Great Plains Ratsnake

Pantherophis emoryi

great_plains_rat_snake.jpg

Image of a Great Plains ratsnake
The Great Plains ratsnake has numerous brown blotches along the body, a brown eye stripe, and a spear-point marking atop the head.
Tom R. Johnson
Other Common Name
Great Plains Rat Snake; House Snake; Emory's Rat Snake
Family

Colubridae (nonvenomous snakes) in the order Squamata (lizards and snakes)

Description

The Great Plains ratsnake is seldom seen. It has numerous brown blotches along the body, a brown eye stripe, and a spear-point marking on top of the head. This medium-sized snake has a light gray or brownish-gray ground color, patterned with dark brown blotches bordered with black. A dark brown stripe between the eyes extends through each eye, along the sides of the head, and onto the neck. There is a spearhead-shaped marking on top of the head. The belly is white with bold, squarish black markings, and black or dark gray stripes under the tail. Like other ratsnakes, Great Plains ratsnakes vibrate their tails when alarmed and will bite to defend themselves, but the bite is harmless.

Similar species: The prairie kingsnake is more common in our state. Its markings are different, including two rows of smaller blotches along the sides; a backward-pointing, arrowhead-shaped mark on top of the head; and a yellow belly with rectangular brown markings. It lacks the brown stripe passing through the eyes and along the sides of the head.

Size

Length: 24 to 36 inches.

Habitat and conservation

Active from late March to late September, this species is generally nocturnal, spending daylight hours hiding under rocks, logs, and boards, or underground in small mammal burrows. It is mostly found in open woodlands, rocky, wooded hillsides, and possibly near caves inhabited by bats. One researcher found this species overwintering in a cave.

Foods

Great Plains ratsnakes hunt in the night for rodents, bats, and small birds.

Great Plains Ratsnake dist map
Distribution in Missouri

Mainly wooded areas in the southern half of the state and along Missouri River counties, excluding southeastern counties.

Status

The Great Plains ratsnake used to be classified as Elaphe guttata emoryi, but scientists have renamed it. Among nonscientists, this snake is also called "house snake," for its being commonly found around abandoned farm buildings. Some books refer to this species as Emory's rat snake.

Life cycle

Breeding apparently occurs soon after these snakes emerge from their overwintering retreats. Only one clutch, containing 3 to 30 eggs, is laid per season, usually between late June and early July. Hatching probably takes place in September. The young look similar to the young of western ratsnakes (formerly called black rat snakes or black snakes).

Human connections

Snakes have always captured the imaginations of humans. In myth, religion, and story, snakes perform the role of seducer, sneak, guardian, healer, killer, and transformer. On a more practical level, snakes help humans by consuming many rodents that are injurious to our interests.

Ecosystem connections

Snakes use organs in their tongues and mouths to detect odors and track their prey. As nocturnal predators, they must depend on something other than sight to interpret their surroundings. Many mice and other small mammals are active at night, too, and similarly have a well-developed sense of smell.