Rat Snake

Photo: Jodie Owen

Scientific Name:  Elaphe obsoleta (Pantherophis alleghaniensis)

Classification:  Nongame

Abundance:  Common throughout the state

Species Profile (PDF)



Rat snake (Photo by Jodie Owen)

Rat snake from coastal plain (Photo by Jeff Hall)

Juvenile rat snake (Photo by Jeff Hall)

This large, nonvenomous snake derives its common name from its food preference—rodents. Also known by such local names as “black snake,” “pilot black snake,” and “chicken snake,” it is one of North Carolina’s most familiar and conspicuous reptiles, although it is sometimes confused with the smaller and faster-moving black racer (Coluber constrictor).

The rat snake varies in color depending on location. In the mountains and Piedmont, rat snakes are glossy black as adults, with grayish mottled bellies and considerable white on the chin and throat. In the southeastern Coastal Plain, rat snakes are greenish with four dark longitudinal stripes. Individuals from most of the inner and northern Coastal Plain may be predominantly black, greenish or intermediate. Their relatively slender bodies are shaped like a loaf of bread in a cross section; the flat belly meets the sides of the body at an angle, unlike the more cylindrical bodies of most snakes. This body shape is believed to be an adaption for climbing. The rat snake is an excellent climber. Regularly reaching 5 to 6 feet in length, the rat snake is one of North Carolina’s longest snakes, surpassed only by the eastern coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum).

They are constrictors, which means they suffocate their prey. In addition to eating rodents, rat snakes feed on birds, birds' eggs and small mammals.

They mate in late May, early June. Female rat snakes lay between 6 and 28 eggs mid-summer. Eggs hatch about 65 to 70 days later. Juvenile rat snakes look nothing like adults, with bold, blotched pattern on a gray or light brown background. The pattern fades as they age.

Learn more by reading the Rat Snake species profile.

The rat snake is classified as a nongame species and has no open season. It is unlawful for any person to take, or have in possession, any nongame mammal or bird unless that person has a collection license or is collecting fewer than 5 reptiles or fewer than 25 amphibians that are not endangered, threatened, or special concerned species.

The rat snake is non-venomous. Because of their climbing abilities and shelter-seeking habits, rat snakes enter buildings more frequently than any other North Carolina snake. Large shed skins found inside buildings are usually from rat snakes. Most specimens will bite if handled roughly or otherwise restrained, but a bite from even a large specimen is no more severe than a briar scratch. The economic value of these snakes as agents of rodent control is well known to many farmers, and some intentionally place them in barns, corn cribs or even human dwellings for that purpose, regarding them as “good” snakes. They have also gained a “bad” reputation because of their habit of eating the eggs and young of chickens and other domestic fowl, and of entering bird boxes to feed on eggs and nestlings.

Many people fear snakes and worry for the safety of people and pets when snakes are present. In reality, snakes are shy creatures that pose little to no threat to us when left alone. Snakes are an important part of our environment, keeping populations of pests such as rodents, slugs, and insects in check. Plus, snakes are a food resource to other animals such as foxes, raccoons, bears, eagles, hawks, and owls. 

When someone encounters a snake, usually the person and the snake are both caught off guard. The best plan is to leave the snake alone and give it plenty of space. In most cases, given time, the snake will move out of the area on its own. Like all reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded, meaning that their internal temperatures follow that of the ambient temperatures where they are found. On a cool day, a  snake encountered basking may not yet have the energy to move away from you, so it may require more time and warmer temperatures before it can retreat. 

The Wildlife Commission does NOT send people out to trap and remove snakes. The best plan for citizens of North Carolina is to learn about snakes and alter habits to minimize negative interactions, and in the process, learn to coexist with snakes.

Snakes can be difficult to monitor and survey, as most of them possess great camouflaged patterns and remain hidden within certain habitats.  One way biologists monitor corn snakes is through the use of artificial cover materials such as plywood boards, roofing tin, concrete blocks, and other materials. Plywood tends to be better at attracting smaller snake species, while larger snakes are more often found under tin.  Snakes will seek out these artificial shelters for thermoregulation and as a result, this method is particularly successful during spring and fall.