You are what you eat. The bat falcon of Central and South America is so named because it's a bird that hunts flying mammals. So it goes with the "rat snakes." Found throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, these reptiles often serve as au naturale rodent exterminators.
Beyond that, they've made a mark on the pet trade, too; some dedicated hobbyists write four-figure checks to procure rare or unusual rat snake specimens. From their husbandry to their evolution, here are 10 cool things that make rat snakes so wild.
1. Rat Snakes Belong to the Largest Snake Family
If there's a random snake you're trying to ID and it's not a boa, python, viper, rattlesnake or some venomous elapid (the family cobras, mambas and sea snakes belong to), then there's a good chance it's a colubrid.
Colubrids slither across every continent except Antarctica. Thousands of species are known, including milk snakes, kingsnakes, garter snakes, racers, flying snakes (yeah, those are a thing) and our new pals, the rat snakes. While some colubrids — like the African boomslang — carry dangerous venoms, you'll be happy to know rat snakes don't.
2. Old World and New World Rat Snakes Are Different
"New World" rat snakes dwell in North America, where they're distributed from coast to coast, and from Mexico to Canada. Commonly sighted in barns, the reptiles can grow rather large: An eastern rat snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) measuring around 8.4 feet (2.6 meters) long was once documented in Massachusetts.
Not to be outdone, the Oriental rat snake (Ptyas mucosa) of southern Asia grows up to 9.8 feet (3 meters) in length. Also called the dhaman, it's one of the better-known "Old World" rat snakes.
A 2007 study argued that the common ancestors of all living rat snakes — in both hemispheres — probably evolved over 34 million years ago somewhere in tropical Asia. However, genetic data shows that New World species are more closely related to kingsnakes (another group of American colubrids) than to Old World rat snakes. Experts are still grappling with their affiliations today.
3. The Corn Snake Is a Popular Pet
Ah, the corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus). An all-American rat snake, this colorful critter occupies New Jersey, Kentucky, Florida, the Gulf Coast and plenty of spots in between. Wild "corns" usually incorporate shades of orange, yellow and brown into their color schemes — with some adorable checkering on the belly. But in captivity, it's another story.
Corn snakes are docile, reasonably sized and easily cared for. Because of all this, they're a go-to beginner's species for novice reptile-keepers.
Breeders have developed more than 800 different color morphs, including many you'd probably never see in the wild. Just know that while "normal-looking" corns come cheap, some of the rarer breeds may cost $1,000 or more — each.
4. The King Cobra Is a Rat Snake Killer
Capable of slaying an elephant with one bite, the 10- to 18-foot (3- to 5.4-meter) king cobra is the longest venomous snake alive. The monarch feeds on its brethren: King cobras specialize in devouring smaller snakes. Old World rat snakes, including dhamans, are among its regular targets.
5. Rat Snakes Scare Predators With "Buzzing" Sounds
Through frequent sheds, rattlesnakes develop a series of interlocking "rattles" on their tails. When shaken, they emit a threatening "buzz" that tells other animals to stay away from the venomous reptiles.
New World rat snakes — such as wild corns and the western rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) — sometimes play copycat. To keep predators at bay, they vibrate their tails against dry grasses or leaf piles. The resultant buzzing noise makes them sound like genuine rattlesnakes, which gives attackers pause. Deception can be a matter of life and death out in the wild.
6. Rhinoceros Rat Snakes Have "Horns"
Full-grown rhinoceros rat snakes are naturally bluish-green. The Asian reptiles stand out — to animal-lovers, at least — because of the weird, scaly appendages that protrude from the tips of their snouts. Superficially, these things look a bit like rhino horns, but their function is unclear.
7. Rat Snakes Lay Eggs
Garters, northern water snakes and a few other colubrids give birth to live young. Rat snakes are a bit more conventional, laying eggs in clutches of nine to 20 (depending on the species).
8. They Constrict
Besides rodents, many rat snakes will eat lizards and amphibians, particularly when the snakes are young. Birds are fair game too; in North America, the eastern rat snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis) is a notorious raider of bird houses that can make an easy meal out of eggs, chicks or both. Like a lot of nonvenomous serpents — and a few venomous ones, besides — rat snakes constrict their prey.
9. The "Beauty Snake" Eats Bats
And it's exactly as advertised. Native to China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and other parts of southern Asia, the beauty snake (Elaphe taeniura) is a slender animal with olive to yellow scales underlain by darker patches.
Capable of growing 8 feet (2.4 meters) long, it's found in rainforests as well as caves (where the species gobbles up wild bats). Reptile hobbyists all over the world now keep these guys, which feed readily and make attractive captives.
10. Rat Snakes Benefit Farmers
Left unchecked, rats and other rodents can devastate crops while inflicting structural damage on the barns they hole up in. By keeping the mammals in check, native rat snakes perform a great service for farming communities. As a nice bonus, their appetites can slow down the spread of harmful diseases rodents carry.