Everglades Rat Snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni

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Below:  Classic  bright orange, nearly stripeless adult Everglades rat snake

Everglades Rat Snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni

The Everglades rat snake may have the most striking appearance of all of the North American rat snakes. Indeed, the most outstanding examples are certainly some of the most beautiful snakes in the world. Sunshine Serpents has taken a special interest in this snake since its founding and it has become kind of our "flagship" breeding project. Most captive hobbyists associate the label Everglades rat snake with a bright orange snake with faintly visible stripes and a red tongue. In reality, many captive Everglades rat snakes fall short of this description. However, our adults generally typify the popular image of what an Everglades rat snake should be.

Below: An outstanding adult that was one among the founding stock for of our colony:

Everglades Rat Snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni

Some of our stock originates from Bill and Kathy Love's old colony, which descended from another breeder named Marcia Lincoln. Lincoln reportedly acquired a particularly beautiful wild caught specimen in the late 1970's or early 1980's and selectively bred the offspring for orange coloration. We also handpicked a stand out baby from a clutch of offspring being sold by the now defunct reptile wholesaler Burgundy Reptiles. This baby showed exceptional pink coloration and we anticipated that it would grow into a beautiful adult, which it did.

Below: An exceptional yearling showing bright orange coloration and a red tongue

 Everglades rat snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni

Over the years, extensive field experience in South Florida has allowed us to observe many hundreds, possibly even thousands, of rat snakes in the wild. We have retained a few stand out examples for our colony. Our adults tend to have bright orange background coloration with barely discernable stripes. The chins and throats are usually some shade of yellow or white. Many of our hatchlings show a pinkish hue, which intensifies into orange with age. The "true" Everglades rat has become somewhat of a myth among herpetoculturists. At Sunshine Serpents, we are working to make that myth a reality.

Below: A juvenile Everglades rat snake displaying pink coloration which will turn to orange as it matures.

 

 

In the Wild

The Mythical Everglades Rat Snake 

The Everglades rat snake has been the subject of controversy among herpetologists since its description. Its weak differentiation from the yellow rat snake E. o. quadrivittata drew criticism from many herpetologists, who did not consider it distinctive enough to warrant subspecies status. To confuse the situation even more, some have suggested that the conversion of the Everglades marshlands to sugar cane fields allowed neighboring yellow rat snakes to invade the area, genetically swamping the Everglades rat snake. The apparent rarity of rat snakes fitting the popular perception of rossalleni has given it somewhat mythical status among herp enthusiasts. Does the Everglades rat snake truly exist or did it ever? 

 

Below: A red-tongued adult from Miami-Dade County, FL

Everglades rat snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni Miami-Dade County, FL

The subspecies Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni was described by Wilfred T. Neill in 1949. He named it after his friend, the famous Florida reptile dealer and showman, Ross Allen. Allen founded the Reptile Institute at Silver Springs, FL. Through his collecting exploits, Allen was apparently aware of a distinctive form of rat snake from South Florida. As with several other notable Florida rarities such as the blotched king snake and the South Florida rainbow snake, he probably made Neill aware of its presence. Allen listed "Everglades rat snakes" in his catalog long before the subspecies was officially described by Neill.

 Neill diagnosed the subspecies as follows:

A large snake allied to E. obsoleta quadrivittata, ground

color of adults rich orange, orange-yellow, or orange-brown; dorsal and

lateral stripes present but not sharply defined, of a dull gray-brown

shade; a vague sublateral stripe, evident posteriorly, on the tips of

the ventrals; chin and throat bright orange; venter bright orange or

orange-yellow; scales with a glaucous sheen, at least anteriorly; iris

orange; tongue bright red. The diagnostic coloration is assumed at an

early age; the smallest specimen examined, 605 mm. total length, was

readily identifiable as rossalleni.

 

Below: Saw grass marsh in Miami-Dade County, FL

Everglades marsh 

The new form was described as an inhabitant of the marshes, prairies, swamps, and hammocks of the Everglades and Big Cypress Swamp. A large percentage of this region is now agricultural lands. Sugar cane, sod, and corn fields are criss crossed by drainage canals.

Below: Sugar cane field and water hyacinth choked canal in Palm Beach County, FL

Sugar cane field 

Rodents abound on the canal banks and support a robust population of rat snakes. Despite a ready food supply, life is perilous for rat snakes as a host of predators, including several ophidian ones like the Florida king snake and eastern indigo snake, are always on the lookout for the next meal. Rat snakes may be found just about anywhere where they can get off the ground.

 

Below: An orange juvenile found in an Australian pine in Palm Beach County, FL

Everglades rat snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni Australian pine 

 In an article in Herpetologica, Neill and Allen describe the microhabitats of E. o. rossalleni:

Many are discovered by night in the "Australian pine" trees (Casuarina equisetifolia) which have been planted along the highways in the area; others are found in roadside sheds, and also in the vicinity of bridges, where they secrete themselves in crevices between the road-bed and the bridge supports.

 

Below: A juvenile rat snake found in a crack between ties in a railroad bridge in Glades County, FL

Everglades rat snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni in railroad bridge 

Years later, our observations have been exactly the same, though we have noticed that the larger specimens that have less to fear from predators are more likely to be found under cover objects on the ground or even basking on canal banks. We found a five foot Everglades rat snake stretched out under a metal I-beam (used to support the guard rails along roads) with two four foot Florida king snakes. This husky rat snake had nothing to fear from the smaller king snakes.

 

Below: An adult rat snake found under tin in Glades County, FL

Everglades rat snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni under tin 

The wild rat snakes in the Everglades region today vary in color. They display a range of color varying from shades of brown to yellow and orange. Most specimens display distinctly lighter stripes than the yellow rat snakes from further north. By reading the above excerpt from the description, one should realize that there was some variation in the wild Everglades rat snakes at the time they were described. Even Neill's description of the type specimen did not really match his diagnosis for the subspecies. He described the head of the type specimen as being "mustard yellow" and the chin and throat as being "brilliant orange-yellow with an elongate white spot along the midline."  In addition, Wright and Wright described the dorsal coloration of three specimens descending from south of Lake Okeechobee that were received from Ross Allen in 1949 with terms like "buckthorn brown," "tawny olive," and "sayal brown."  None of these terms infers a bright orange dorsal coloration. None of the specimens that Wright and Wright examined had solid red tongues. They also describe the tongue of one specimen as being "red splotched with black."

Below: An interesting adult rat snake with mixed orange and yellow coloration from Glades County, FL

 Everglades rat snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni Glades County, FL

Even today, rat snakes from South Florida are readily distinguishable from those from Central and North Florida by their lighter stripes and generally brighter coloration. Certainly Ross Allen would have recognized a distinct difference in the snakes from his home town of Winter Haven in Polk County, FL or his adopted home with which he is most associated, Silver Springs, FL in Marion County as compared with the snakes from south of Lake Okeechobee.

 

Below: A comparison between a typical dark-striped rat snake with a straw yellow background from Central Florida (Hernando County) and a typical light-striped rat snake with an orange-yellow background from south of Lake Okeechobee (Hendry County)

Everglades Rat Snake Elaphe obsoleta quadrivittata Yellow Rat Snake E. o. quadrivittata Comparison

This author (Daniel Parker of Sunshine Serpents) has had the opportunity to follow in Allen's footsteps, having grown up near Winter Haven and now working on a field research project in Allen's former stomping grounds near Silver Springs. Our observations of rat snakes in the wild have led us to conclude that the rat snakes of South Florida are still distinct from those of Central and North Florida, though bright orange coloration might not be the most important characteristic. In our experience, only about 15-20% of the rat snake population south of Okeechobee is truly orange in color. However, many if not most of the rat snakes could be described as being orange-yellow, which seems to fit the description as far as we can tell. We would say that the rat snakes in South Florida are generally more colorful and have lighter stripes than specimens from farther north, be they orange, yellow, or somewhere in between.

Below: A classic adult from Palm Beach County, FL

Everglades rat snake Elaphe obsoleta rossalleni Palm Beach County, FL 

Listening to people describe the snake they just saw in their backyard or the coloration of the snakes on a reptile show table makes one realize how subjective color perception is. Unfortunately, our observations are limited to the modern era and extensive studies of subjective color descriptions by dead herpetologists and the viewing of old black and white photographs will not eliminate all confusion. Anecdotes from field collectors in the 1970's and 1980's lead one to believe that the finding of a bright orange rat snake was an exceptional event, though that time period was also when much of the founding stock for today's captive Everglades rat snake bloodlines was collected. If you believe that Everglades rat snakes had already been genetically swamped at that time and "pure" examples no longer existed, than that would mean that the captive Everglades rat snakes we have today are just selectively bred yellow rat snakes. Hobbyists will continue to argue on internet forums about what makes a "real" Everglades rat snake and whether it still exists in the wild or even captivity. All this argument is of little concern to modern herpetologists, who lump all of the rat snakes east of the Appalachian Mountains and the Apalachicola River into the newly described Patherophis alleghaniensis with no subspecies described. Whatever theory you buy into, one thing is certain: The myth of the Everglades rat snake continues.

 

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