Les Harrison is the UF/IFAS Wakulla County Extension Director
Invasive species are encroaching on Florida’s natural plant and animal inhabitants. From the Tropical Soda Apple, to Burmese pythons and Cuban treefrogs, the indigenous population of flora and fauna are suffering; therefore, protecting the species native to our beloved state is of the utmost importance.
Like spiders and scorpions, non-poisonous rat snakes are considered beneficial to the environment, so next time you reach for the shovel, use it to scoop the snake up and transport it elsewhere, instead.
Unlike south Florida, Wakulla County is fortunate not to have a population of exotic reptiles in the wild. There are rat snakes, a native constrictor, but they lack the bad reputation of pythons.
Rat snakes are members of the Colubridae family, which contain more than fifty member worldwide. Despite the wide dispersal of its members, there are many similarities in this family.
Rat snakes are constrictors which suffocate their prey. Much like the larger African and Asian constrictors, rat snakes are relatively slow ambush predators, which wait for a meal to arrive in range of their striking ability.
When the target species is within reach, rat snake seizes it in a split second strike and holds it firmly in its mouth. The future meal is secured by the snake’s hook shaped teeth and powerful jaw muscles.
This constrictor quickly twirls it body around the exposed parts of the victim and squeezes. Every movement allows the snake to tighten its grip and gradually smother the prey.
Rat snakes primarily eat birds and rodents, but will dine on small animals, insects and toads when the top menu selections are not available. Juvenile rat snakes eat insects and small amphibians.
There are three rat snake species in Wakulla County. Red, gray and yellow rat snakes are all good climbers, ascending almost vertically on local tree trunks.
Wild bird chicks and careless young squirrels are favorite appetizers for these arboreal reptiles. Any nest within an easy climb is likely to be raided by this snake.
It is not rare to find rat snakes living in suburban areas near bird feeders. They hold motionless near the feeder until the bird arrives and is stationary for a certain attack, possibly mistaking the snake for a branch or vine.
While this snake’s teeth are excellent for gripping, they are not useful for chewing or ripping. To consume its meal, the rat snake unhooks its jaw hinges and swallows its meal whole and intact.
The swallowing process may take an hour or more, assuming there are no interruptions. The meal will last for days or weeks, with the snake not eating again until hungry.
Rat snakes can be found in a variety of environments in summers like 2015 with plenty of potential meals disbursed widely. Hay bales to azalea flowerbeds may harbor these native, non-venomous constrictors.
Dry years normally find these snakes closer to water sources, where some of their prey reside. Very rarely are these snakes anything more than an occasional nuisance.
Luckily, rat snakes grow to only about six feet in length. If they grew to the length of African or Asian constrictors, we might be on the menu.
To learn more about Rat Snakes in Wakulla County, contact your UF/IFAS Wakulla Extension Office at 850-926-3931 or http://blogs.ifas.ufl.edu/wakullaco/