Spying on the rat snake

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What’s urgently required is a policy of ‘live and let live’ towards all creatures, big and small. This compassion comes with familiarity and understanding of how each creature is a crucial cog in our neighbourhood and ecosystem.

A snake in the grass can be man’s friend, when you consider your country home could be overrun with rats if not for this slithering Ptyas mucosa. | K.R. Deepak

Perhaps nothing evokes as much revulsion and fear in us as the sight of a snake, especially when it happens to be a large one like the common Indian rat snake (Ptyas mucosa) or ‘Dhaman’ as it’s referred to in some places. Some grow up to 8 feet in length and scare one by its sheer size, not to mention the sight — repulsive to many — of its forked tongue darting in and out. In fact it’s hardly surprising that we tend to recoil with horror when we find one near us.

Perhaps it’s the quiet seclusion of my home coupled with its sylvan surroundings that draws snakes to it. Familiarity occasioned by regular sightings has enabled my wife and me to largely shed our fear of the rat snake. The heavily overgrown vegetation in the abandoned property next to ours provides ideal cover for several of them.

Now and then, as we relax in our verandah, we see a pair crossing our drive hardly 15 feet from us, quite unmindful of our presence. However, any sudden movement on our part sends them scurrying away — only to return a little later. Some of our friends refused to believe that rat snakes visit our courtyard on and off until one day one of them happened to visit us and find a huge specimen slowly slithering across the drive. He fled forthwith and now prefers to keep in touch with us by phone rather than call on us.

 

 

Yet we have a healthy respect for the rat snake and discreetly keep our distance. It’s known to be non-aggressive by nature, but step on one by mistake and you’re likely to be bitten in self-defence, though its bite is non-venomous. Once, a rat snake, hidden among the dry leaves littering our compound, suddenly darted past me, alarmed, its tail whipping my ankle. Before I could recover from the shock, it had disappeared into the undergrowth. Another time I bent to pick up what I thought was a length of rubber hosing when it moved forward with a fluid motion. I recoiled in horror as I realised it was the middle of a big rat snake, its head buried in dense foliage.

Fairly regular ‘interaction’ with the rat snake has taught me certain ‘basics’ about it. Varying in colour from pale brown to nearly black with a light-hued underside, it’s largely diurnal and also semi-arboreal, fluidly gliding through low trees with remarkable ease. Surprisingly agile, I once saw one raise itself vertically against a 7-foot-high embankment near our well and glide over to the other side effortlessly.

The rat snake generally prefers forest floors, wetlands, paddy fields, farmland and suburban areas where it preys on small reptiles, frogs, rats and mice. Wary, quick to react and fast-moving, it can disappear in a trice when alarmed or attacked by humans. It has few natural enemies other than the king cobra which preys on it.

 

 

The rat snake is often hunted for its skin which is illegally exported. It sloughs its skin from time to time – I once had one such skin measured and found it to be well over 6 feet in length, so the actual snake must have been at least 7 feet long. Some people are even known to fancy its flesh in the mistaken belief that it’s beneficial for rheumatic problems.

As a contortionist, the rat snake perhaps has no rival in the world of reptiles. I once observed a slender young specimen about 4 feet long crawl into a small crevice in the embankment next to our bedroom window. It crammed itself into that tiny space for the next four hours or so, believing it had gone unnoticed. Spying on it from the bedroom window from time to time, I espied it emerge cautiously around 4 p.m. and disappear into the nearby underbrush. The crevice had a diameter of just half an inch and a depth of hardly four inches, and the snake had apparently secreted itself in there to escape the blistering midday heat.

Another sweltering summer day we found a large rat snake ensconced in the cool shade under our car. Lethargic in the midday heat, it had to be virtually prodded out.

For presumably the same reason — namely, respite from soaring temperatures — we once found a couple of rat snakes holed up in the space between the rafters and the roof of our old unoccupied house a little distance away, much to our neighbours’ and caretaker’s consternation. They were convinced the pair were cobras that would make the house uninhabitable unless we got rid of them pronto. And they seized the first opportunity they got to batter the snakes into pulp — only to realise their mistake.

Contrary to the popular misconception, the rat snake doesn’t mate with the cobra but only within its own species — an act few have been privileged to witness. I once saw a rare colour photograph, taken by a planter in his garden near Munnar, of two rat snakes apparently mating, their bodies intertwined vertically. The rat snake, incidentally, is oviparous: the female produces between 6-15 eggs per clutch which it guards and incubates over a period of 60-80 days.

Lured by the presence of rat snakes, a grey mongoose visits our compound from time to time. And once I was singularly fortunate to witness it and a large rat snake thrashing about in the undergrowth, locked in a deadly duel. The vegetation, however, was too dense to determine who the ultimate winner was.

Thankfully, gone are the days when cries of “Paambu! Paambu!” brought people rushing out of their homes armed with sticks to batter the hapless intruder into pulp. Today, thanks to better understanding and awareness of the crucial role that snakes play in rodent control and maintaining the balance of nature, the reptiles are generally spared.

What’s urgently required is a policy of ‘live and let live’ towards all creatures, big and small.

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