By Mel Fowler
Gray ratsnakes are fairly distinct and unique in their own way. Yet to an untrained eye, they can be mistaken for another Ontarian snake! Most places where you can find a ratsnake hanging out, you also have a chance of seeing a northern watersnake. There are differences that are important to be aware of and it is quite easy to tell the difference once you have all the facts!
Watersnakes can grow up to 4 and a half feet in length, which is within the average range of grey ratsnakes. They both have black scales, cream coloured patterns on their bellies and coloured shapes on their back. So, it is understandable to get them mixed up. Here are some identification tips:
As a rule, a watersnake will be smaller then a gray ratsnake. Their colouring is also different. While the pattern on gray ratsnakes are created by yellow, orange, or cream coloured skin showing around their scales, the watersnake’s skin is more red in colour. The red skin creates a vertical, almost linear pattern on their backs. The pattern on a gray ratsnake is more diamond shaped splotches. Water snakes also have small ridges running down their scales called keels. Like the keel of a boat. They help the watersnakes swim. Ratsnakes also have keels but not nearly as pronounced so they will often look smooth and shiny, where the water snakes will look more rough and rugged.
These two snakes differ in more ways than physical appearance. They also live in slightly different habitats, which may help you if you are looking to catch a glimpse of a gray ratsnake. Water snakes prefer to live in and around ponds, swamps, rivers, bogs and streams. They are likely to make their nest in the long grass and low-growing bushes and shrubs. When a water snake is chilly and wants to warm up, it will slither out to a dead log in the shallow water and bask there. The ratsnake does swim but not as often and only when needed. Ratsnakes are more of a woodland species and frequently hang out along forest edges. This gives them quick access to sun and to shade and protection. They are able to feed off diets from both habitats. They like to be up in trees to catch some rays or to take a break in the shade of the leaves. They also enjoy old buildings like barns and homesteads as they will make a nest within the rotting logs and feed off the rodents that also live there.
The last and most important difference is their normal behaviour. Watersnakes tend to be more aggressive of the two. If you are encroaching on a watersnakes territory, it is likely to come towards you to scare you off, especially if in the water. On land, they will try to slither back to the water. If flight is not an option, they can strike and bite. Ratsnakes will also bite if they feel particularly threatened but they mostly like to keep to themselves. They are fairly docile and would rather leave you be if you leave them be. Watch out if they coiled or you can hear one vibrating it’s tail against the ground- it wants you to back off! Thankfully, neither of these species is venomous and you should do just fine if you let them go about their day without interruption.
As you can see, there are many differences in gray ratsnakes and watersnakes. Now that you have the basic facts, identification should be a breeze for you. Just remember three key tips: colouring, habitat, and behaviour. Let us know what you see!