While they are very different physically, king snakes and rat snakes are quite closely related. In fact, herpetologists have recently deduced that some species of rat snakes are more closely related to kingsnakes than with other species of rat snakes!
Interestingly, both rat snakes and king snakes belong to the Colubrids family of snakes, which houses almost two-thirds of all the snake species.
The main distinguishing feature of Colubrids is that they are constrictors. They are also non-venomous and, thus, harmless to human beings. Since they are harmless, they are considered great pets by snake enthusiasts.
Despite the striking similarities, king snakes and rat snakes belong to different genera. As such, the scientific name for king snakes is Lampropeltis getula, while that of rat snakes is Ptyas mucosus.
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.
Kingsnake vs Rat Snake
|1. Scientific Name||Lampropeltis getula||Ptyas mucosus|
|2. Size||2 – 6 Feet||6 – 9 Feet|
|3. Colors||Varies. Generally, brown, black, red, green, yellow, white.||Varies. Generally, black, gray, yellow, brown, red, black-and-white, and orange.|
|4. Range||Eastern Canada to Southern Ecuador.||South-Eastern United States.|
|5. Hunting Behavior||Hunters & Constrictors.||Hunters & Constrictors.|
|6. Breeding Season||March to August.||May to Late June.|
|7. Lays Eggs||Yes (Oviparous).||Yes (Oviparous).|
|8. Pet Behavior||Usually docile.||Usually docile.|
|9. Daytime Cage Temperature||80-85°F||80-85°F|
|10. Nighttime Cage Temperature||70-80°F||70-80°F|
|12. Cost||Starting at $90||Starting at $50|
|13. Life Expectancy (In Captivity)||20 – 30 years||12 – 25 years|
|14. Diet||Mice, Baby Rats, and other Snakes!||Mice & Baby Rats|
King Snake Overview
Kingsnakes are mostly found in North America. They are nonvenomous snakes that kill their prey by constricting them, after which they swallow the prey whole.
Fun Fact: One of the most interesting bits about king snakes is that they kill and feed on other snakes, including the most poisonous ones like rattlesnakes and copperheads.
They are immune to the venom and digest these snakes without any complications. This characteristic of king snakes is shared with King cobras, which explains why they are called kingsnakes.
Kingsnakes also exude aestheticism with their glossy outer scales, which make them attractive to look at. Their skins are marked by vivid contrasting colors and patterns that vary between bands and speckles. Moreover, they are nonvenomous and are one of the most sought-after snakes by snake enthusiasts.
Rat Snake Overview
Just like king snakes, rat snakes kill their prey by constriction. They squeeze their catch to death, after which they swallow it whole. As their name suggests, their favorite food is rats. Still, rats are not the only prey they consume- rat snakes also eat other rodents such as squirrels and small animals like frogs, birds, and bird eggs.
Rat snakes are commonly found in North America, South America, and Southern Canada. There are several species of rat snakes, depending on their appearances, behaviors, and habitats. Examples include the Eastern rat snake, yellow rat snake, gray rat snake, and Texas rat snake.
Synonymous with nonvenomous snakes, rat snakes have round pupils. Instead of fangs, they have small teeth that leave a horseshoe-shaped scar when they bite a predator. Moreover, the head of a rat snake is wedge-shaped, much like the head of a turtle. Furthermore, it has no pits on its face, which is expected as pits are mostly found on venomous serpents.
Comparison Of King Snake and Rat Snake
1. Physical Differences
It does not require a trained eye to tell a king snake and a rat snake apart as they have several physical differences. For one, a king snake has a spoon-shaped head while a rat snake’s head is shaped like a wedge. Moreover, a king snake’s jaw is rounded, unlike that of a rat snake which assumes the shape of a turtle.
Additionally, a king snake appears shiny because of its well-defined glossy scales. Most of these snakes have bold colors, such as scarlet red, orange, brown. There are also those that are plain-colored in black or grey. Moreover, king snakes have vibrant patterns on their skins, especially bands and speckles. Most king snakes have bands.
Fun Fact: Kingsnake’s genus name, Lampropeltis, literally translates to ‘shiny shields’ in Greek.
On the other hand, rat snakes are far from being glossy. Instead, they have weakly keeled scales with ridges. They also have variable color patterns, but most are dull-colored as they are black, tan, or grey.
There are species of rat snakes that are yellow, red, cream, or a combination of those colors. Their patterns range from striped patterns and blotched, a combination of both stripes and blotches, to having no patterns at all.
In terms of size, there is not much difference between rat snakes and king snakes. Both grow up to an average of 4 to 5 feet long. Even so, some rat snakes can grow up to 10 feet long. According to snake experts, though, rat snakes have bodies that are slenderer than those of kingsnakes.
Since both types of snakes are nonvenomous, they have round pupils as opposed to cat-like pupils that are synonymous with vipers. They also do not have pits on their faces. Moreover, both have small teeth that they use to bite predators with as a defense mechanism. All in all, it is not difficult to tell a rat snake from a king snake.
Kingsnakes and rat snakes live in the same areas as both can be found throughout Northern America and parts of Central America.
Kingsnakes are spotted mostly in North America between South-eastern Canada and Ecuador. The biggest percentage is found in the United States, specifically the California area.
Rat snakes are mostly spread all over the United States as their habitats vary by species. The most populous species, the Eastern rat snake, occupies the area between Northern Louisiana and Southern Wisconsin. The Texas rat snake, as its name implies, is found in Texas. The yellow rat snake occupies the coasts of North and South Carolina. The Red rat snake lives throughout the southeastern United States, and the Gray rat snake inhabits the central United States.
While they are spread across various regions and areas, both king snakes and rat snakes also tend to live in similar environments. These include forests, grasslands, and rocky areas in fields and deserts.
In wet areas such as the Eastern and Southern United States, king snakes will spend their time on riverbanks and close to swampy places. Also, it is highly likely to spot rat snakes in barns and abandoned buildings, the most likely reason being the availability of food.
Ironically, while king snakes are the better looking between the two, they prefer to stay off the radar. They keep in the shadows, such as underneath rocks, logs, or underground burrows. Because of this undercover behavior, you are more likely to cross paths with a rat snake than a king snake.
3. Defense Mechanisms
Most animals have mechanisms to defend themselves from predators. These mechanisms vary from fleeing, pretending to be dead, inflicting pain, or acting as a dangerous animal to scare away the threat.
Fun Fact: When an animal pretends to be a dangerous animal as a way of defending themselves, that is called Batesian mimicry, and both king snakes and rat snakes practice it.
The snakes practice Batesian mimicry by shaking their tails vigorously to produce rattle sounds in much the same way as a rattlesnake does. Now, a rattlesnake is extremely venomous and is feared by many predators. The downside to using Batesian mimicry is that humans kill these harmless snakes out of fear.
Apart from Batesian mimicry, king snakes and rat snakes eject foul snakes to discourage their predators from coming any closer. When threatened enough, they bite the threat, although their bites are harmless to humans. At best, the bites inflict pain on the predator. Also, since they do not have fangs, bite marks appear as small horseshoe-shaped scars.
Additionally, all rat snakes are brilliant swimmers. As such, they can easily escape predators in the water. The most common predator to king snakes and rat snakes is human beings. Rat snakes also face danger from raccoons, hawks, and bobcats.
Kingsnakes are famous for eating other snakes, and in some circumstances, on their own species.
They eat even the most poisonous of snakes, the likes of copperheads and rattlesnakes. This attribute of king snakes is beneficial to people as it means there will be fewer venomous snakes to harm us.
It is natural to wonder if the venom from vipers and other venomous snakes causes harm to king snakes. It doesn’t. This is because king snakes are armed with immunity that protects them from the effects of venom as they digest snakes. Apart from snakes, king snakes also eat rodents, birds, and bird hatchlings.
Meanwhile, the staple food for rat snakes is rats.
Rat Snakes also feed on chipmunks, voles, frogs, lizards, and birds. As a matter of fact, rat snakes are skilled tree climbers, and that is how they hunt for birds and bird hatchlings.
Fun fact: Mostly, juvenile rat snakes eat cold-blooded prey while adults consume warm-blooded prey.
Both king snakes and rat snakes are constrictors. Once they get hold of their prey, they squeeze the prey to death before swallowing it whole. Squeezing the prey constricts its circulatory system such that blood does not flow to the brain, causing ischemia. Squeezing also breaks the prey’s bones to facilitate easy swallowing.
While king snakes only eat a few times a month, rat snakes can eat multiple animals during a single meal.
Both snake types are oviparous, meaning that the females lay eggs immediately after or shortly after conception. This means that the eggs do not incubate inside the mother’s body as they do not stay inside for long enough.
Additionally, mating for both snakes depends on the climate, and it’s more likely to happen when it’s warmer as snakes hibernate when the temperatures are low. As such, females tend to lay eggs during spring and summer.
Kingsnakes usually have more than one clutch of eggs each season. They lay clutches of between three and twenty-four eggs per clutch. After laying the eggs, the mother snakes leave the eggs to hatch on their own. Hatching happens after two or three months, and the younglings start to fend for themselves immediately.
As for rat snakes, they can lay two clutches of eggs on a good year. During the mating season, males attract females using pheromones. At times, males will fight over the right to mate with a particular female, so it is safe to deduce that it is the strongest males that take part in the mating process.
Female rat snakes will lay 12 to 20 eggs per clutch. As is the case with king snakes, the younglings of rat snakes become independent as soon as they hatch. Usually, male snakes are bigger in size than female ones.
Kingsnakes reach sexual maturity earlier than rat snakes. The former mature at 3 to 4 years, while the latter matures between the ages of 7 and 9. In both cases, male snakes mature faster than females.
6. Life Expectancy
The life expectancy of animals is heavily dependant on their living conditions.
The wild can be harsh as there are predators, unfavorable weather conditions, and the occasional scarcity of food. Thus, the lifespan of an individual snake will vary accordingly.
However, both king snakes and rat snakes have an average life expectancy of about 20 years. It is rare, though, for these snakes to survive that long unless they are in captivity. Moreover, both snake types are endangered species as their populations have been dwindling over time.
7. Which Is A Better Pet?
Both king snakes and rat snakes can make for excellent pets. For starters, both are nonvenomous, so they pose no harm to human beings. Secondly, they are easy to take care of as they eat rodents which are easy to find.
Rat snakes are mild-mannered, especially with proper handling and sufficient care. You should know how to handle each species according to its mannerisms; for instance, minimize unnecessary interactions with shy rat snakes to avoid making them anxious.
Due to their aesthetic appearance, kingsnakes are some of the most sought-after by snake enthusiasts. This is on top of the fact that they are extremely easy to maintain.
Generally, snakes require sources of heat and light, for which you should consult a veterinarian or a snake breeder before making a purchase. More importantly, do your due diligence before you get a pet snake for yourself.
More Snake Comparisons:
- Bullsnake vs Rat Snake
- Copperhead vs Rat Snake
- Bullsnake vs King Snake
- Kingsnake vs Ball Python
- Kingsnake vs Cottonmouth
- Rattlesnake vs Rat Snake
- Kingsnake vs Garter Snake
- Corn Snake vs Rat Snake
While they have many physical differences, rat snakes and king snakes are very similar behavior-wise. They live in similar habitats, practice the same defense mechanisms, and both are oviparous. However, king snakes are glossy between the two types while rat snakes are a bit dull looking.
The most distinguishing factor about king snakes is that they feed on other snakes. Rat snakes, on the other hand, have rats as their favorite food.
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.