Urban Wildlife Series: Indian Rat Snake (Ptyas mucosa)

IUCN Red List Status: Least Concern (IUCN 3.1)
National Red List Status: Least Concern

Indian rat snakes (Ptyas mucosa) also known as Oriental rat snakes have this triggered “what the…” look, like always. It’s like when someone stole your parking space (or when someone takes Joey’s food). It’s not because they had a bad day or anything it’s because that’s how they have evolved to look like. Just because they look like they want to fight you in a dark alley does not mean that they are dangerous. They’re harmless and non-venomous and just want to have some rats for dinner, hence their name. They don’t discriminate though, they prey on mice too, thus contributing to controlling rodent populations. Their harmless nature is known even in Sinhalese culture where there is a saying that goes like this “ගැරඬි මරලා පව් පුරව ගන්න එපා” and translates to “don’t go accruing sins by killing rat snakes”. 

The chances of seeing a rat snake in your home garden or down your street is high, because they are very well adapted to urban environments. The boom in the urban rodent count caused  by our reckless and selfish garbage dumping methods are also a contributing factor to the rat snake’s All Day Neighbourhood Pass. If you do see one near your house however, don’t panic. And DO NOT douse them with a bucketload of gasoline, because chances are, that in a moment of panic you might end up dousing your office clothes which are hung out to dry instead. Good luck explaining to your boss why you smell like a CEYPETCO shed. Plus, kerosine greatly irritates their skin if it gets past the scales. So just make sure all entry points to the house are closed or barred and wait until it moves out. Usually when they sense human presence, they slither away fast. 

Rat snake sunning herself on a garden fence. Photograph by Mihiri Wikramanayake.

Talking about rat snakes slithering (not to be mistaken for the Hogwarts house, Slytherin) away, they are quite agile and fast-moving when needed. They are a diurnal, semi-arboreal and highly territorial species and will defend their territories aggressively (much like you and I would defend our own homes). They happen to be the second largest snake in the country, after the Indian Rock Python (Python molurus), and if conditions are right, they can grow up to eight feet in length. If threatened, they may flatten their necks and emit a sort of growl to deter the threat. Unfortunately, this warning display can bring about their end because many people often  mistake them for  the spectacled cobra (Naja naja). Female rat snakes lay a batch of eggs that number between six to 15, and they (the adults, not the eggs!) breed year-round in tropical climates.

The amnesty and personal space that they experience in Sri Lanka are not shown elsewhere. And sadly, they are hunted illegally for their skin and sometimes for their meat at largely unsustainable and damaging levels to the ecosystems that they are an important part of.

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