The unbearable lightness of snakes

February 2, 2012 • 11:24 am

Here’s a rat snake (genus Elaphe) climbing a brick wall in Florida, using the mortar to help it along.

As Greg Mayer commented when seeing the video,”Great stuff! Rat snakes are arboreal, and the ventrolateral edges of their body are at right angles (like a slice of bread), which lets them catch on to and grab hold of irregularities with their sides.

I’ve attached a picture showing the body shape from Conant, R. & J.T. Collins. 1998. A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America. 3rd ed., expanded. Houghton Mifflin, Boston .”

Greg adds, “Also, note that the people in the video think the snake may be going after a lizard on the shutter; given the size of the snake, I think this is not likely (young rat snakes eat lizards, adults not so much).  The lizard is probably an anole, but it is seen too briefly and from too far away to tell for sure.”

h/t: Matthew Cobb for the video

27 thoughts on “The unbearable lightness of snakes

  1. The formerly cosmopolitan genus Elaphe has been split. The Elaphe spp. found in Florida now belong to the genus Pantherophis, to the best of my knowledge. Most of the North American ratsnakes do now, in fact belong to Pantherophis, except for the trans-Pecos ratsnake, which has belonged to the monotypic genus Bogertophis for some time.

    1. I accidentally hit “post comment” too soon, I meant to add that this specimen looks like the yellow rat snake, or chicken snake. And apparently, Bogertophis is no longer considered monotypic.

  2. From my time in Florida, I can say that while a lot of people are pretty casual about snakes, there’s a significant proportion who are convinced that the whole state is pullulating with highly venomous ones just desperate to kill anyone they see. Unfortunately, in the small town I spend time in I have picked up many black racers and a couple of corn snakes and even a small ringneck that bear the distinct signs of having been beaten to death with a stick. Two racers in one half hour walk one day.

  3. One of the scary aspects is the escape of exotic venomous snakes. We have few native venomous snakes in the USA, and all are easily recognizable. I can picture approaching a black mamba under the impression that, because it is not a rattlesnake, it is, therefore, harmless.

    1. What are the regulations for keeping exotic venomous snakes in the US? A black mamba, while surrounded by myths, IS a big, highly venomous and aggressive snake. It does however give plenty of warning by rearing up producing the most ferocious roaring hiss.

      1. The rules vary from state to state, and among localities within states. There have been recent cases near where I live involving a gaboon viper, king cobra, spitting cobra, green mamba, and many others. Needless to say, none of these snakes are appropriate pets.

  4. I remember seeing a Fox snake (E. vulpina) performing an ascent like this up the trunk of a large elm on the edge of a woodlot near Windsor. No doubt this was in search of nestling birds, but it was magical to watch.

  5. I love the anti-rat snake defense of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers. They remove the bark around their cavity (they are the only species in the area to build a cavity in living long-leaf pine trees). This makes it harder for the snakes to get purchase. And then they drill holes that sap runs from. Apparently the rat snakes find this sap unpleasant. I have seen a hungry snake climb a tree only to fall to the forest floor when it encountered the little woodpecker’s defenses.

  6. I thinks it’s just going up to adjust the TV antenna. Wait, I just gave away my age.
    Sorry to hear about the dead ring-neck. My native West Virginia is (literally) crawling with them, and they come in a surprising array of colors, but always with the neck ring in a lighter color that matches its belly. Ring-necks are popular with little boys because they are so tame, and don’t object to being handled, especially if you catch bugs to feed them.

  7. I’ve seen a Coronella austriaca climbing a perfectly vertical wall here in Italy. The wall wasn’t as smooth as the wall in the video, so the climbing was probably easier – but it’s still pretty impressive stuff: an animal with no arms or legs climbs better than a man. Why was the C. austriaca climbing? To escape from me, I’m afraid to admit: I had captured it to take some photos, but don’t worry – I left it free and unharmed, of course.

  8. I love rat snakes!

    Living in Oklahoma we had a nest of sparrows in a gap at the top of a set of brick pillars at the front of our house. One day we came home to see a rat snake working his way up the pillar and stretched against the house.

    We let him do his thing and the nest was empty in the morning.

    Also, we saw rat snakes in our trees moving along the limbs. Fascinating creatures.

  9. When I obtained my first red rat snake, they were Elaphe guttata guttata but, as jaxkayaker states above, most U.S. species are now Pantherophis guttatus (With a possibility that they will soon be 3 separate species: Pantherophis guttatus guttatus, Pantherophis guttatus emoryi and Pantherophis slowinskii).

    Climbing is nothing for these guys, mine can go right up the inside walls (sheet rock) of my house. If they climb up your leg, you can feel the sharp (I mean prickly sharp) scales moving along your skin. It’s like hundreds of little pitons all working in unison).

      1. In the SSAR list you link to, Pantherophis alleghaniensis, Pantherophis obsoletus, and Pantherophis spiloides were previously included in a more broadly defined Pantherophis obsoletus (or, previously, Elaphe obsoleta). These names do not in any way correspond to earlier definitions of subspecies; e.g., all have black populations and so “black rat snakes” are divided among the three.

    1. If you’re going to recognize those three lineages at the species level, they are Pantherophis guttatus, Pantherophis emoryi, and Pantherophis slowinskii – no subspecies, so no trinomials.

      Also, the split isn’t a future possibility, it was published in 2002.

  10. I’d also like to comment on laws banning owning or interstate trading of large exotic snakes. The Interior Secretary just announced two weeks ago that Burmese pythons, northern and southern African rock pythons and the yellow anaconda can no longer be imported into the states or traded interstate. This was done to protect the Everglades and other southern locales. I think they should be banned in the states with the problem only. If one of these guys escapes in Maine or Oregon, they will be dead as soon as winter arrives, so it isn’t a problem there. This is the government over reacting to a localized situation. /rant

    1. Southern African pythons in the highveld of South Africa can happily survive freezing temps. Even so, I think the problem is taking pythons across state lines

    2. If I recall correctly, the original proposal included several more species, but protests that some of them are good pet candidates and not invasive led to a shorter list being included in the final proposal.

  11. Wonderful vid!

    Several years ago I got a few pictures of a large blue racer, Coluber constrictor, about 5′ off the ground in the branches of a young mulberry in our yard. I’d been attracted by the racket the birds were making…

  12. It’s not just the cross-sectional shape of a particular species; snakes also use their belly scutes for traction. Or, as I like to say when showing snakes to visitors at the zoo: when you don’t have arms or legs, it helps to have a belly with dozens of fingernails.

  13. The way I see it, it’s a yellow rat snake (there are actually three types of rat snakes in Florida: yellow, gray and Everglade Rat Snake). These are interesting snakes because they keep the population of rodents low. See here:

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