Q. Why did the Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) cross the road? A. It didn’t.
I spotted a five-foot long ratsnake as I was photowalking along a dirt trail at Meadowood Recreation Area on 08 May 2014; the snake froze with its head near the edge of the road, as shown in the following photo.
Common rat snakes tend to be shy and, if possible, will avoid being confronted. If these snakes are seen and confronted by danger, they tend to freeze and remain motionless. Source Credit: Black Rat Snake, Smithsonian National Zoological Park.
The snake remained motionless for a while and I was able to take lots of close-up photos, like the one shown below.
When I tried to get a better view, I must have moved too close for the snake’s comfort because it backed up …
… and startled me with several of its defensive behaviors.
As with all our native snakes the eastern ratsnake would rather flee than fight. However, if the snake feels cornered it will bite. In an effort to appear more formidable, the eastern ratsnake distort[s] the shape and size of its head when threatened. Another defensive strategy involves the ratsnake raising the front portion of its body off the ground in a[n] ‘S’ shape coil. This makes the snake look more formidable and increases the snake’s effective striking range. Source Credit: Eastern Ratsnake, Virginia Herpetological Society.
Did you know ratsnakes vibrate the tip of their tail in leaf litter when they feel threatened? The sound is like a rattlesnake rattle — it made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up!
As a general rule, snakes can strike up to half the length of their body. 90% of the rat snakes I’ve encountered are incredibly grumpy, and when they feel threatened … they tend to … try and bite you. Source Credit: Ashley Tubbs, Graduate Assistant at Texas A&M University, comment in Project Noah Facebook group.
I prefer to get as close as possible to the subject when photographing wildlife. It’s clear I crossed the line between comfort and discomfort for both the snake and me. Fortunately I wasn’t bitten! Live and learn.
Editor’s Note: A recent experience at Huntley Meadows Park misled me into thinking Eastern Ratsnakes have a surprisingly small “comfort zone”; in retrospect, it appears that encounter was atypical. Please stay tuned for a follow-up post entitled, “Who’s on deck?”
Related Resource: Western rat snake, a Project Noah spotting by Noah Ranger “Maria dB.” “The snake was not happy with me photographing it and it lunged at me after a few shots but stayed in the tree.”
Copyright © 2014 Walter Sanford. All rights reserved.