Pantherophis emoryi - Great Plains Ratsnake
This uncommon, medium-sized snake is grayish-brown with a series of large, alternating, chocolate-brown blotches. These blotches are often bordered in black. It has a spearhead marking on the head.
The belly is checkered black and white, giving it an appearance of maize. (Its close relative, the Cornsnake, gets its namesake for this belly pattern!)
This snake was long considered a subspecies of the Cornsnake?, but it has recently been elevated to species status along with the newly recognized Slowinski's Cornsnake. These three sister-species are probably best delineated in Arkansas by simply consulting a range map, given that their ranges in the state do not overlap.
While superficially this species resembles the Prairie Kingsnake, the spearhead marking present on the head of the Great Plains Ratsnake is usually sufficient for identification. An imaginary cross-section of this species, as with all of the Ratsnakes, would be shaped like "a loaf of bread" (i.e. rounded top, steep sides, and flat belly).
As young, this species can be distinguished from the Western Ratsnake by considering the dark bar that runs through each eye. In the Great Plains Ratsnake, this bar extends through the jawline and onto the neck whereas in the Western Ratsnake the bar extends only to the jawline where it stops abruptly.
This species is typically found along rugged, forested hillsides. During early spring, when it is most often encountered, it can be found basking in more open cedar glades or exposed rock piles. It is an excellent climber and likely spends a large portion of its time up in trees!
Habits and Life History
This species is quite secretive. Its arboreal and nocturnal habits may account for why it is so infrequently encountered by humans.
Presumably, it follows an activity pattern similar to other Ratsnakes: hibernate through winter, breed in the spring, and lay eggs in the summer. Otherwise, little is known about the reproductive biology of this species in the state.
Prey and Hunting Techniques
This species is known to feed primarily on small mammals and birds. In areas with caves, it may also consume bats.
Little information is available about the foraging behavior for this species. It is likely to use a combination of sit-and-wait and active foraging, depending upon the type of prey it is hunting. Much of this behavior likely occurs "above our heads" in the trees, or at night, or both! Prey, when caught, is constricted and consumed.
Temperament and Defense
While individual temperaments may vary, I have found this species to be quite tame and pleasant, even when first captured. I have never had one attempt to bite or even musk/poop in defense. One specimen I have kept in captivity for a few years will tolerate handling for a few minutes before becoming more forceful and erratic with its movements, seemingly to say "put me down".
This species seems to use typical snake defense: musk and/or poop, bite if you have to, but primarily don't be seen! This species is an amazing climber and blends in unbelievably with tree bark. Its nocturnal tendencies may also help it avoid potential dangers, such as day-foraging hawks and the like.
Although secretive and uncommonly encountered by humans, this species is afforded no special protections in the state. It is considered rare by the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission.
State Distribution and Abundance
This species occurs throughout the northwestern half of the state, primarily in more mountainous regions. Its abundance is largely unknown.