Wild Florida: The Southern Black Racer Snake

Florida’s tropical habitat makes it well-suited for reptiles and a population center for turtles and snakes. Most of our snakes are secretive and nocturnal, and despite their numbers are not often seen. One exception, however, is the Black Racer.

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Southern Black Racer (Coluber constrictor priapus)

The Racers, all in the species Coluber constrictor, are a group of snakes that are unique to the Americas. Also sometimes known locally as “Runners”, the Racers get their name from their active lifestyle and their habit of escaping danger by speeding off into the underbrush. Unlike most snakes, which are nocturnal and sedentary, Racers are diurnal and active during the day, where they are fast and agile hunters. Not only can they move rapidly along the ground, but they are also efficient swimmers as well as climbers. Their large eyes give them excellent vision, though they lack color receptors and see mostly in black and white, hunting by detecting motion. While hunting, they will often raise their heads high off the ground for a good look around.

The scientific name is a misnomer. The Racer snakes do not wrap their bodies around prey and constrict it like a python, though they may use their body to press their prey to the ground to hold it. Because they feed on animals like frogs, small lizards, nestling birds or baby mammals that are not capable of defending themselves, Racers will often simply seize their prey and swallow it alive.

There are at least a dozen different subspecies, ranging from Canada through the United States and Mexico down into Guatemala and Belize. The Northern Black Racer, C. constrictor constrictor, is found in Canada and the northeastern US. The Blue Racer, C. constrictor foxii, is found in the Midwest, and in the American West are the two varieties of Yellow-Belly Racers. The Mexican Racer, C. constrictor oaxaca, is found in Texas and Mexico.

In Florida, we have three different subspecies. The Everglades Rat Snake, Coluber constrictor paludicola, is found in the southern tip of the state. The Brown-chin Racer, Coluber constrictor helvigularis, is found in a small area along the Georgia border.

But by far our most common subspecies is the Southern Black Racer, Coluber constrictor priapus, which ranges across the Southeastern US and down into Florida. Because they are large, active and out during the day, if you are so fortunate as to see a wild snake in Florida, odds are that it will be a Southern Black Racer.

In appearance, the Southern Black Racer is a slender plain black snake, ranging up to six feet in length but usually between two and three feet long. The scales are smooth and have a matte finish, which gives them a wonderful satiny sheen. The belly is greyish and the chin is white. The eyes are very big and conspicuous.

The young Racers look totally different than the adults. Racers lay clutches of 15-25 oval eggs in the early summer. Oftentimes a number of females will lay their eggs together in the same nesting spot, but Racers do not give any parental care to their eggs or young. The hatchlings that emerge are 7-8 inches long, and are a greyish tan color with round reddish-brown patches along their back. As they grow, they lose their colors and turn black.

The Racer Snake is usually encountered while it is out hunting. The primary prey are the little Anole Lizards that are found everywhere in Florida, as well as toads. The Racer hunts these by sight, often pursuing them along the ground. They will also readily climb bushes and trees to find sleeping tree frogs or hatchling birds in their nests. Because they are so confident in their ability to escape when pursued, Racers are one of the few snakes that can live comfortably in close proximity to humans, and are common residents of urban parks, cemeteries, and backyards.

But Racers are themselves prey for a variety of animals. King Snakes capture and eat them, as well as mammalian predators like skunks or raccoons. Often, the Racer snake’s speed is enough to give it at least an even chance of escape. (When threatened by predators, Racers will often vibrate the tips of their tails, which, when done in dry grass or leaves, can often sound enough like a rattlesnake to make the predator think twice about it.) One predator that is more difficult for the Racer to deal with are hawks and eagles, which can swoop down from above, seize the snake in its talons, and be off before the snake even knows what has happened. Because of this danger, Racer snakes on the prowl show a distinct preference to stay among rocks or tall grass, and do not like to be exposed out in the open. But humans are the biggest danger to urban Racers–large numbers are run over by cars, and many people with shovels still kill them if given the opportunity.

Because Racers are so common and so conspicuous, many young children attempt to catch them as pets. But not only is this technically illegal, it is also generally a bad idea. Racer Snakes are nervous and defensive, and while their primary instinct is to run away when threatened, if they are cornered without an escape they will readily turn and defend themselves. Although they have no venom, they will bite freely, so if you pick one up, you can expect to be bitten repeatedly, hard enough to draw blood. They also have musk glands in the base of their tail, which they will smear all over you. In captivity, they do not ever tame or settle down, will always try to bite, and will often become so stressed that they will refuse to eat, and will stubbornly starve themselves to death. They are best admired in the wild.

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Forgotten mysteries, oddities and unknown stories from history, nature and science.