Bull snakes and rat snakes are snakes that belong to the colubrid family. They can be caged and kept as pets as they are non-venomous. Despite not posing any threat to humans, they are among the longest snake species in America.
Despite their similarities, they differ in color, habitat, and environmental conditions. Adult bull snakes have a yellow body with black, brown, white, or red blotches and pale yellow chin and belly, while adult rat snakes have shiny black back with mottles; light brown or gray undersides; white or gray chin and throat.
Bull snakes are ‘open-country snakes that prefer open sandy fields. On the other hand, rat snakes avoid forested regions and live in hidden areas such as rocky outcrops and logs.
Disclaimer: This is information for entertainment and educational purposes only. Do not approach a wild animal and keep your distance. Only professionals should handle wild animals. Seek professional help immediately if you have been bitten or otherwise harmed. Consult your local wildlife authority for the right advice for your situation and locality.
Bull Snake Overview
The Bull snake is a huge colubrid snake and is considered a subspecies of gopher snake. It has a yellow head with many black or near-black markings, including a prominent stripe running from the eye to the corner of the mouth. Its upper lips have prominent vertical lines, and its heads are pointed.
Bull snakes are mainly recognized for being heavy-bodied, having a short head, and a huge nose shield used to dig for prey or dig burrows for laying eggs. It is also nonvenomous and can be found in western North America’s sandy open area and Pine Barrens, from British Columbia to Northern Mexico and from California to Indiana.
They are frequently misidentified as a rattlesnake by humans. Because rattlesnakes are venomous, it puts the bull snake under constant threat from people who believe the snake might harm them. This species is also threatened by habitat destruction, but they can thrive in farmland environments, thanks to the abundance of rodent prey.
Rat snake Overview
Rat snakes are nonvenomous, medium to large snakes that kill by constriction. They are also known as pilot snakes as it is believed they guide other snakes to denning during the winter season. They have various subspecies based on the color and geographic range in which they are found.
Based on the color, they have been classified into black, gray, red, and yellow rat snakes. At the same time, they have been grouped into Texas, Everglades, Eastern and Western rat snakes as per the geographic locations. They are found in Eastern, Western and Northern America, Canada, Everglade, Mississippi, Louisiana, Southern Oklahoma, Florida, and Texas.
Rat snakes have a wide range of appearances. Blotches, stripes, a combination of the two, or a single color are all possibilities. They feature keeled scales, slim bodies, and wedge-shaped skulls. Their pupils, like those of other nonvenomous snakes, are spherical.
Comparison Between Bull Snake and Rat Snake
1. Length and Size Differences
Like other animals, Bull snakes and rat snakes have distinct variations in length and weight of their bodies. Adult bull snakes range from 4 to 6 feet long, with specimens reaching 8 ‘. The longest specimen recorded was 8′ 2′′, but individuals of this size are uncommon. Bull snakes have the highest possibility of being the largest subspecies of gopher snakes.
On average, mature bull snakes can weigh 1–1.5 kg though the heaviest known specimens recorded a weight of 3.6–4.5 kg.
At birth, Rat snake hatchlings have a size of between 0.83 to 1.08 feet. Over time, most grow and reach a length of between 4 to 7 feet and occasionally attain 8 feet. The longest rat snake ever recorded had a size of 9 feet.
Females are shorter than males because of the energy cost involved in the production of eggs. Mature Rat snakes have a weight mainly ranging from 0.5 to 2.2 kg.
Bull and Rat snakes have been classified as nonvenomous snakes that pose minimal danger to humans. However, their mouths are filled with small sharp teeth. Both this snakes tend not to bite unless provoked or startled.
Their bites are not serious and appear as scratches though they can be painful. They also leave contaminated saliva; hence should be treated to avoid infection.
Related: Are bullsnakes dangerous?
Venom is a highly modified fluid secretion containing zootoxins that help immobilize and digest prey as well as defend against dangers. During a bite, it is injected by special fangs, and certain species can even spew their venom.
All snakes have teeth, but not all teeth are fangs, and not all fangs are teeth. Fangs are specialized teeth and differ from conventional teeth in their structure and function.
Venomous snakes have fangs for injecting venom. On the other hand, nonvenomous snakes have long, sharp teeth that resemble fangs but are not fangs and can also have tiny teeth difficult to see.
3. Color and Look
A Bull snake’s base color is usually yellow, with black, brown, white, or red patterns/blotches. They normally have large blotches on top, three sets of spots on the sides, and black bands on the tail making up the blotching pattern.
A variety of color morphs, including albino and white, have been identified. Many adult individuals exhibit a distinct color change from head to tail. Juvenile bull snakes have similar patterns as adults; however, their overall color tends to be lighter.
Lastly, the belly and chin of this snake are usually pale yellow, and it has several squares or rectangular dark spots on the underside.
On the other hand, rat snakes have a shiny black back with mottles, light brown or gray belly, a white or gray chin, and a throat. However, other members have dark stripes or few botches and stripes. There are also few cases of a melanistic, monochromatic, and leucistic species.
Juvenile rat snakes have gray bodies with dark spots going down the middle. Their belly is pale towards the head and checkered or mottled as it gets closer to the tail. This pattern darkens with age and is usually unnoticeable when the snake reaches 3 feet in length.
Rat snakes’ coloration varies with their geographical location. Adults in the Florida peninsula are yellow, orange, brown, or gray with four dark longitudinal stripes, while juveniles have black dorsal patches. In Panhandle, Juveniles and adults are similar in color.
In Texas, Southern Oklahoma, and Louisiana, rat snakes have a brown-to-black body with hints of yellow, orange, or tan.
Most rat snakes that are yellow tend to have four dark stripes along the length of their bodies. On the other hand, Gray rat snakes have darker gray or brown patches and are dark to light gray.
4. Habitat and Cage Climate
Bull and rat snakes, like all reptiles, are ectothermic. They rely on their surroundings to keep their body temperature in the range of 75 to 87 and 72 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit, respectively.
Bull snakes are open-country snakes. They prefer sandy-soil areas populated by burrowing rodents, native prairies, old fields, pastures, oak savannas, and bluff prairies on a steep hillside. They are also found in coniferous forests, farmland, woodlands, and grasslands, among other places. They thrive primarily under natural light and in arid regions with low humidity.
Conversely, rat snakes live mainly in hidden areas such as rock outcrops, flood plains, Pinelands, hardwood hammocks, marshes, prairies, agricultural fields, and swamp edges. Abandoned buildings, barns, stone walls, trash piles, and pine shavings are also preferable habitats. They are expert tree and building climbers. They live in regions with moderate humidity and under natural light.
Both species are confineable, although bull snakes are the best pets in that they do not require highly specialized environmental conditions.
However, rat snakes require spacious, escape-proofed, and well-ventilated cages. They prefer ventral heating. Therefore a heater should be placed on the bottom of one side of the hutch.
5. Lifespan and Longevity
Both these snakes’ lifespan varies drastically depending on their living conditions, i.e., pets, in the wild, or captivity.
The average lifespan of Bull snakes is usually 12-15 years. However, they can easily live up to 25 years as pets. While in captivity, for example, in a zoo, they have an average lifespan of 20 to 25 years. They rarely live past 15 years in the wild.
Wild rat snakes can live for 10-15 years, while those in captivity have a life span of up to 25 years.
Fun Fact: grey rat snakes have a longer lifespan as compared to other species. They have been recorded to live for 15 to 20 years in the wild.
Notably, males grow and mature faster than females, which is attributed to temperature, length of being active feeding season.
6. Handling and Temperament
Both snakes are popular pets among both first-time snake owners as well as experienced handlers because of their less demanding temperature and humidity requirements compared to many other snakes.
While in general, snakes won’t be the cuddliest pets, they can become accustomed to being handled.
Both bull snakes and rat snakes are prone to parasite infestation. It is therefore important to monitor them continuously. Pet owners should keep an eye out for things like runny stools, drowsiness, and refusal to eat.
While bull snakes can be docile when handled frequently, most can be pretty aggressive. This has earned them a reputation among snake keepers as having a “bad attitude.” When grasped or pinned, rat snakes may be aggressive, but they usually quiet down fast when held.
When both snakes are trapped or threatened, they coil into a defensive position, rapidly vibrating its tail, hissing, and striking repeatedly. They can deliver a painful bite despite being nonvenomous. Striking is only utilized as a last resort in defense.
Fun fact: The Bullsnake is known to have the loudest hiss in Minnesota.
Both snakes feed on mice, moles, lizards, frogs, rats, squirrels, birds, and bird eggs in the wild. They annihilate nests, devouring any eggs or hatchlings they come across.
The juvenile bull snakes eat lizards and other insects, whereas young rat snakes eat mostly small rodents.
Some rat snakes, for example, the black rat snakes, are commonly known as “chicken snakes” because they are sometimes found near chicken coops and henhouses, where rat snakes feed on chicken eggs.
These snakes are formidable constrictors. They suffocate their prey by coiling their bodies around it and holding on until the prey dies. Then, they swallow it and slowly digest the meal over several days.
As pets, these snakes eat mice and rats. The hatchlings can eat an entire mouse the moment they are hatched. Juvenile feed on a mouse a week, and the adult can eat several rats and mice a week.
Male bull snakes reach productive maturity between 1 and 2 years old, whereas females do not reach sexual maturity until 3 to 5 years. Mating takes place in March and April after the snakes emerge from their winter hibernation.
After successful mating, a clutch of 5-19 leathery eggs is laid in loose soil during June and July. Females abandon their nests soon after laying their eggs. Multiple females may lay eggs at the same spot. After an incubation period of 50 to 60 days, the hatchlings emerge in early autumn.
Rat snakes reach sexual maturity at 3 to 4 years. Males mature sexually sooner than females, influenced by the length of active feeding season and temperature. They breed from May to June after emerging from hibernation.
Male rat snakes usually wait for females to enter their territory and use scent trails to track them down. Five weeks after mating, females lay between 4-44 eggs in moist and secluded spots such as under leaves, in a decaying log, or an abandoned burrow. In August and September, the eggs hatch, and the newborns emerge.
More Snake Comparisons:
- Bullsnake vs Fox Snake
- Bullsnake vs Gopher Snake
- Bullsnake vs King Snake
- Bullsnake vs Rattlesnake
- Rattlesnake vs Rat Snake
- Kingsnake vs Rat Snake
- Corn Snake vs Rat Snake
- Copperhead Snake vs Rat Snake
Bull and rat snakes are one of the most stunning species seen in the biotic community. They often coil in a defensive posture, hiss, strike repeatedly, and rapidly vibrate their tail when cornered or threatened. Thus many people mistake them for dangerous-looking snakes like rattlesnakes and copperheads due to their bold behavior and appearance.
They are suitable for pet-keeping as they are nonvenomous. For instance, a lot of farmers have noted these snakes to be incredibly valuable in eradicating pests by preying on them.
Individuals of this species can grow to be as long as 8 feet long, making them one of the longest snakes in the United States. Both snakes are formidable constrictors that detect prey creatures utilizing their superior chemosensory systems. They mostly devour rodents, birds, and some reptiles.
Lastly, some of the common predators of the two snakes are hawks, owls, mammals, and other snakes.
Joe is a freelance writer for FaunaFacts. Joe has written extensively about snakes for the site, but also contributes content about a range of animals.