Living Sanibel: Yellow Rat Snake
(Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata)
After the black racer, the yellow rat snake is the second most commonly seen snake on Sanibel and Captiva. It is an impressive predator. Growing to lengths of seven feet, with a circumference about the same size as a man’s wrist, this snake can be quite startling when you happen upon one. It is non-venomous, however, and aside from a nasty bite, will not cause any real harm to a person. Nonetheless, it should never be picked up or handled.
The rat snake is a true constrictor. It seizes its prey, then coils its muscular body around the animal, slowly constricting the life out of it through suffocation. The yellow rat snake is one of the leading predators of invasive black and brown rats and is therefore very beneficial to wildlife. It also preys upon birds, frogs, lizards, eggs, insects, and small mammals. Extremely arboreal, the yellow rat snake can often be spotted climbing into trees and up onto porches, rooftops, and rafters. It has nowhere near the speed of the black racer on the ground.
The yellow rat snake is preyed upon by hawks, ospreys, eagles, and owls. It is also eaten by raccoons, bobcats, and otters. Unlike the black racer, the yellow rat snake takes readily to humans, and after it becomes socialized, seldom bites. Various sub-species and color variations extend the range of the yellow rat snake across most of the eastern U.S., as far west as western Texas.
Southern Black Racer
(Coluber constrictor priapus)
The most commonly seen snake in this region, the southern black racer is also one of the most common in Florida. One reason for the frequent sightings is that the black racer is a diurnal hunter, so it is out at the same time when most people are working in their yards, biking, or doing other activities that might bring them into contact with this snake. The black racer has one of the most extensive ranges of any North American snake, extending to the Canadian border, west to Washington, and east to Maine.
The black racer is nonvenomous but will inflict a nasty bite if grabbed. It will rattle its tail in the grass or dry leaves when cornered or threatened, imitating the eastern diamondback rattlesnake. It cannot be domesticated and should not be kept as a pet. It will continue to bite its captors throughout its life span and repeatedly bash its head against a glass enclosure until it seriously injures itself.
Despite its scientific middle name (constrictor), the black racer is not a true constrictor. It tends to chase down, bite, then suffocate or crush its victims on the ground rather than coiling around them in true constrictor fashion. Its diet includes brown and green anoles, insects, moles, birds, frogs, eggs, smaller snakes, and rodents. It is preyed on by red-shouldered hawks, owls, and larger snakes.
The black racer is extremely quick and agile, making it difficult to catch. When spotted crossing a trail or road, it vanishes into the understory with amazing swiftness.
This is an excerpt from The Living Gulf Coast – A Nature Guide to Southwest Florida by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.