Ratsnakes are a group of snakes mainly associated with the genus Elaphe, but also having species in the genera Bogertophis and Sentalis. The majority are found in Eurasia, with the remainder in North America. The common name derives from the most common item in their diet, although many species do not restrict themselves to rodents and will eat other small animals.
In fact there seems to be no complete agreement on exactly what constitutes a ratsnake. Most authorities include Elaphe and probably Bogertophis and Senticolis, as both the latter were formerly members of Elaphe: others may also include Gonyosoma, Spalerosophis, Spilotus and Pseustes, and maybe Ptyas. This is another reason for preferring scientific species names to common names, since the latter can imply a false association with other species. In recent years the genus Elaphe itself has been broken up into smaller genera by some authorities, which may be scientifically valid but also means that the snake-keeping public has a rather confusing number of new (and often longer!) names to deal with.
Ratsnakes are important as a group because many are sold as pets and do indeed make good reptile captives. These species are easy to feed, often attractive and fairly docile, the best example being the Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata guttata) which has rightly become perhaps the most common reptile pet, along with the Leopard Gecko, Bearded Dragon and Mediterranean Tortoise.
However, some species are harder to maintain and a few can be aggressive or irascible, although these tend to be less popular and hence less frequently seen. Thus it is important to know which species you are taking on, to avoid the difficult ones if you are a beginner and to find one suitable for you and your circumstances. Reading one or more of the books listed in the Biography at the bottom of this page will certainly help you.
A few years this section formed a single page. Since then an increasing amount of data available to me has made it more practical to break up the ratsnakes into their individual genera. If you are new to ratsnakes, I would suggest first looking at the Elaphe page.
|Genus||Distribution||Number of species||Notes|
|Bogertophis||North America||2||Beautiful but delicate|
|Elaphe||North & Central America, Europe, Asia||12-42 or so, depending on whom you believe||Often hardy, interesting and attractive: good snakes for both beginners and specialists. Note that recently the genus Elaphe has been broken up into smaller genera by some authorities.|
|Gonyosoma||Asia||2||Beautiful but very difficult|
|Pseustes||Central & South America||5|
|Senticolis||Central America||1||Little seen in captivity or in the wild|
Rat Snakes: A Hobbyist's Guide to Elaphe & Kin, Ray Staszko & Jerry G Walls, TFH 1994. A comprehensive hardback manual listing all the snakes currently identified within the Elaphe, Bogerta, Gonyosoma and Sentalis genera. It also includes a very handy key to the identification of snakes by such means as counting the scale rows and ventral scales, etc. I have come across some criticism of some of the material in the book, but it remains the only one in English that covers all the Elaphe species.
Recognising that the expense of this volume (about £30 in the UK) might deter many hobbyists, Staszko and Walls also produced a cut-down version in the normal TFH range which omitted quite a few of the species, especially some of the rarer Asian snakes. It is still worth buying if your funds don't stretch to the full version, or as a rat snake 'taster'.
Corn Snakes and Other Rat Snakes (Complete Pet Owner's Manual) by R D & P Bartlett, Barrons Pet Series 1996, is similar to the abridged version of Staszko and Walls, but contains more information page for page. In fact even compared to the bigger and more expensive book the husbandry information is at least as good, in my opinion, although Staszko and Walls do cover all the Elaphe species and their kin. One bonus of the Bartletts' book is that it has a section on those snakes which are often sold as "rat snakes" even though they are in fact not really related: the Spalerosophis, Spilotes and Pseustes species.
Useful information on the more popular rat snakes can also be found in Snakes: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual, by R D & P Bartlett, Barrons Pet Series. Again, if you are starting out with snakes in general and fancy a rat snake then this could be a good introduction.
Index of ratsnake articles (on this site).
The Bushmaster Breeding Centre in Germany specialise in breeding rat snakes, and their homepage has some outstanding photographs of various Elaphe and other species. There is also a link to the US site.
The Elaphe Information Page provides a very useful table of rat snake species names, common names, average sizes and photo links.
Likewise Mick Spencer has provided a very attractive table of the Elaphe, Bogertis and Sentalis species with their subspecies, common names and distribution.
A good selection of North American rat snake pictures can be found here.
If you are Korean or can read Korean, then you may find this Korean Rat Snake site useful. The first time you enter you are invited to download a character set to allow you to view the letters properly.
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