Hopefully this article will answer some questions you may have about three
“black” snake species that have been spotted on Nature Preserve lands and
enable you to identify and appreciate them. I have received several requests to
write this article, so I hope this helps.
The most frequently seen black snake in our area is the Black Rat Snake (Elaphe alleghaniensis).
The adult of this species is uniformly glossy black on the dorsal side with a white chin and throat. The belly is checkered black and white. The scales are keeled, meaning on close inspection there is a little raised midrib on each scale like the keel on a rowboat.
The body when imagined in cross- section has the shape of a loaf of bread or mailbox, that is rounded on the dorsal and flat on the ventral. The young are mottled gray and black looking totally different from the adults and develop the black coloration during the second year. These hatch from a clutch of elongated, leathery, white eggs that the female lays in rotten wood, compost, or organic mulch, sometimes in a tree cavity. Most
young adults are solidly glossy black, however some of the largest adults, if closely
examined, have traces of white or gray between the scales.
Rat snakes are quite at home in various types of habitats. From open country grasslands, brushy forest margins, swamps, and deep forest. Since the white chin is seen when the snake lifts it up, I have heard locals declare with absolute certainly that the snake they startled in the swamp, was indeed, a venomous cottonmouth moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorus, only seen in swamps from North Carolina southward, not found on the Delmarva Peninsula).
The Black Rat Snake is a wonderful climber and spends considerable time on branches in trees and in cavities searching for nests, young birds, and eggs. It is amazing to see one climb, with perfect ease, directly up the side of some large oak, the belly scales catching and gripping the smallest purchase on the bark, apparently flowing smoothly upwards. They do, however, sometimes fall and cause quite the excitement if they land on your lap while shelling lima beans. Just ask my wife. Additionally, the diet consists of frogs, birds, mice, squirrels, and rats.
This is the largest snake in our area. The largest one that I have accurately measured lived for many years in and around the feed room of my farm shed. Many times I would see him on a shelf or sill or slipping silently through a crack in the foundation seeking some unsuspecting mouse or rat. I could be certain that it was the same individual by
the large, well-healed scar on its side (probably caused at some point by contact with agricultural tillage implement). His shed skin measured 6 feet 10 inches long. When discovered while hiking these snakes move quietly away at a moderate pace to concealment. The only exception I have noticed to this is when they are mating, usually in May, when they are more likely to be aggressive. They just want to be left alone.
The second black snake that is frequently seen is the Black Racer (Coluber constrictor).
It really lives up to its common name “Racer” because when startled it moves at an amazing pace. In the space of a few seconds, it races away, often fleeing upwards through brush, bushes, and vines. Its coloration is also black, but duller flat black, sometimes with a bluish or gray cast. Their scales are not keeled and the body when imagined in cross-section is round. To me the neck is less well defined and the eyes have a more pronounced brow ridge giving them a somewhat sinister look.
The Black Racer uses its speed to capture frogs, lizards, and other snakes that it
feeds upon. I have witnessed a Racer pursue a five-lined skink as it fled up a fence
post, the chase terminating in one final strike that launched nearly 50% of its body
from the ground. Perhaps because I was a couple of feet away, the snake was not
successful that time. Twice in the last year, we have witnessed a Racer kill another
snake. One victim was a worm snake that the Racer had in its jaws. Struggle as
the little snake might, it could not escape and was swallowed. A second example
occurred just a month ago when I startled a Racer approximately 3 feet in length
that had just killed an eastern hog-nosed snake and was preparing to eat it. When
the Racer noticed me, it dropped its prey and sped away into the hedgerow. I was
only able to get a photo of the deceased juvenile hog-nosed.
I wondered if the Racer came back to eat the meal, however, it never did while I watched. Most snakes will not eat a food item that they find already dead, except perhaps for bird’s eggs.
Recently my daughter was walking the Post Oak Trail at the Blair’s Pond Tract when she saw what she thought at first glance to be a Black Rat Snake in the middle of the trail.
As she got closer, she noticed the chubby body, much thicker in proportion than either of the two black snakes previously discussed. Also, this snake did not flee but stood its ground, flattened its head, and coiled up hissing loudly.
If she would have gotten closer this snake would have struck repeatedly in a faux pas. This is a snake with an attitude with a capital “A”. Although harmless, it puts up a bluff in hopes of being left alone. The correct name is Hog-nosed Snake ( Heterodon
platirhinos), so named because the sharply angled tip of the snout turns upward. The normal coloration of this snake is mottled brown or yellowish brown and black which creates perfect camouflage in leaves or dead grass. Occasionally an entirely black, or melanistic phase, is seen.
This is what my daughter met up with in Blair’s Pond Woods. As farm boys we called any color variation a field viper.
The Hog-nosed snake feeds almost entirely on toads and does not climb as far as I know. It will eat salamanders, frogs, insects, and small mammals (Amphibians and Reptiles of Delmarva by James, Jr. and Amy White). I have discovered them underground in burrows that some other animal had dug. Once I uncovered one that had a toad nearly halfway swallowed. The poor toad was still alive and had inflated itself as much as possible trying to escape being eaten. Being young myself I took pity on the toad and rescued it, which I probably would not do today. Once about a year ago my wife and I were slowly cruising one of our farm roads in the golf cart and saw a Fowler’s toad hopping in a beeline as fast as it could muster. In less than a minute we saw the reason. A 24-inch-long Hog-nosed
Snake with its head held high was pursuing the toad. Hopefully the little toad escaped since we did not see the conclusion.
Each year I meet hikers on our trails that are needlessly terrified of serpents. One
confessed for this reason she never hiked except during the frigid winter months.
Hopefully if you take a few minutes to observe these identifying features, you will
learn to recognize and overcome that fear. All of our Nature Preserve snakes are
harmless and non-poisonous. They want nothing more than to be left alone.
Naturally like all our wildlife, they are protected. So, enjoy this unique part of Nature.
Special thanks to James F. White, Jr., for sharing his wonderful photographs.