The Indian Rat Snake is a well-behaved reptile

The Indian Rat Snake that emerges during the monsoon, is non-venomous and will not attack unless cornered

July 30, 2020 09:27 am | Updated 10:18 am IST

The Indian Rat Snake

The Indian Rat Snake

Throughout history, be it the legend of Jormungand, the Viking sea snake in Norse Mythology, or the Naga in Hindu mythology, the portrayal of snakes has always misled people into believing that they were terrifying evil creatures out to hurt us. On the contrary, they do us a huge service. Take the Indian Rat Snake, also called the farmer’s friend. It helps rid fields of rodents and does the same in urban settlements like ours.

Most snakes in India are non-venomous, but like any other animal, they too have ways to defend themselves. The Indian Rat Snake ( Ptyas mucosa ), which can sometimes grow to over 6 feet in length, is one such. They are not very aggressive by nature, but if threatened by humans or animals bigger than them, their first response is to try and escape. If cornered though, they inflate their throat and release a growl, before striking vigorously.

This behaviour or adaptation of inflating their throat and growling may be seen as mimicking a cobra to look more intimidating. It may also be one of the reasons for humans mistaking them for the venomous cobra. In fact the Indian Rat Snake is food for the Spectacled Cobra, along with a few other snakes like the Indian Rock Python, and some predatory birds.

Popularly known as Dhaman, the Indian Rat Snake is widely distributed across South and Southeast Asia, where it adapts quickly to a variety of habits: arid land, open fields, farmland, coastal regions, freshwater or brackish water wetlands. You’ll also see them in rat holes and termite mounds.

They come in a great range of colours: pale yellow, olive, brown, grey and even black. They have round pupils, heads larger than their necks, smooth scales, a keeled upper body, with an underside that has prominent dark bands.

The snake’s diurnal (active during both night and day) nature, agility, speed, alertness, and the ability to climb trees and rough surfaces, makes them highly versatile predators. Their hunting prowess provides for a diverse palate: lizards, birds (and eggs), frogs, and other snakes as well. Most small prey is swallowed alive, whereas the bigger prey is held down by the snake’s bodyweight (they don’t use the constriction method like pythons) until they weaken and give up.

One distinct behaviour is two individual snakes coiling their bodies around each other. The common misconception was that this was a mating ritual. It is actually a combat behaviour that resembles a dance between two males as they battle for dominance. Dominance is established with an attempt by one male to pin down the other for a few seconds, before letting go. The winner of this non-aggressive battle takes control of the territory, until another male encroaches and the process starts all over again.

Some years ago, I used to volunteer with a wildlife rescue organisation in the city. During the rainy season, when snake homes are flooded, the increase in rescue calls would escalate. Snake rescue is about helping humans and saving the snake from being killed. It made me realise that we have been coexisting with them (unknowingly) longer than we can remember.

Along with the Checkered Keelback and the Red Sand Boa, the Indian Rat Snake is one of the most common snakes that show up in areas like Vasant Kunj and Vasant Vihar. However, the Indian Rat Snake has also adapted well to concrete urban settlements, where it makes use of sewage lines, abandoned buildings, and uses the open area near archaeological ruins as shelter. I remember seeing one in a sewer near my house in Lajpat Nagar, where it had caught a huge rat. The struggle of the snarly rat and the commotion it caused is what gave it away.

Do mind your step in rainy weather and avoid areas with dense undergrowth. If you do get bitten, bites from the Indian Rat Snake can be very painful, but are just punctures and harmless. Visit a hospital immediately. They may treat it like a regular wound. It’s advisable to take a picture of the snake for information. A bite by a venomous snake will induce acute discomfort in a couple of minutes. Whether it’s venomous or not, the doctor will generally advise you to get admitted for general observation.

If you encounter a snake in Delhi-NCR, do call 9871963535 for Wildlife SOS. For other cities, get in touch with the local forest department or a credible wildlife rescue organisation.

The writer is the founder of NINOX - Owl About Nature, a nature-awareness initiative. He is the Delhi-NCR reviewer for Ebird, a Cornell University initiative, monitoring rare sightings of birds. He formerly led a programme of WWF India.

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