Wild About Texas by Michael Price
As I have mentioned on more than one occasion, many times a common name for an animal can be misleading. However, the common name of a species of nonvenomous snake that inhabits this area is pretty straight forward. The common name for the Great Plains Ratsnake not only describes where it prefers to live, but also what it eats.
The Great Plains Ratsnake (Pantherophis emoryi) is a widespread and quite abundant species of terrestrial serpent that occurs throughout the entire state of Texas, save for a small pocket in the very northeastern portion of the state. With such a widespread range, the habitats that this animal thrives in can be quite diverse, ranging from the open prairies of the coastal plain, the thorn-scrub of the south, the grasslands of the panhandle, the juniper-strewn canyons of the Edwards and Stockton Plateaus, and the rocky portions of the Trans-Pecos.
The Great Plains Ratsnake, also known as the Emory’s Ratsnake, is one of three species of the ratsnake genus that occurs in Texas, and it is the smallest of the three. Adults average between thirty and forty inches, although the longest specimen on record was just barely over five feet in total length. As with all members of the ratsnake clan, this non-venomous snake has a slender build; a forty inch animal will barely have a circumference of a grown man’s thumb.
Subtly colored, the Great Plains Ratsnake has a dorsal coloration of varying shades of gray, with light gray usually being the norm. Along the dorsum is a single row of large darker blotches offset with a thin black border. There is also a row of smaller spots along the sides that alternate with the larger primary blotches. Both the primary and secondary blotches are colored the same, usually a dark brown color. However, certain individuals possess blotches that may have a shade of green or even rust to the ordinary brown. More often than not, there is a distinctive blotch-colored spear-point whose apex lies between the eyes. The belly is off white and is adorned with numerous black squares, almost giving the appearance of Indian corn and the dorsal scales are smooth. The large eyes, like other non-venomous snakes in Texas, have round pupils.
As the common name implies, this snake’s primary prey consists primarily of endothermic animals such as mice and rats. The young of ground-nesting birds are also consumed, as are appropriately sized lizards. Prey is subdued by constriction, but his method of obtaining prey does not mean that the food is crushed and bones are broken. It simply means that the serpent coils around the prey, and every time the food item exhales, the snake tightens its grip a little more until the animal asphyxiates. In actuality, this process, while sounding gruesome, causes a quick and relatively painless death to the prey item.
Like most other ectothermic animals, the Great Plains Ratsnake undergoes a brumation period during the coldest months of the year, allowing sexually mature adults to generate the sperm and eggs necessary for successful reproduction in the spring. Approximately thirty days after mating in late April to early May, females lay anywhere from 4 to 18 oblong eggs in a cluster that will hatch in late June to early July. The delicate hatchling ratsnakes are between 11 and 13 inches in length, and other than being generally lighter, resemble the adults in color and pattern.
Great Plains Ratsnakes are primarily nocturnal, meaning they are active during the nighttime hours. Many are seen crossing paved roads during their hunting forays. They are somewhat docile, and although a larger individual may nip in self-defense, the result is nothing more than superficial scratches. Most individuals never offer this strategy as a defense, and therefore many are collected and kept as pets. In fact, its closest relative is the Red Ratsnake, which is also known as the Cornsnake, a species of snake that is common in just about every pet store.