Righteous Rat Snakes

American rat snakes are as varied as they are fascinating, and a cool selection of these animals is sure to impress more than a few customers.


I was sitting outside my store the other day, eating lunch and watching the turtles lazily paddle around their lagoon. As a family sauntered out of the store, I heard the mother say, “I can’t believe they have so many rattlesnakes—and such a variety of colors. Is that even legal?”

This kind of reaction happens all the time. The snakes the woman was referring to are rat snakes—not rattlesnakes. Rattlesnakes are illegal in California, and even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t carry them. The publicity of a customer getting bitten would not be worth it. However, rat snakes are perfectly legal. They are even desirable.

Rat snakes have, in the past few years, undergone a major taxonomic revision. I like to joke that classification is under almost constant revision, because, after all, taxonomists need the work. However, the truth is that genetic readings provide an amazing portal into the evolution of species; and often, under this kind of scrutiny, what seems true is not.

Until about a decade ago, most rat snakes worldwide belonged to the genus Elaphe. Now, they have been subdivided into several genuses, with Elaphe reserved for some of the Asian species, and most North American species given the resurrected name Pantherophus. Why do I care? I take the time and effort to label all of my animals with common and scientific names. You might say it classes up the joint. But, more to the point, it elevates my store—and yours, if you choose to follow suit—above the big-box stores. It shows a level of sophistication and care your customers will respect, and cuts down possible confusion.

Corn snakes (P. guttatus) are by far the most popular snake on the pet market, combining beauty, durability, simplicity of care, and a curious and gentle nature. They also come in a staggering variety of color morphs, both naturally occurring and captive-propagated. Of the naturally occurring variations, I am particularly fond of the “Miami” phase, which has deep red saddles against a slate gray background—this has also been selectively bred in captive populations to even further exaggerate these contrasting colors. I also like the Okeetee, a South Carolina strain, which demonstrates the extremes of red and orange in both the saddles and background, outlined in vivid black.

Of the myriad captive-produced variations, I am a big fan of the motley corns, with a broken pattern that might result in all kinds of interesting permutations as it matures; striped corns, in which the saddles are replaced with longitudinal stripes; and the ghost corns, whose washed-out appearance has a subdued pastel beauty.

One note about corn snakes, in particular, and rat snakes, in general: babies are born with totally different patterns than those that will later emerge. As you become familiar with raising these animals, you will probably be able to develop a bit of a predictive ability, but remember that your customers probably will not, and they will need to be assured that the changes will be for the better.

While corn snakes are the most popular of American rat snakes, they are not the only ones that make good pets. Rat snakes run the gamut in terms of disposition, with the P. obsoletus group—yellow, Texas, black and the admittedly beautiful Everglades rat snakes—being fairly demonic in their willingness to defend themselves. On the other hand, the gray rat snake (P. spiloides), with its beautiful ashy color and markings that resemble oak leaf patterns, has a very gentle personality. Similarly, the Great Plains rat snake (P. emoryi) looks like a melanistic corn, and at one time was considered a corn subspecies; it’s another lovely creature. Fox snakes (P. vulpina) are a relatively obscure rat snake that should deserve wider acclaim, but they are seriously endangered in their ranges, and thus virtually nonexistent in the trade. One hopes that inspired amateurs might redouble efforts to both conserve their habitats and work with zoos and conservationists on breeding projects.

Probably my favorite of all the Pantherophus is the Baird’s rat snake. Once thought to be a subspecies of the obsoletus group, it has now been elevated to its own species, and rightly so. In fact, I will not be surprised if, down the line, it gets its own genus. The babies fairly resemble the coloring of an obsoletus, but not the personality; they are calm and taciturn. Their pattern fades as they grow, with dull, longitudinal lines—again, resembling an Obsoletus. The individual scales are gray, but between each scale are vivid yellow and orange sub-colors, giving this snake a unique and subtle beauty. If that isn’t enough to sell it, the fact that this snake is relatively unknown in the trade keeps its price on the low end. 

Of course, America does have a few other rat snake genuses. Bogertophus subocularis, the Trans-Pecos rat snake, is a Southwestern specie that rivals the Baird’s for beauty and personality, with an outstandingly strong adult saddle pattern of black against a yellowish-tan background. What really sets the Trans-Pecos apart, though, are its eyes. As its species name suggests, the eyes are bulgy and low-set against a delicate face, and as the snake matures, the irises become distinctly blue. There are a few captive-produced genetic morphs that are even more beautiful.

A few of the American rat snakes may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but still deserve mention. The greenish rat snake (Senticolis triaspis) is a hardy and very pretty snake native to Arizona. Highly prized by hobbyists and rarely seen in collections, they are primarily the pervue of seasoned snakekeepers. On the other hand, the chicken snake (Spilotes pulatus) is the largest and most intimidating of the American rat snakes, often exceeding eight feet in length and possessing a disposition that will make one think twice about casually opening its cage. It is a Central and South American snake, also found on a few Caribbean islands. A beautiful beast dressed in yellow and black, it is one of those snakes that seems to the newcomer that it simply must be dangerously venomous. I have found, with juveniles, a little patience and tolerance of pain will eventually yield you one of the most impressive and docile animals you could imagine.

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.

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