Climate change may act like a strong cup of coffee to rat snakes. By making the nights warmer, the cold-blooded reptiles will be able to stay active later into the night, which could make hunting easier.

An ecologist studied rat snakes in Texas to see how serpents in Illinois would react to a warmer world. Those Illinois snakes were in turn observed to suggest how Canadian populations might react.

Climate change would “actually make the environment thermally better for them,” said study leader Patrick Weatherhead of the University of Illinois in a press release. “Texas is already too hot for much of the day so it may cause them to shift to even more nocturnal foraging there and stay active at night for more of the season.”

However, Weatherhead noted that a warmer climate doesn’t mean rat snakes will proliferate. The snakes suffer from shrinking habitats and human cruelty.

“They are not a universally well-loved group of animals,” sad Weatherhead. “People are known to purposely swerve in the road to kill them. So, just because temperatures may become more beneficial for snakes it doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll have a plague of snakes. We may, however, have northern expansion of ranges.”

Killing the snakes in cold-blood isn’t the wisest choice for rural Americans. As their name would imply, rat snakes eat rodent pests that destroy crops.

Rat snakes aren’t limited to rodent prey. They also eat birds and their eggs. Staying active later into the night could make it easier for the snakes to get a feathered meal.

“Females are often on the nest incubating eggs or brooding the young at night,” Weatherhead said. “If they are doing that during the day and a snake approaches, they rarely get caught by the snake, but at night they are much more vulnerable because snakes are very stealthy and the incubating birds don’t detect the snake approaching. This is good for the snake because it gets a bigger meal.”

“The environmental repercussions could be significant if you start eliminating adult females from a population, particularly an endangered species,” he said. “The loss of females for native birds will have a big demographic effect on bird populations.”


Black rat snake, Pantherophis obsoletus (Patrick Coin, Wikimedia Commons)