Licking the Edge of the Taxonomic Fight Club: The Eastern Rat Snake of the Gray Variety (FIGHT!)

Pantherophis alleghaniensis, the Eastern (gray) rat snake;
Lowndes county, Georgia (28 April 2012).

Following up on our last post’s taxonomic mayhem regarding Cottonmouths in Lowndes county, Georgia, here’s another one that tends to ruffle feathers of would-be taxonomists these days: The Eastern rat snakes of south Georgia. Oh boy, this one really gets people going… Buckle up; we’re off to crazyland:

Once upon a time, the grayish-colored rat snakes of southern Georgia were considered to be Pantherophis spiloides. Thanks to genetic studies, however, it now seems that these south Georgia rat snakes are, in fact, Eastern rat snakes — Pantherophis alleghaniensis. In Florida, Eastern rats snakes tend to be yellow (or even orange in extreme south Florida) with black stripes. Locally, we call these Yellow rat snakes. Heading north, the yellow pattern fades out to a mottled grayish/brownish pattern. These are regionally called Gray rat snakes, but they’re really just grayish/brownish Eastern rat snakes. Further north, beyond even Georgia, the Eastern rat snakes take on a fairly dark dorsal pattern. Regionally, those have are called Black rat snakes, but, again, they’re just blackish Eastern rat snakes. As you head west, however, you break into Pantherophis spiloides (the Central rat snake) territory and eventually to Pantherophis obsoletus (the Western rat snake). In the Eastern portion of the United States, however, you’re in Pantherophis alleghaniensis territory — whether they’re orange, yellow, gray, or black. P. alleghaniensis is indeed a variable species by region.

That’s not too confusing, right? Welp…

In southern Georgia, where the grayish Eastern rat snakes scratch out a living, it makes sense that they’re generally referred to as “Gray rat snakes,” right? They are, after all, sort of gray-ish. Sometimes more brownish or tannish, to be honest, but some are indeed very, very gray. Well, the only problem is that P. spiloides, the Central rat snake, is more also commonly known as the “Gray rat snake”… P. spiloides doesn’t technically range into this part of Georgia (this region is dominated by P. alleghaniensis), but it just so happens that P. alleghaniensis in southern Georgia looks a hell of a lot like P. spiloides. They’re both “grayish” rat snakes and both generally called “Gray rat snakes,”, but the ones in southcentral Georgia happen to be Eastern rat snakes, not Central “Gray” rat snakes. Alas, confusion! Gah!

Still, that’s not tooooo confusing, right? Grab a beer, take a seat, and buckle up, hominid. It gets worse:

There’s also a remaining motley crew of naysayers who don’t buy the whole Pantherophis genus classifications… Heaps of herpers (usually older ones) still prefer the elder Elaphe genus designation — with a whole variety of species and subspecies ranks. For example, Elaphe obsoleta spiloides is another ranking for the Gray rat snake (like P. spiloides). So too is Elaphe spiloides. Some folks think the south Georgia Easterns rats are Elaphe spiloides; others think they’re Elaphe obsolete spiloides. And if you don’t think you’re having heaps of fun reading this, try reading all this aloud. It’s mayhem. Carnage. Taxonomic cray-cray. Your worst nightmare of a drunken debate in a bar.

Regardless of which Latin terms you may (or may not) prefer, folks still stubbornly insist that the grayish Eastern rat snakes of southern Georgia must (“By God, They Must!”) be Gray rat snakes because of their visual appearance. Thus, even folks who have adopted the current and dominant Pantherophis taxonomy will still argue that these rat snakes must be Gray rat snakes, Pantherophis spiloides, and not Eastern. For reasons not quite understandable to me, these people often have very strong opinions about such designations. If you disagree with them, prepare to be bashed in the face with a barrage of personal-testimony ethos plays (because “what do genetics show? I’ve been there, man“).

As for myself, I’m no geneticist or professionally trained taxonomist, so I simply try to adhere to the current, dominant tides of taxonomy that seem to carry the most scientific merit. We live in an era of change and of discovery. Thus, we live in an era of uncertainty and growth. I’m okay with that. When I photographed the snake featured here in April of 2012, I totally thought it was a Gray rat snakes — Pantherophis spiloides. Since then, I learned more about our understanding of these snakes and have upgraded my mindset, if you will, to Pantherophis alleghaniensis for the south Georgia rat snakes I worked with and photographed.

I had a guy on iNaturalist actually call me a “coward” for updating my classification tags of my south Georgia rat snake photographs from P. spiloides to P. alleghaniensis. In his view, I was a coward who buckled beneath the bullying might of the bullshit science people. Heh. Like I said, people go batshit crazy over New World rat snake classifications. Bat-sheet-cray-cray.

Anyhow, I won’t engage in a fight with anyone about this taxonomical debate anymore. If somebody wants to call them Gray rat snakes, have at it, lad. You can call them “Tinseled Pine Cone Snakes with a Twist of Lemon” if you’d like. I’m fine with that. As for myself, I simply go with the Eastern rat snake, Pantherophis alleghaniensis, and possibly with a healthy, swanky mix of DNA from across the region and across the genetic spectrum.

Indeed, the single best lesson I learned in my two years in Valdosta, Georgia, a region dominated by intergrades, hybrids, and transition zones between species, is that taxonomical divisions rarely play as binaries in the real world we live in — a real world dominated by regional terminologies and exceptions to the rule. I also learned that there are some debates you simply shouldn’t touch unless you’re doing the gene studies yourself (or are highly literate in such areas of study) because people can be frakkin’ mental about this stuff.

Eastern rat snakes very well may be calm, cool, and collected serpents, but the people who like to call them this or name them that can be absolutely mental. As for myself, I’ll continue to follow along, and I’ll continue to update my own thinking in response to the work of those who know far better than myself what makes these snakes tick and how they are genetically related. Call me a coward!

Next up? Another cool South Georgia serpentine variant — though not one that carries a rage-fueled taxonomic debate (thank god).

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