Pantherophis Spiloides – Grey Rat Snake

Pantherophis Spiloides - Grey Rat Snake information and overview

Pantherophis spiloides, commonly called the grey rat snake or the pilot snake, central ratsnake, midland ratsnake or chicken snake is a large nonvenomous snake found in the Central and Eastern United States. Especially in the Northern United States, the snake has an almost identical appearance as the eastern rat snake and the western rat snake. Identification may only be possible based on the location where the snake is found.

Size

As is true for all rat snake species, the grey rat snake is a relatively long snake species. On average, adults reach a length of 40 to 72 inches (100-180 cm). The longest ever recorded grey rat snake more than 92 inches (247 cm) long. On average, grey rat snakes are slightly smaller than western rat snakes and slightly longer than eastern rat snakes.

Description

The appearance of grey rat snakes differs based on their geographic location. Throughout their entire range, juvenile snakes have a light grey, almost white base color with several dark brown or black blotches over their body.

Pantherophis Spiloides - juvenile Grey Rat Snake brown blotches on grey snake
A juvenile grey rat snake with the characteristic round eyes and brown blotches. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

In the southern areas of their range, especially in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida, adult grey rat snakes keep the juvenile patterns. Often, the initially brown colors turn into grey.

Grey rat snake found in Northwestern Florida near Tallahassee
An adult grey rat snake in Northwestern Florida. Photo: Andy Wraithmell

In the northern part of their range, the body of the grey rat snake turns completely black. Their belly is light grey or white with some small grey and black blotches. Some adult snakes in the north can still show some traces of the juvenile patterns, even when fully grown. Especially on the eastern and western edges of their range, the grey rat snake often interbreeds with the western or eastern rat snake and a definitive identification can become almost impossible.

Pantherophis Spiloides - Grey Rat Snake with brown patterns found in Tennessee
A relatively dark grey rat snake found in Tennessee. Photo: Lisa Zins

Diet an Habitat

The grey rat snake is an excellent climber, and is therefore most often found in dense forests. It uses its climbing skills to raid bird’s nests for their eggs or juveniles, it is often found in forest areas. The rat snake is also a great swimmer and often seen in small rivers or streams. The rat snake is a constrictor snake. When hunting, it bites into its prey, holds onto it and rolls its flexible body around it and suffocates the prey. Even though small mammals like mice and rats are its main prey, it also hunts other snakes, chipmunks, squirrels, eggs and birds.

Pantherophis Spiloides - Grey Rat Snake information and overview
A grey rat snake. Photo: Will Brown

Bite

As all other rat snakes, the grey rat snake is a nonvenomous snake. It does not pose any risk for humans. Even though it is a large snake, it does not posses the power to suffocate a person. The first defense mechanism when the snake is threatened is to either escape quickly or roll up in a kinked way. If the first line of defense does not deter the attacker, it makes its tail vibrate. This form of mimicry of the rattlesnake has to potential to scare off some potential predators.

If the snake feels cornered or is handled, it can release a foul smelling musk and put up a tough fight. In this state, the snake will not hesitate to bite repeatedly. The snake’s teeth are not very large and a bite is not dangerous for humans. We still do not recommend handling fully grown adults.

Geographic range

The grey rat snake can be found in the central United States, east of the Mississippi river from Wisconsin, Michigan and Northeastern New York south to Louisiana and Florida. It can be found in the following U.S. States: Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan, New York, Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Maryland.

The following map shows the ranges of the three Pantherophis species (eastern rat snake, western rat snake, gray rat snake) in the United States:

Pantherophis Rat snakes in the United States range
Source: Peterson Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians of Eastern and Central North America, 4th edition

Scientific classification of Pantherophis spiloides

  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Genus: Pantherophis
  • Species: Pantherophis spiloides

This species was formerly classified in the genus Elaphe as a subspecies of Elaphe obsoleta.

Pantherophis Spiloides – Grey Rat Snake

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