Creature Feature: Black Rat Snake

Eastern Rat Snake (aka Black Rat Snake)

Pantherophis alleghaniensis (formerlyElaphe obsoleta obsoleta)

Reptiles Alive Name: “Rachel”


Adult Eastern Ratsnake

Hisssstory: Rachel was a professor’s pet at Marymount University in Arlington VA.  He donated Rachel to Reptiles Alive in October 2009.

RA Diet: Rachel likes to eat frozen mice and rats that are thawed and warmed before she eats them.

Natural Diet: Rat snakes dine on eggs, small mammals, birds, and lizards.

Range: Eastern rat snakes are found in the eastern United States from New York to Florida and west to the Great Plains.

Habitat: Rat snakes live in forests, farmland, swamps, and even in buildings and houses!

Size: Eastern rat snakes grow 4 – 6 feet long, the record is a giant 8 feet 4 inch snake.  In many parts of their range, they are the largest snake species.

 Rat snakes can live 20 years or more.

 Eastern rat snakes breed April-June. Females lay 5-30 eggs that hatch in about 90 days, usually around September or October.

Conservation: Rat snakes are harmless to humans and highly beneficial to us because of all the rats, mice, and other rodents they consume.  They also serve as food to other animals including eagles and hawks.   Like all animals, snakes play an important role in the health of the environment.  If you see a snake, please leave it alone.


Juvenile Eastern Ratsnake

Cool Facts: There are many myths and misunderstandings with rat snakes.  Baby rat snakes are often confused with the venomous copperhead snake because they have a pattern of squares and diamonds down their back that slowly fades to black as they get bigger.  Rat snakes also rattle their tails when they are frightened, and flatten their head into a triangle shape.  Due to these two traits, there is a myth that rat snakes can mate with copperheads and rattle snakes to produce venomous hybrid offspring.  It is actually physically impossible for rat snakes to mate with either copperheads or rattle snakes.  Snake identification can be tricky – even for snake experts.  It is always a good idea to leave snakes alone.

A Summer Saunter in the Sierra

Posting by Caroline Seitz
There was a lot of snow this June.

NO — don’t worry, no more snowmageddon for us here in the DC area. I just returned from my June trip to Reno. There was plenty of snow in the Sierras and we even had a brief sleet/thunder storm down in the desert around my dad’s house. No shoveling, but we did enjoy some hot soup and a fire in the fireplace.

During my visit, I had the opportunity to hike at my favorite Washoe County park: Galena Creek. Galena Creek Park is located just southwest of Reno, NV and features miles of fantastic hiking trails, horse trails, camping, and picnicking. Galena is in the Sierra Nevadas, but it is low enough in elevation that most of the hiking trails are clear of snow by June.

The air was crisp and cool, the skies were bright and sunny and the relative humidity was around 6%. Really — 6%! Nothing like a typical June day here in Virginia!

Galena Creek itself is usually a small creek — sometimes it even dries up completely. But not the day we were there. The snow melt above caused the little creek to become a raging torrent!

The Sierras are home to some really beautiful wildflowers.  Snowplant, mule’s ears, spreading phlox, and more are all natives.




My favorite plant in the Sierra is the Jeffrey Pine.  It is a close relative of the Ponderosa Pine, but it’s bark is fragrant with the smell of butterscotch or vanilla and its needles are more fragrant as well.  Another way to differentiate the Jeffrey from the Ponderosa is with their pine cones.  The Ponderosa’s cone has a prickle on each scale that turns outward and the Jeffrey’s cone’s prickles point inward.  Remember the saying:  “Prickly Ponderosa, Gentle Jeffrey” to remember the difference.


Due to the cool climate of the Sierra Nevadas, there are not as many reptile species as there are here in the DC area.   There are approximately 13 species of amphibians, including the introduced Bull frog.  About 19 species of reptiles are able to survive in the Sierras and only one is venomous:  the Western Rattlesnake.

While I was at Galena,  I spotted only one type of herp, the Western Fence lizard…

After we finished our hike at Galena, we headed up the Mt. Rose Highway over the highest all-season pass in the Sierras.

Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves.
— John Muir

Galena Creek Regional Park 
Galena Creek Regional Park
18350 Mt. Rose Highway
Mount Rose District Ranger: (775) 849-2511

Nestled in a forested area on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada, Galena Creek Park is seven miles up the Mt. Rose Highway from the intersection with U.S. 395. Galena Creek flows through the park creating separate north and south portions of the park. Campfire programs, ranger-led hikes, and exhibits in the old stone visitor’s center add to the diversity of the park. The park offers fishing at Marilyn’s Pond and an outdoor education camp called camp We Ch Me. Reservable building and picnic pavilions.

Call the ranger office at (775) 849-2511 for more park information.
Call the Parks Administration office at (775) 823-6501 for building and picnic pavilion reservations.

A Sneak Peek at the New DDC Aquarium

The official opening for the new Delmarva Discovery Center’s (DDC) aquarium is Saturday June 26, but today, I will take you on a virtual tour that includes some special peeks behind the scenes…

We will start our tour with the quarantine facilities that are not in the public areas of the DDC.  This area houses new animals before they go on exhibit; special animals that are used in shows and programs, and the tons of “stuff” that a zoo or aquarium requires to care for its animals.



I learned just how territorial large mouth bass are when Jen introduced me to this guy:

And check out these totally cool ancient creatures:

Next, we went into the public areas of the DDC. This exhibit features Chesapeake bay creatures:



The DDC also has some really cool touch tank exhibits featuring some awesome native creatures.

Live reptiles and amphibians are also featured creatures. More live herp exhibits will be coming soon too.



There are also a few displays featuring taxidermy birds and mammals.



Finally — we came to the big new aquarium with its new and exciting residents — the STURGEON!


Now that you have had a sneak peek at the new aquarium, start making plans to visit the Delmarva Discovery Center. The aquarium’s Grand Opening Celebration on June 26 will feature Jen scuba diving in the tank, animal feeding demonstrations, live animal programs and more! Located in historic Pocomoke City MD, about 45 minutes from Ocean City MD and Chincoteague VA — this is a totally fun destination for the whole family.

The Hognose Heaven Zone

There is a mysterious area very near to that place which is known as Washington DC. It is an area as vast as about  1 or 2 square miles and as timeless as infinity (or at least a few million years.) It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between city an country.  Journey with us now into this wondrous land. It is an area which we call the: “Hognose Heaven Zone.”

Our story begins with a foursome of herpers, Caroline, Charise, John W and Jon K, hiking to an undisclosed location near Washington DC.   Years before this journey began, former Reptiles Alive Wildlife Educator and Keeper Jeff Stryker discovered  a population of hognose snakes and eastern milk snakes (two awesome snake species that are not very common in the suburbs) living in this strange spot and named the place “Hognose Heaven.”

As the group’s journey began, they spotted their first herps of the day. There were many turtles and frogs living in the wetlands along the trail.


Nesting eastern painted turtle

Soon, the  group of herpers veered off the main trail onto a little-used trail that led to the heart of Hognose Heaven. They began turning over logs and rocks.  A four-toed salamander was discovered!  The salamander’s creamy white and black spotted belly helped with its identification.


Four-toed Salamander

After arriving at Hognose Heaven, something very unexpected appeared to materialize out of the rocks, sticks, and leaves – something that even four experienced naturalists could hardly see until they were right on top of it!


Newborn Fawn

The fawn was only a few hours old. Its camouflage was remarkable! The baby deer was nearly invisible – the perfect survival strategy for a small animal that can not yet walk or run. Its mother was nearby and would return as soon as the coast was clear. Even though the group was in a strange place, it is normal to find fawns alone in the woods without their mother. As soon as the people vanish, the mother deer will come back to care for her fawn.
After observing the baby deer, the group continued searching for snakes. Caroline quickly found the hognose snake’s favorite food item: toads.



As Caroline approached John W to inform him of her find, she noticed he was holding something in his hands. Something about 3 feet long, with orange spots on a black body and a pointy, upturned nose. “Hognose! Hognose!” she yelled with joy!

John W and Caroline yelled for Jon K and Charise to come and see the spectacular serpent. When they arrived, however, the snake was acting strange.


Does this Hog-nosed Snake Need Help?

As the group excitedly discussed the behavior of the hognose snake, the snake in question seemed to miraculously get better!


It’s a Miracle! (or maybe just a Hognose)

After making his miracle recovery from his apparent death, the snake made his move and slithered back to the safety of his rocky home.

Now, the group needed to make a decision. Continue the search? Or have lunch? Caroline suggested having lunch after a short hike over to a nearby bizarro-world she called: CACTUS ISLAND!
Believe it or not, (believe it), the prickly pear cactus is native to the Washington DC area. Much of its habitat has been lost to urban development, but it can still sometimes be found in certain micro-habitats around our nation’s capital. That day, the cactus was in bloom!


Prickly Pear Growing Near Washington, DC

Does the story end here? Did they find an eastern milk snake? Did they have a good lunch? Only they know the answer to those questions. Questions from the Hognose Heaven Zone.