Recognized Subspecies in VA: None
Size: 42 - 78 inches
Status: Least Concern
The Central Ratsnake is at the center of a long taxonomic debate. In the beginning, it was the “Common Ratsnake (Elaphe obsoleta)”, before genetic studies broke it into three species in the early 2000’s. These were the “Eastern Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis)” east of the Allegheny Mountains, the “Gray or Midland Ratsnake (Pantherophis spiloides) west of the Alleghenies, and the “Western Ratsnake (Pantherophis obsoletus) west of the Mississippi River. There has long been dispute, until the 2021 study merged the Eastern with the Gray to form the “Central Ratsnake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis)” and split the “Yellow Ratsnake (Pantherophis quadrivitratus)”.
In Virginia, our Ratsnakes are Central Ratsnakes, excluding the Corn Snake. This species can be found in pretty much any habitat, anywhere in the state. They are greatly beneficial, feeding on rodents, many of which are disease carrying pest. This snake can be defensive, or as placid as a tame animal. Though nonvenomous, bites can get infected, so they should be cleaned thoroughly with an antiseptic. This species can be found by flipping boards or tin, road cruising, or by scanning basking areas. Quite often I find this species while hiking in the forest.
This species, as adults, are often black with a white checkered belly. This species has a flat head, compared to the North American Racer, and white skin under their scales, which is sometimes visible. They are large snakes, the largest common species in Virginia. Juveniles start out gray, with darker gray saddles. They are quite spindly, but still often misidentified as Eastern Copperheads. This species will splay its head when threatened, given it the appearance of being triangular, like a Copperhead.
Similar Species: Juveniles are easily distinguishable from Eastern Copperheads, as Coperheads have bands and neonates have yellow tail tips. Juvenile Northern Watersnakes have bands down the upper parts of their body, and square blotches down the sides, without real saddles. Dark adult Northern Watersnakes are sometimes misidentified as Ratsnakes, but they have keeled scales and stouter bodies. By far the most common confusion is with the North American Racer. Juvenile Racers are similar in color to juvenile Ratsnakes, but their pattern for most of their upper half are ovular “slashes” versus the saddles of the Ratsnakes. Adult Racers have only white chins, taller heads, very large eyes, and often brown noses.
Maps and External Sources
This map from SnakeEvolution.org is a great projected range for the new taxonomic order. Note how it shows the radial integration of the species, and it does not seem to be as reflected on rivers as our prior understanding.
Herping Virginia encourages all naturalists to practice ethical, safe, and sustainable herping. The use of proper herping methods and techniques is beneficial to both wildlife and herpers. Visit the links below for more information.