The rat snake is a beneficial neighbor on Daniel Island!
While jogging along the Wando River leisure trail not too long ago, I came upon a young woman frozen in her tracks.
A few feet in front of her, in the middle of the trail, was a rat snake in the final stages of doing what rat snakes do best. He was fully wrapped around a marsh rat and squeezing the life out of his next meal. The woman appeared troubled and asked if we should try to save the rat or if “that’s just nature.” The rat had seen its last day regardless of what we might have done, and “that’s just nature” was my reply. After all, the snake had caught his dinner fair and square and deserved the meal. Secondarily, I am much fonder of having rodent-eating snakes around than the rodents that they are after.
If one wished to insult another person, “rat” or “snake” might be good word choices, depending on the situation. It is unfortunate that one of the most beneficial creatures on Daniel Island has a name with such connotations. Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata is a bit cumbersome, though, so our friends will most likely have to endure their common name in general conversation. Regardless of what we call them, rest assured that these hunters are out there day and night, keeping our natural environment in balance and our houses and garages free of many would-be rodent intruders.
Rat snakes are common from the Midwest through the East, and they range as far north as southern New England. There are populations on other continents as well, and there is a bit of a debate currently taking place about how closely related these snakes may or may not actually be to our own. The snakes on the South Carolina coast are generally yellow rat snakes, but black and grey varieties can be found in the state as well. The yellow variety is identifiable by four dark stripes running lengthwise down a greenish or yellowish body. These animals are non-venomous and generally harmless to humans. I say generally, because any wild animal with teeth can bite if threatened or cornered. Besides being mostly harmless, they primarily eat rats and mice, so let them do their thing! They are also great climbers and will eat squirrels, birds and bird eggs at times.
Information sources vary, but an average lifespan of 10-15 years in the wild and longer in captivity seems to be the consensus for the species. Lengths of three to five feet are common with specimens occasionally over six feet. Rat snakes will mate and then lay eggs in some protected place to hatch and grow up on their own. The parents provide no protection and have no interaction with their young.
It is that time of year when the snakes are out and when we encounter them most frequently. According to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, we have 38 species of snakes in the state. Of those, only six are venomous. Whether one is able to identify a particular kind of snake or not, the sensible thing to do is give it some space and leave it alone. It is probably not venomous, but some species look a lot alike. Regardless, you will be safe and the snake can go about its business. And the “business” of snakes is generally something we should all appreciate.