The Eastern Rat Snake (of the Everglades Variety), 10 November 2018

Pantherophis alleghaniensis, the Eastern rat snake;
Miami-Dade county, Florida (10 November 2018).

This past weekend, I slipped down to south Florida for a romp through the tangles and flats of the Everglades system — working my way through Big Cypress National Preserve, Everglades National Park, and a slew of fairly undeveloped areas adjacent to the formal parks. I’d also planned on doing a day in Coral Gables and South Miami for non-native lizard action, but an intense wave of storms thwarted my final act. No worries, though… The trip was still quite awesome. Consider this snake, for example: The Everglades rat snake!

The Everglades rat snake is simply the southern variant of the Eastern rat snake, Pantherophis alleghaniensis. There’s been much fuss about the taxonomy and classification of North American rat snakes in recent years. I covered the basics back in the 50 Shades of Rat Snake post last March, but here’s the quick summary: In the eastern portion of the United States, Pantherophis alleghaniensis features a range of base colors from north to south. We used to think of these as different subspecies (and in some cases as distinct species), but we now know that genetically they’re simply four variants of the same species (Pantherophis alleghaniensis).

  • Black rat snakes. In the north, Eastern rat snakes take on a black dorsal pattern and are generally known as “Black” rat snakes.
  • Gray rat snakes. Moving south into Georgia, the Eastern rat snakes are more blotched-gray. These are regionally known as Gray rat snakes (and occasionally as Oak snakes).
  • Yellow rat snakes. Throughout much of the Florida peninsula, the Eastern rat snakes are yellow with dark stripes running down the body (“Yellow” rat snakes).
  • Everglades rat snakes. Finally, in South Florida, the yellows run very deep and bold — ranging even into orange. These are the Everglades rat snakes.

In reality, however, these are simply four color variants of the same species from region to region, the Eastern rat snake — Pantherophis alleghaniensis. What confuses people is that the Central rat snake (Pantherophis spiloides) can also feature the same gray and black patterns, almost identically, in their respective ranges. Some folks still cling to a few of the older taxonomies, but I hold with the current Pantherophis alleghaniensis schema.

Anyhow, despite how you may want to classify them, this was my first “Everglades” rat snake. As amazing as it may be given all the time I’ve spent in the Everglades system, I had simply never encountered an Everglades rat snake in south Florida before this past weekend. It was a delightful discovery late at night on a quiet south Florida road.

From a distance, the snake looked quite similar to the Yellow rat snakes I’m used to in central Florida, but when I got closer, those yellows revealed themselves to be extremely dark and bold — with splashes of orange throughout. This was one hell of a beautiful serpent. Frisky and reactive, too. In central Florida, most of our Yellow rat snakes are fairly sedate, calm serpents (most, but not all). This individual, on the other hand, was quite ready and eager to react and defend itself. It puffed its neck a bit (a behavior I’ve never seen before in a rat snake) and even struck a number of times. It put on a hell of a good show.

I snagged a quick burst of photographs and left the rat snake to continue its evening hunt. As I’d soon find out, there was much more out and about in south Florida that particular night. Our next stream of posts will feature a variety of snakes observed in south Florida, as well as a range of localities and environments I sojourned through. We’ll check out Everglades National Park, Big Cypress National Preserve, the edge of Lake Okeechobee, and much in between.

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