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Rattlesnake vs Rat Snake (Behavior, Diet, Habitat, Pet Care)

At first glance, rattlesnakes and rat snakes may appear the same as they have similar color variations, behavior, and the adults are almost the same size.

Rattlesnake vs Rat Snake
Rattlesnake vs Rat Snake

Like rattlesnakes, rat snakes have keeled scales, inflate their necks, coil into a defensive posture, make rattle sounds with their tails and hiss, and strike when cornered. That is why docile rat snakes are often mistaken for deadly rattlers.

But, after a keen look, they have unique physical features that distinguish them. Most rattlesnakes have well-defined patterns on their dorsal, hexagonal, rhombus, and diamond spots or bands, while rat snakes have irregular-shaped blotches or stripes.

Moreover, their heads and pupils are different. A rattlesnake’s head is triangular shaped, and the pupils are elliptical, whereas a rat snake’s head is wedge-shaped and has round pupils. Rattlers have rattles on their blunt tails.

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 harmedConsult your local wildlife authority for the right advice for your situation and locality.

Rattlesnake vs Rat Snake

FeatureRattlesnakeRat Snake
1. FamilyCrotalinaeColubrinae
2. Size2 – 6 feet6 – 9 feet
3. ColorsRusty and earthy colors spanning from deep brown gold.Varies. Generally, black, gray, yellow, brown, red, black-and-white, and orange.
4. RangeSouthern Canada to Argentina.South-Eastern United States
5. Hunting BehaviorsHunters. Venomous.Hunters. Constrictors.
6. Breeding SeasonMay to Late July.May to Late June.
7. Lays EggsNo (Ovoviviparous)Yes (Oviparous)
8. Pet BehaviorNot recommended as pets.Usually docile.
9. VenomYesNo
10. Life Expectancy (In Captivity)20 – 37 years12 – 25 years

Rattlesnake Overview

As its name implies, rattlesnakes have rattles at the tip of its blunt tail, which it vibrates to create a loud rattling noise to keep predators at bay or warn passers-by.

Its species are distributed in the United States and Canada but are most common in the Southwest and live in grasslands, rocky outcrops, prairies, under-leaf litters, tunnels, and parks.

It’s a venomous snake; thus, it kills by paralyzing and damaging the tissues of prey. Tiny mammals, amphibians, and birds are their favorite meals.

Although some species lack a distinctive pattern, a rattler’s skin color spans from black, brown, and gray to yellow, red, orange, cream, green, pink, rust, and olives. The dorsal is characterized by distinctive patterns with bands or hexagonal, rhombus, and diamond blotches.

Its body has keeled scales, a raised ridge at the center, appears to be fat, and an adult may grow up to a length of 6.6 feet. Its head is triangular-shaped and has elliptical pupils that see effectively in dim light.

This species is ovoviviparous in that it gives birth to infants instead of laying eggs.

Fun Fact: Unlike most snakes, rattlesnakes show parental concern to their juveniles by staying with them for about seven to ten days.

Rat snake Overview

A rat snake is a nonvenomous constrictor whose name comes from its preferred meal. They are among the longest snakes in America, with a maximum size range of 6 to 9 feet. It has slender bodies with keeled scales, wedge-shaped heads, and round pupils.  

It can be found across Northern, Eastern, and Western America. They prefer to live in wooded sites, abandoned buildings, swamp edges, marshes, rock outcrops, grasslands, trash piles, barns, and stonewalls.

Its species vary in coloration and have stripes and irregularly shaped blotches on the dorsal. Skin color ranges from black, gray, yellow, brown, red, black-and-white, and orange. There are also cases of melanistic, leucistic, and monochromatic species.

They hunt small rodents, amphibians, birds, and bird eggs. Some species like the black rat snake are known as chicken snakes because they feed on chickens.

They usually freeze when they feel threatened, twisting their bodies into a series of kinks making a defensive position. When picked up or agitated, they may shake their tails, hiss, strike repeatedly, and may create a foul-smelling musk that they disperse around with their tail.

These snakes are popular pets as they are docile and pose no danger to humans. Like many snakes, rat snakes are oviparous as they reproduce by laying eggs.

Comparison Between Rattlesnakes and Rat Snakes

1. Length and Size

rattlesnake

Generally, adult rat snakes are larger than rattlesnakes, and their bodies appear more slender. Most rattlesnakes may grow to be between 1.6 feet to 6.6 feet long and have hefty bodies. Conversely, adult rat snakes have slim bodies and an average length of 4 to 7 feet, with some individuals occasionally growing to 8-9 feet.

2. Color Variation

The colorful markings on their skin help identify the two snakes as they come in a broad range of patterns and colors. The majority of rattlesnakes have regularly shaped blotches, whereas rat snakes have irregularly shaped spots.

Most rattlesnakes are banded, blotched with diverse shapes (hexagons, rhombuses, diamond). The color of their skin tends to be grey or light brown. However, some rattlesnakes can be orange, red, yellow, and rustic etc. Other species have no specific patterns at all.

Rat snakes also come in a broad range of colors and patterns depending on where they are found.  The dorsal is characterized by irregular blotches, stripes, and a mix of melanism, leucism, or a single color. Their skin color ranges from black to gray, with others being yellow, red, brown, black-and-white, and orange.

3. Rattles, Head and Eyes

rat snake

Rattlesnakes are well-known for their unique triangular-shaped heads and elliptical pupils, while rat snakes have tiny, wedge-like heads and spherical pupils.

Fun Fact: A rattlesnake’s triangular skull is due to large venom glands found at the base of the jaws.

Rattlesnakes also have tails with jointed rattles. They have a full or partial rattle comprising interlocking rings or segments of keratin. On the other hand, rat snakes do not possess rattles, yet they produce rattling sounds when they shake their tails.

Note: Rattles also wear out or fall off with time; therefore, some adult rattlesnakes may lack rattles.

4. Pits and Fangs

Rat snakes do not have pits, and their heads are covered in a broad, smooth crown of scales above their eyes, whereas rattlesnakes have two pits behind their noses that detect heat, allowing them to pursue live prey.

Rattlesnakes have fangs connected to a venom gland through a venom duct. The length of a rattler’s fangs varies depending on its species and size, although large rattlers can have fangs that are 4 to 6 inches long. The snake’s fangs are curled back and lay parallel to the jawline when the mouth is closed.

When rattlesnakes bite, the fangs move to an upright posture via muscular contraction and inject venom into the prey or predator, paralyzing it. A rattlesnake’s bites leave one or two holes in the skin.

On the other hand, rat snakes have tiny teeth and no fangs. When they bite, they leave minor scratches that look like a horseshoe.

5. Defensive Mechanism

western diamondback rattlesnake

When threatened or unintentionally touched, different rattlesnake species behave differently based on their geographic range. Due to their coloration, rattlesnakes can blend in with their natural environments making them nearly invisible from their intruders.

Read More: 7 Snakes That Look Like Rattlesnakes, but Aren’t.

Others, if allowed enough space, softly glide away or remain still. While others shake their rattle tails, emitting a hissing sound, puffing up their bodies, and coiling themselves into an S-shape to scare intruders away.

Rat snakes are timid but snappish and aggressive. Some species’ color acts as camouflage with their surroundings. It protects itself by coiling its body and vibrating its tail in dead leaves, cage fittings or any other substrate to generate an audible buzz. Their auditory defensive mechanism is remarkably similar to the rattlesnakes’, but the noises are not as loud as rattler’s tail sounds.

Fun Fact: Rat sakes adopt rattlesnake-like defensive postures flattening their heads and bodies to emphasize their color patterns.

Furthermore, when touched by a predator or picked up by a person, they produce a foul-smelling musk from their anal gland that they disperse around with their tail to deter the intruder. The musk imitates the scent of poison.

They puff their necks and vibrate their tails to fool a predator into mistaking them for a venomous snake. This mimicry is referred to as Batesian, in which a harmless species imitates a hazardous one to ward off predators. However, it is risky to rat snakes as humans mistaken them for deadly rattlers and frequently kill them.

6. Heat and Cold Response

Both snakes are ectothermic; hence, they are sensitive to cold and heat conditions as external sources control their body temperature. They seek refuge in the shade or hide underground in caves, behind rocks or crevices throughout the day to avoid the heat.

When it is too chilly, they either sunbathe or seek a surface to absorb the heat, such as a paved road. That’s why snakes are frequently seen on the road in the evenings, attempting to warm themselves by laying on asphalt or concrete surfaced areas.

During winter, they hibernate in snake dens, such as rock slides or cracks. They visit these destinations yearly. A snake den can house hundreds of individuals from several species. They awaken from their winter hibernation when the weather warms up and sun themselves around the den entrance for a few days before moving on to their summer homes.

Desert Rattlers move the loops of the body by pushing forward and driving into the sand, allowing it to glide sideways with only two sections of the body contacting the ground at any given time hence reducing contact with hot sand or gravel.

7. Geographic Range

constrictor snake

Both snakes are prevalent in the United States; however, rattlesnakes are found throughout the American States but are more common in the Southwest from Central America to Southern Canada. Rat snakes also inhabit North America, in every southeastern state, most eastern and Midwestern states.

Although they thrive in similar biomes, rattlesnakes can handle an elevational range of 0 to 3,353 meters from coastlines to mountains, inland plains, and deserts. In contrast, rat snakes live in biomes with an elevation from sea level to 1,800 meters.

8. Reproductive System

Like many snakes, rat snakes are oviparous; they reproduce by laying eggs. They usually deposit their eggs in moist and secluded sites. Newborns emerge when the eggs hatch.

Contrary, rattlesnakes are ovoviviparous, meaning they give birth.  Although they have eggs, they are carried inside the female’s body for about three months before they hatch inside the body and emerge from inside.

9. Breeding Season

A rattlesnake in a desert

Both snakes mate in the spring after emerging from hibernation. However, northern rattlesnake species breed in the fall and store the sperm for the following year. Thus, northern species give birth once every two years, unlike southern species that give birth yearly.

In both, the males compete with other males by performing a special dance for the same female to gain dominance.

After fertilization, female rattlesnakes carry the eggs in their bodies for around 90 days, after which they give birth to an average of 5-14 offspring. The newborns are about 10 to 13 inches long. Juvenile rattlesnakes have venom and small fangs, and they are more aggressive than the adults

On the other hand, after female rat snakes have laid eggs, it might take five to seven weeks to hatch and are usually 13 inches long. Juveniles have a lighter pattern than adult rat snakes which darkens with age.

10. Lifespan and Sexual Maturity

Rattlesnakes have a long life span of 20 to 25 years in the wild and 20-37 years in captivity, while rat snakes live from 10 to 15 years in the wild and 12 to 25 years in captivity.

In both snakes, the males reach sexual maturity earlier than females, depending on the length of the active feeding season and the temperature. Male rattlers attain sexual maturity around 3 to 7 years old, while females reach sexual maturity at 6 to 13 years old. Male rat snakes reach sexual maturity at 7 years; for females, it’s around 9 years.

11. Hunting Technique

Rattlesnake rattling

Rattlesnakes rely on venom to immobilize prey while rat snakes use constriction.

Rattlesnakes are one of the few animal species that have dual vision. In addition to their eyes, they have two pits behind their noses that can perceive warm-blooded animals. These pits are so sensitive that they can distinguish the size of a warm-blooded animal and even in complete darkness.

Rattlesnakes also use their external noses lined with olfactory cells to help pick up the scent of prey. Their tongues also pick up microscopic airborne particles and gases and classify them as food, partner, adversary, an object, or a substance.

When hunting, the rattlesnake first bites its prey, stunning and immobilizing it with venom. The snake’s poison is hemotoxic; thus, it attacks the blood or paralyzes the nerves, inflicting significant tissue damage. The majority of small prey is stunned right away. The venom also starts the digestion process by breaking down the prey’s tissue before the snake swallows it.

Rrat snakes can also ambush or hunt down their prey. They use their superior chemosensory system to detect prey.

Rat snakes are non-venomous, hence kill by constricting. Constriction kills by overworking the prey’s circulatory system as a result of squeezing, causing ischemia. The prey dies within seconds as blood cannot reach the brain. It then swallows the dead animal and slowly processes the meal over several days.

More Snake Comparisons:

Conclusion

In summation, both snakes are prevalent in the United States, with their geographic range depending on the type of their species. Rattlesnakes are distributed throughout America and are prevalent in the Southwest, but rat snakes inhabit the Northern, Eastern, and Western United States.

Rat snakes are non-venomous and completely harmless to humans, unlike rattlesnakes that are dangerous as their bite can result in sickness or even death. Thus, rat snakes make excellent pets because they are usually very calm and easy to handle.

Both snakes have similar diets but different feeding habits. Rat snakes are formidable constrictors; they kill by squeezing their prey. Rattlesnakes, on the other hand, kill by poisoning their prey with venom. They also deter predators by puffing their bodies, coiling into a defensive posture, and vibrating their tails.

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