Kin of the Corn

The most popular pet snake on the market is the corn snake—and it has been for decades. Boa constrictors and ball pythons have had their moments, but the steady winner is always the corn. They feature all the essential qualities a pet snake should: a beautiful, dazzling array of color variations, an easy going yet confident temperament and a substantial but non-intimidating size. Corns are also hardy, easy to keep and remarkably inclined to captive breeding. They are generally inexpensive yet generate enough dollars to take seriously.

That said, the corn snake—aka the red rat snake—is one of the many members of a diverse genus (Pantherophis) and an even more heterogenus group (if you examine all those loosely labeled as rat snakes). I have always argued that one essential trait that binds us herpophiles together is our love of the other. We are not content with the status quo; we want to know about other possibilities in this life, down to our increasingly mainstream—but still unusual—choice of pets. And so, today, I’d like to introduce you to some of the corn’s family members.

Warning: I am about discuss a genus of snake that is inherently confusing. There are a lot of species; their ranges overlap, their coloring can be deceptive and, depending on locality, many species are virtually indistinguishable. Get ready for a bumpy ride!

Pantherophis is an exclusively North American genus but it contains a wide variety of species. The closest relative to the corn is the great plains rat (P. emory). They are nearly identical in size, pattern and temperament, but lack the vivid coloring of the corn. They look like nothing so much as a black and white photo of a corn, and are nearly indistinguishable from a melanistic corn. Some people (myself included) prefer subtlety to flash, and this is the snake for them.

Further south, we find the grey—or oak—ratsnake (P. spiloides), a species similar to the great plains rat. It is distinguished by its tendency to keep the pattern it was born with, while almost all the others in this genus go through significant changes from hatchling to adulthood. These are beautifully patterned, although depending on where they are from, they can get lighter or darker as they age, to the point that toward the north end of their range they end up looking like black rat (P. obsoletus). Again, they have a placid temper and make lovely pets.

Not so with some of their compadres! I grew up in South Florida, and my exposure to eastern rats (P. alleghaniensis) was less than fun. The Florida and Everglades subspecies are beautiful (especially the Everglades, which can be a deep orange shade), but every rose has its thorn. These little devils bite as if it’s an obsessive hobby! In some parts of their range, they are virtually identical to the black rat. While I have no personal experience with their behavior, I can tell you all about the Texas rat.

The Texas rat is a subspecies of the black and, as its name might suggest, the largest of the American rats, often exceeding seven feet. It’s impressive, though not particularly attractive (its adult coloring suggests that it cannot make up its mind as to which rat snake it wants to be; there are hints of all of them in it) or nice (think Florida rat on steroids).

Here’s the weird thing: I have worked with a few albino morphs of the Texas, and they are stunningly sweet! In particular, the leucistic (snow white with virtually no pattern and coal black eyes) variation is just a little lamb in snake’s clothing!

There are a couple more Pantherophis members I should mention: the fox snakes (three separate species, for which I suspect its just a matter of time until they get their own genus) and the Baird’s rat (P. bairdi). My experience with fox snakes is that they are not particularly durable, quite secretive and not commonly captive bred. I would recommend avoiding them.

On the other hand, the Baird’s is my favorite Pantherophis of all. They are about the size of corns, with faint lateral stripes against a slate background. But what makes them so attractive (and startling) is their flash coloring. Where each scale meets the skin—and thus largely unseen—is a bright edge of orange. When the snake coils, as it inevitably will, you get a sudden show of color, beautifully contrasting with the gray. Personality-wise, Baird’s are on the corn end of the spectrum.

Let’s leave the Pantherophis group now but stay in Texas. One of the most charming of all the rats is the trans-pecos ratsnake (Bogertophis subocularis), a purely nocturnal Texas native with, as its species name indicates, oversized eyes that are—get this—pale blue!

It’s the only snake I know of that can make that boast. Its body color is an attractive tan with black pinstripes and it has a mellow disposition that’s sure to please any snake owner.

Finally, I’d like to mention the most impressive rat of the Americas, known variously as the chicken snake, tiger snake or spilotes (Spilotes pullatus). It ranges from Mexico through mid-South America, and while not regularly captive bred, it is still relatively common and importation is not threatening its status. It is not nice. It is very not nice. It is the largest of the American rats (up to nine feet!), but acts as if everything is a threat. Not a great pet for everybody, but it is beautiful (shiny black with lemon yellow spots and stripes in irregular patterns) and just… so… big. I like it a lot.

One day, many years ago, I was visiting a local wholesaler and happened in just as they were unpacking a large shipment. They had a really sweet lady who had been working there for years; her name was Rosy and she was raised in Colombia. She was busy sorting through the scorpions (she was no shrinking violet) and, at her feet, there was a large snake bag, writhing and heaving with considerable energy.

"What’s that?" I asked.

Rosy looked at me as if I was hurting her and said, "Oh, Señor. Es no good!"

"May I look?"

She nodded yes and backed away.

I cautiously opened the bag and gingerly peeked in. It was easily the biggest spilotes I had ever seen, every bit of nine feet. I didn’t even ask a price.

"I’ll take it. Don’t even bother taking it out."

For the first and only time, Rosy gave me a hug. And you know what? A year later, with a lot of work and time and patience and effort… it still wasn’t even close to tame.

But I loved that snake, as some of us are wont to do with that over which we can not dominate.

All this, and I haven’t even touched on the Old World ratsnakes, of which there are many—and they are fascinating. Another time, then.  PB

Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.