ID Guide to RATSNAKES Found in the USA! (11 species)

There are 11 types of rat snakes that live in the United States.

Types of Ratsnakes that live in United States

 

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 the United States 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 the United States!

 


#1. Gray Ratsnake

  • Pantherophis spiloides

Common United States Ratsnakes

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults range from 42 to 72 inches in length.
  • Coloration is variable but is most often plain black in northern populations. There may be red, white, or yellow flecking on the scales.
  • Southern snakes are medium gray to pale brown with distinct brown or gray blotches.

 

Look for Gray Ratsnakes in the United States in trees!

 

They are excellent climbers and often hunt and spend time in trees. Growing up, I used to see them all the time in a large walnut tree in our backyard! They occupy various habitats, including pinelands, stream banks, swamps, marshes, prairies, and agricultural areas.

gray rat snake range map

They’re also spotted near barns and old buildings since these places provide them access to their favorite food, which is rodents.

 

Like other rat snakes, this species is an active hunter and a powerful constrictor. Adults typically feed on small mammals, birds, bird eggs, lizards, and frogs. They suffocate larger prey using their strong coils but often swallow smaller prey immediately.

 

If disturbed, Gray Ratsnakes either flee for cover or remain motionless in an attempt to avoid detection using their excellent camouflage. They may also vibrate their tail, producing a rattlesnake-like sound in dry leaf litter. Finally, when they feel cornered or are grabbed, these snakes will strike their attacker as a last resort.

 


#2. Eastern Ratsnake

  • Pantherophis alleghaniensis

Common Ratsnakes species in United States

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults range from 42 to 72 inches in length.
  • Coloration is variable and ranges from plain black to dusky gray, brown, or yellow with black or brown stripes. Juveniles may have strong black to dark brown blotches.
  • Stout body with a relatively long and narrow head.

 

These rat snakes are found in many habitats in the eastern United States.

 

Look for them in agricultural areas, forests, and swampy woodlands. Make sure you look UP, as Eastern Black Snakes are arboreal and are often found in trees!

eastern rat snake range map

They’re also often seen in and around barns and old buildings because of the abundance of rodents, which they kill using constriction. Birds and eggs are also on the menu, with the latter being swallowed whole and broken once in their throat!

 

Eastern Ratsnakes are active during the day and night, especially just after sunset. They travel considerable distances and are often killed on roadways.

 

If disturbed, Eastern Ratsnakes will first try to slither away. If they feel cornered, the next step is to flatten their heads and lift the front of their bodies off the ground in an s-shape to appear more threatening and increase their striking range. They may also hiss from this position and bite if grabbed.

 


#3. Red Cornsnake

  • Pantherophis guttatus

red cornsnake

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults range from 24 to 72 inches in length.
  • Coloration is orangish-brown with black-bordered orange, red, or brownish blotches and a spear-shaped pattern on the head and neck.
  • The underside usually has a black and white checkerboard pattern which may have some orange.

 

Cornsnakes got their name because of their frequent presence near corn storage areas due to an abundance of rodents that also hang out at these locations. However, some sources maintain that they were named for the pattern on their underside, which sometimes looks like kernels of bi-color corn.

red cornsnake range map

Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society

Red Cornsnakes occupy various habitats in the United States, including overgrown fields, pinelands, swamps, and agricultural areas. They are sometimes found in suburban areas if it’s near other favorable habitats. Make sure you don’t only look on the ground, as they’re known to ascend trees, cliffs, and other elevated surfaces.

 

Red Cornsnakes prey on rodents, lizards, frogs, birds, and their eggs. These snakes are constrictors and squeeze and asphyxiate larger prey, but small prey may be swallowed whole without constriction.

 

These rat snakes are generally quite docile and are the second most popular pet snake (behind Ball Pythons) worldwide. However, if disturbed in the wild, they may vibrate their tail and lift the front of their body into an s-shape to appear more threatening. If grabbed or pinned, it’s not out of the question for them to bite their attacker, but they typically calm down quickly when being held.

 


#4. Great Plains Ratsnake

  • Pantherophis emoryi

great plains rat snake

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults range from 36 to 60 inches long.
  • Coloration is light gray or tan with dark gray, brown, or green-gray blotching down its back.
  • A spear-shaped mark on the head and stripes on the sides of the head that meet to form a point between the eyes.
  • Also sometimes called Emory’s Rat Snake, Brown Rat Snake, or Chicken Snake.

 

Great Plains Ratsnakes can be found in the United States in open woodlands, rocky, wooded hillsides, semi-arid regions, and agricultural areas. Being nocturnal, they are hard to find and spend most of their days in old mammal burrows or under rocks, logs, boards, and other cover objects.

great plains rat snake range map

This species prefers to prey on rodents but may also consume small birds, lizards, and frogs. They are also known to hunt bats and are sometimes found near caves hunting them! Like other rat snakes, they’re constrictors and use their strong coils to suffocate prey before eating it.

 

When disturbed, the Great Plains Ratsnake will curl up and vibrate its tail which sounds remarkably like a rattlesnake when done in dry leaf litter. Though they’re considered non-aggressive and docile, they may strike if grabbed.

 


#5. Western Ratsnake

  • Pantherophis obsoletus

western rat snake

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 to yellowish with black, brown, or gray blotches.
  • Also commonly called the Texas Ratsnake!

 

Western Ratsnakes occupy various habitats in the United States, 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.

 


#6. Eastern Foxsnake

  • Pantherophis vulpinus

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults range from 36 to 72 inches in length.
  • Coloration is light golden brown, yellow, or bronze with dark brown or reddish-brown blotches down the back and alternating spots down the side.
  • Look for a short, flattened snout.

 

Eastern Foxsnakes are most often found in the United States in grasslands, prairies, and farming areas. They much prefer wet areas as opposed to dry and are typically spotted on the ground. But don’t be surprised if you see one of these snakes in a tree, as they are strong, agile climbers.

 

These snakes are typically diurnal, but they may hunt at night during extremely hot weather. They often hide under rocks, logs, or in burrows to regulate their temperature. During the winter, they hibernate below the frost line in underground burrows.

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 that have crossed over.

 

Like other rat snakes, this species preferred prey is rodents, but they also consume birds, bird eggs, and frogs. They are constrictors and use their coils to asphyxiate prey.

 

If disturbed, Eastern Foxsnakes coil and vibrate their tail, producing a rattlesnake-like sound in dry leaves. If grabbed, they will often release a foul-smelling musk which is thought to smell like a Red Fox, giving them their name.

 

Eastern and Western Foxsnakes are closely related and look the same. In the past, they were even considered the same species before eventually being split apart. The best way to determine the correct species is by location, as they are divided by the Mississippi River.

 


#7. Western Foxsnake

  • Pantherophis ramspotti

western fox snake

 

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 the United States.

 

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.

 


#8. Baird’s Ratsnake

  • Pantherophis bairdi

bairds rat snake

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults range from 25 to 44 inches in length.
  • Coloration is orange, bright yellow, or dark salmon with four stripes from the neck to the tail.
  • The underside is gray to yellow, darkening near the tail.

 

This ratsnake is named for American zoologist Spencer Fullerton Baird, the first curator of the Smithsonian Institution. They are excellent at climbing trees, old buildings, and cliff faces.

 

Baird’s Ratsnakes ONLY live in the United States in southwest Texas!

 

In general, they are tough to find in the wild. You can try looking in semi-arid rocky habitats, including desert scrub, pine forest, wooded canyons, grass uplands, road-cut bluffs, and desert lowlands. Habitats with plenty of rocky cover, rock crevices, caves, and sheer canyon walls are preferred. They’re occasionally found sheltering in crevices and eaves of ranch outbuildings.

 

They’re considered to be a non-aggressive and docile species. While they are listed as a species of least concern on the IUCN Red List, they are protected in Big Bend National Park.

 


#9. Trans-Pecos Rat Snake

  • Bogertophis subocularis

trans pecos rat snakes

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults are 36 to 54 inches in length.
  • Coloration is yellow or tan with black or dark-brown H-shaped markings down the back.
  • Large, light-colored round eyes with black pupils and pink tongue.

 

This highly nocturnal species is rarely spotted during the day in the southwest United States. They occupy desert flats, brushy slopes, and rocky outcrops and prefer areas with deep rock crevices to shelter and hibernate.

trans pecos rat snake range map

Trans-Pecos Ratsnakes primarily feed on rodents but will also consume birds and lizards. In addition, individuals have been reported to eat bats occasionally.

 

These snakes are incredibly docile, non-aggressive, and easy to handle. Because of these features, they’re often raised in captivity.

 


#10. Green Rat Snake 

  • Senticolis triaspis

green rat snake

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults may grow up to 72 inches in length.
  • Coloration is green to olive green.
  • Slender body, elongated head, and light yellow underside.

 

Green Ratsnakes are primarily terrestrial even though they are excellent at climbing trees. Look for them in oak woodlands, savannas, mesquite semi-desert grasslands, Sonoran desert scrubs, rocky canyons in southern Arizona. They prefer areas with rocky, east-facing slopes and spend much of their time under the talus.

green rat snake range map

These snakes are most active in the morning and late afternoon but are occasionally spotted on roadways in the evening. Their diet includes small mammals, birds, bird eggs, lizards, and bats.

 

When disturbed, these snakes will typically freeze in an attempt to avoid detection. They’re considered to be non-aggressive.

 


#11. Slowinski’s Corn Snake

  • Pantherophis slowinskii

slowinskis corn snake

Identifying Characteristics:

  • Adults may grow up to 72 inches.
  • Coloration is grayish-brown with large, alternating chocolate-brown blotches, which are often bordered in black.
  • Spear-shaped marking on the head, dark bar through the eye and down the jawline onto the neck.

 

Slowinski’s Corn Snake wasn’t recognized as a species until 2002!

 

They were long believed to be a hybrid of the Red Cornsnake and the Great Plains Ratsnake. The species was named for American herpetologist Joseph Bruno Slowinski.

slowinskis cornsnake range map

Credit: Virginia Herpetological Society

Slowinski’s Corn Snakes are hard to find in the United States since they are nocturnal, highly secretive, and spend a lot of time in trees. Because of these facts, relatively little is known about their behavior, habitat, and population trends. So if you ever see one, consider yourself lucky!

 

These rat snakes are believed to do most of their hunting in trees and feed primarily on small mammals and birds. They’re constrictors like other ratsnake species, and they use a combination of ambush hunting and active foraging.

 


Do you need additional help identifying snakes?

Try this field guide!

 


Which of these rat snakes have you seen before in the United States?

 

Leave a comment below!

 

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