Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Surprise! A baby Black Rat Snake in the house...

A week or so ago, Rick went into the downstairs bathroom and jumped when he almost stepped on a plastic snake. "That Kelly and Matty," he said to himself, immediately assuming we put the snake there to scare him, but when he went to pick it up, it moved! Then he really jumped! It is strange to find a snake in your house, and if you're not used to them, it can be a bit unnerving. When Rick yelled up that there was a snake in his office (it had quickly slithered out of the bathroom and into his office), and could I please come down and get it, I was excited. "REALLY?" I yelled down to him. We've never had a snake in our house before, and I couldn't wait to find out what kind it was. I was happy to see it was a very sweet and cooperative young Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta). Funny thing about Black Rat Snakes, when they are young, they aren't black. They are grey with black designs called "saddles" on their backs and splotches on their sides...

How to identify a baby Black Rat Snake
This is the baby Black Rat Snake Rick found in our downstairs bathroom. He looks nothing like he will as an adult when his dorsal coloring will be mostly black (although the pattern still exists, it's just hard to see), and his ventral coloring will be white. As a baby, he has a gray background with dark saddles on top and splotches on the side. This baby was very docile. he didn't try to strike, and he didn't musk either. I held him loosely and he was content to climb from one hand to the next. (Rick took this photo with his iPhone, and the snake was constantly moving!)

Our little encounter with the baby Black Rat Snake reminded me that last year I photographed "Steve," the famous adult Black Rat Snake from Shawnee State Park's nature center, but I never got around to posting the photos...

Rostral groove
Steve was very cooperative. When I would lay on the ground with my camera, Steve would crawl toward me, which let me focus the lens on his face. I wanted to capture the "rostral groove," which is the small notch in a snake's upper lip. Snakes flick their tongues in and out of their mouths through this groove without ever having to open their mouths...

Closeup of an adult Black Rat Snake with tongue flicking out through rostral groove
Steve, an adult Black Rat Snake, flicks his tongue in and out of his mouth through the rostral groove.  
Jacobson's Organ
Once the tongue is pulled back into the snake's mouth, it is retracted into a protective sheath. A snake's tongue is vital to its survival because it functions as a sense organ of smell allowing the snake to seek out and find prey, so it's only natural it would be protected this way. When the tongue is flicked out, chemical particles in the air (scent molecules) adhere to the moisture on the tongue. Once retracted into the sheath, the forked tips of the tongue remain exposed and settle into two pockets in the roof of the mouth called the "Jacobson's Organ." Here the scent molecules are transferred to receptors in the nerve-laden lining of the Jacobson's Organ where they are interpreted and then relayed as messages to the brain. All this sounds time consuming, but just like when we touch something hot, the brain recognizes the stimuli almost instantly.  If the tongue or any part of the Jacobson's organ is damaged, it's difficult for the snake to survive. (For a detailed explanation of this process, click here and here.) In a way, the snake's tongue works in stereo. If more chemical particles are on the right fork, the snake turns right, etc.

Pencil sketch of a Black Rat Snake with rostral groove labeled (by Kelly Riccetti)
Pencil sketch of Steve, the Black Rat Snake, with the rostral groove labeled.

Pencil sketch of the open mouth of an Eastern Hognose Snake with Jacobson's Organ, protective sheath, and rostral groove labeled (by Kelly Riccetti)
Pencil sketch of the inside of an Eastern Hognose snake's mouth with Jacobson's organ labeled. I loved seeing the gaping maul of this snake. It's the only time I've been able to photograph the inside of a snake's mouth and actually see the tongue's protective sheath and the pockets for the Jacobson's Organ (where the forked tongue rests when retracted). 

Black Rat Snake crawling on ground with straight-on shot of the head (blue eyes indicate shedding)
Steve, the Black Rat Snake, crawling on the ground. Black Rat Snakes love woods, and they love to climb in trees. They are also big. I'm posting this photo just for Joni, my mom, who's not keen on snakes. "Hey, mom! Remember that huge Black Rat snake that came our way when I was about two years old?" I don't remember the snake. I've only been told stories, but I imagine he looked something like this!

This photo helps demonstrate how big Black Rat Snakes can get. They are the largest snakes in Ohio and can reach six-eight feet in length.  Again, this is Steve. He is being held by a young snake lover. To further drive the point home, the boy's twin is holding the other half of the snake. I never measured Steve, but he was at least six feet (if not more). 

Pencil sketch of a Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) by Kelly Riccetti
A partial pencil sketch of Steve, the Black Rat Snake. Steve was old. Over the years, he has  converted more "snake-a-phobes" (ophidiophobics) to "snake-a-philes" than any other snake at the nature center. This summer was sad, because Steve was no longer there. He died of a tumor this winter. He lived a very long life, and had an impact on many humans. Children (and adults) would walk into the nature center petrified of snakes, but after seeing and holding Steve, they fell in love with him and many were no longer afraid. Lots of kids (and adults) lamented Steve's death this summer when Matty and I were there for our week of volunteering.

p.s. Does that snake have cataracts?
I thought I'd pop this tidbit in quickly since a few of the photos show the snake's "blue" eyes. Last year when Matty and I were there, Steve's eyes turned cloudy and blue, and many of the visitors at the nature center asked me if the snake had cataracts. It looks like he does, but really its just a sign the snake is about to shed its skin. Snakes don't have eyelids. They have special scales called eye caps. These eye caps are shed along with the skin.



Baby Black Rat Snake (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) from Kelly Riccetti on Vimeo.
A quick video Rick took of our little Black Rat Snake while I released him in the backyard.

18 comments:

Penny said...

What a beautiful young snake, not madly keen on the ones we mostly get here in Oz as they are all poisonous and can get pretty aggressive, but this one you have is a charmer.

holdingmoments said...

A very enjoyable Kelly.
To see the small snake you had in your house, and then to see how big he can get, wow.

Bob Bushell said...

How beautiful is it, the Black Rat Snake living in your house, awesome.

TexWisGirl said...

they are so beautiful. glad that the one in the house was a harmless variety. we get copperheads and water mocassins here - and up by the house.

Janice K said...

Wow...I'm glad our surprise guest was a little different than yours.

I brought the flowers in the house that I did not want to freeze about a week ago. I had two pots setting at the end of our bedroom, and one morning I awoke to some unusual noise. I thought it must be a bird or a chipmunk, but I couldn't seen anything..it seemed to be coming from the plants. I set the plants out for a couple of days hoping whatever it was would leave. I then decided to return the plants inside just one at a time. Last night I heard the sound again. It was so load the cats even came running in. I still didn't see anything, but as I was carrying the pot to put it back outside, there sat a faiarly good sized green toad or frog in our hallway. My husband quickly picked it up in a paper towel and gently put it back outside. I never did get a real good look at him. Today I brought the plants back and; and hopefully he did not have any other siblings living with him. I'm not sure I could have handled a snake nearly as well.

Have a happy day!

Lois Evensen said...

Wow! What a post from a snake in your house! Love it. The blue eyes are quite pretty. I wonder how well he can see until his skin is shed.

Wonderful post!

Gillian Olson said...

Wonderful pictures and interesting facts on the snake. Loved the face on views and your drawings. Thank you,

Kathy A. Johnson said...

I'm not crazy about snakes, but I respect them. This was a very interesting post, and I got a kick out of the fact that your husband called you to get the snake!

Last week we had a tiny ringneck snake in our driveway--so tiny I thought he was a worm! I watched him slither his way into the grass while I collected the trash cans.

Kat Griffin said...

the photo of the big one and the blue eyes just are so so strikingly beautiful. Amazing creatures snake.
Thanks for sharing more info on this black snake I never dreamt that we had such big ones right here in Ohio

Very Cool, Kelly
-KAT-

Dan Huber said...

wonderful post Kelly. How fun to find wildlife in the house. I love your drawings of Steve and the close-up photos. Gorgeous - thanks for sharing.

Katherine Edison said...

Fantastic blog! I love the sketches, too. Great information. I'm not familiar with the black rat snake. The baby resembles the baby red rat snakes we have in Florida.

Montanagirl said...

I can't believe how beautiful those big blue eyes are! I have never seen such a thing before. Nice photos, Kelly! And interesting post.

Tammie Lee said...

this is all so interesting Kelly.
i love the story of your husband calling to you to get the snake. usually it is the woman calling for the man.

loved seeing your sketches too, they are wonderfully realistic.

Jerry said...

What an amazing post so packed full of incredible information, photographs and artwork. I remember my son in the Camargue in France with a snake slithering around his wheelchair - he was so pleased and excited whilst everyone else was screaming and nervous!

thatoneoldguy said...

I love the way in your sketches you captured the "life" of the snake. Not only my favorite blogger but your fast becoming one of my favorite artists as well

Kelly said...

...thank you once again for your kind words!! You're always so nice!

Quite a surprise to find a snake in our house, but one I loved. It was very exciting to find the baby. We have no idea how it got in, and we have not had a repeat performance...

Guy said...

Hi Kelly

Great information as always and the photos were great, the sketches are amazing.

All the best.
Guy

Becky Walton said...

Your house visitor was so adorable! Just vivid markings they have when young.