re generally non-aggressive but may release a foul-smelling musk and strike if grabbed. Some sources indicate this musk is how these snakes got their name, which was thought to be similar to the scent given off by Red Foxes.

 


Do you need additional help identifying snakes?

Try this field guide!

 


Which of these rat snakes have you seen before in Iowa?

 

Leave a comment below!

 

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