The "Black Snakes"

There are two species of snakes in our area that can grow to 5 feet in length and that are largely black in color on their upper surfaces. People are familiar with them, know them to be non-venomous, and refer to both of them as “black snakes.” However, because they look rather similar, some people may not know there are two different species of these black colored snakes.

Both "black snake" species can be encountered in almost any setting in the upstate area (forest, field, in outbuildings, etc). One difference between them is frequently exhibited when they are encountered by a person. At that time one of the species typically remains rather stationary as if "considering its next move", or moves slowly away; while the other with great speed vanishes seemingly enroute to the next county or beyond. The former species is the black rat snake, the latter is the black racer.

Black racers are slender snakes that are of uniform dull black color (except for their white chins). They are animals of many habitats, but especially semi-open brushy areas. Through their speedy movements they earn their name "racer." They are active and nervous prowlers that can ascend shrubs and even trees that have low limbs near the ground. Racers feed on a great variety of animal life ranging from insects to other reptiles.

Black rat snakes on the other hand are shiny black animals with occasional light traces of a blotched pattern on their backs. While much slower moving than racers, they are incredibly agile when it comes to climbing. They, or their shed skins, can sometimes be found among the rafters of outbuildings, along rock walls, or in trees high above the ground. Their unique climbing abilities allow them to ascend the trunks of mature trees which they sometimes do in search of prey which includes birds and small mammals. A large black rat snake is a powerful constrictor and can kill and eat a full grown gray squirrel.

Juvenile Black Rat Snake - Photo by Jon Morgan Juvenile Black Rat Snake: black rat snakes are born with a blotched pattern. They turn "black" when about 20 inches in length.
Black Rat Snake Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta): adults are shinny black; generally methodical and
slower moving, 3
Black Racer Black Racer (Coluber constrictor): adults are dull black speedsters, 3

Both of these “black snakes” have a unique feature among upstate snakes in that their newborn young look markedly different from the adults. The newborns are not black. Rather, they both show a blotched gray to brownish color pattern for the first year of life.