Snakes suffer an undeserved reputation as dangerous, stealthy creatures when in reality most are harmless and wish only to be left alone. In South Carolina, several types of black snake or snakes that have dark markings are likely to be encountered: the black racer, black rat snake, eastern kingsnake, eastern hognose snake and the eastern coachwhip snake. None of these snakes are venomous.
Take a good look at the width and length of the body. Black racers are slim, sleek snakes from 3 to 6 feet long. Black rat snakes are longer and slim ranging from 3 to 8 feet. The eastern hognose snake has a thick, chunky body and rarely gets over 4 feet in length. The slim eastern kingsnake can grow to lengths of 7 feet. The eastern coachwhip snake resembles a long, slim whip averaging 4 to 5 feet.
Check the size and shape of the head. Black racers have small, narrow heads as do eastern coachwhip snakes. Black rat snakes and kingsnakes have average sized heads with no hint of the triangular shape common to venomous snakes. Hognose snakes have a very distinctive, blunted snout that tips slightly upwards and a wide neck.
Notice body markings, if present. Black racers are typically black but can be blue, brown or greenish on the upper part of their body with white, yellow or dark gray on their undersides. Black rat snakes have a black and white checkered belly and a black underside to their tail. Hognose snakes can be yellow, tan, brown, gray or reddish as well as black. Their bellies are mottled and the underside of their tails is conspicuously lighter than their bellies. Eastern kingsnakes are shiny black with small light dots of white forming a faint crosslink pattern on their backs. Eastern coachwhip snakes are unique as their colorations transition from charcoal black over the first half of their bodies to tan near the tail.
Observe the snake's behavior. Black racers are quick, agile snakes and will disappear from sight in seconds when disturbed. Black rat snakes are less likely to hurry away and are skillful climbers. Eastern kingsnakes are most active in the early morning or near dusk and are shy when approached. Hognose snakes, often called puff or spreading adders, will hood or spread their necks, hiss, inflate their bodies and sometimes lunge toward a perceived enemy. If this act fails to discourage a would-be assailant, the snake will roll over and play dead, mouth agape and tongue hanging out. Eastern coachwhip snakes are shy like black racers and will quickly retreat when disturbed but will coil and sometimes strike at the face of an enemy.
- Always approach any snake with caution and respect, no matter how sure you are of your identification. Snakes are valuable members of any ecology and are best left alone.
- The Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles and Amphibians; Alfred A. Knopf; 1979.
- South Carolina Reptiles and Amphibians
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