Back Up, Man!

By Cody Noonan

A ratsnake secretes foul-smelling musk from its vent. Photo: Alida Lemieux.

It has been said time and time again that Gray Ratsnakes pose no danger to humans. But just like anything else, the ratsnake will protect itself from perceived threats, and it has some very unique and sneaky ways of doing so.

When you encounter a Gray Ratsnake in the wild, it will most likely do its best to get away from you. In the event that it becomes cornered, it has a few tricks up its sleeve.  The first defence is its posture. The snake may coil up and ‘stand’ on the back part of its body, making it appear larger and more frightening. From this
position it does something that a lot of animals do: mimic something more dangerous and deadly. The ratsnake will vibrate its tail very quickly on dry grass or leaves, making a noise similar to the rattle of a rattlesnake. Whether or not it’s consciously mimicking a rattlesnake doesn’t matter.  The fact that many people, and likely many other animals, have come to associate that sound with danger seems to work for the ratsnake. How does that saying go, “even if you can’t, pretend you can”? Something like that, anyway! But remember the Gray Ratsnake is not venomous, so don’t let the rattle noise fool you like it may fool predators.

Now if these defences don’t prove to be very effective, a provoked snake may turn to other method of protection: musking. Snake musk is a gooey, cream-coloured substance that the snake may ooze out of its vent (cloaca, or rear-end), and like mostthings that come out of an animal’s rear-end, it stinks! The liquid produces a stench that fills the air, and warns any predator, “I’m telling you, I taste as bad as I smell, so you may want to stay back!” Gabriel Blouin-Demers conducted a
study about sexual dimorphism (the differences between males and females of a species) in Gray Ratsnakes. After his research was done, he concluded that the only real difference between the genders was their reliance on musk as a defence. He concluded that gravid (pregnant) female snakes have a musk that is far more pungent smelling than males’, and that these females use musk as a defence more often than males do. It makes complete sense: I’m sure it’s probably hard for a pregnant woman of any species to stand up on her behind and vibrate her bottom on the grass!

Even though they aren’t dangerous, Gray Ratsnakes are still wild animals and just like any other creature they’re most likely going to try to protect themselves. Imagine if you picked up a cute and cuddly wild Cottontail Rabbit: just see if it doesn’t try to bite or scratch you (kids, don’t try this at home)!  Either way ratsnakes are creatures that have some great ways of keeping predators and humans at bay, so be prepared next time you take a closer look at one of these animals.  If it starts to get a little agitated, you may just want to take a few steps back and admire it from a distance.  Otherwise, you may be in for one smelly surprise!

To learn more about sexual dimorphism in Gray Ratsnakes visit http://mysite.science.uottawa.ca/gblouin/publications/003_2000_brs_nws_musk.pdf

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