Facts About Southern Black Racer Snakes
What Kind of Snake Is a Southern Black Racer?
The southern black racer (Coluber constrictor priapus) is a common subspecies of the Coluber constrictor. These snakes are non-venomous and are usually found throughout the southeastern United States, especially Florida. Besides the southern black racer, there are ten other subspecies of Coluber constrictors.
Coluber Constrictor Subspecies
- Buttermilk racer (Coluber constrictor anthicus)
- Northern black racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor)
- Tan racer (Coluber constrictor etheridgei)
- Easter yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor flaviventris)
- Blue racer (Coluber constrictor foxii)
- Brown-chinned racer (Coluber constrictor helvigularis)
- Black-masked racer (Coluber constrictor latrunculus)
- Mexican racer (Coluber constrictor oaxaca)
- Everglades racer (Coluber constrictor paludicola)
- Southern black racer (Coluber constrictor priapus)
- Western yellow-bellied racer (Coluber constrictor mormon)
Quick Facts About the Southern Black Racer
Black with a white chin
Wooded or grassy areas, brush, and thickets, suburban yards
Frogs, rodents, lizards, and other snakes
Are Southern Black Racers Poisonous?
Southern black racers are not poisonous. Instead of using venom, these snakes prefer to crush their prey into the ground and swallow it whole. With a scientific name like "constrictor," this behavior is very different from what many would expect. In any case, they rarely suffocate their prey by coiling themselves around it.
What Do Southern Black Racers Look Like?
As its name suggests, this snake is mainly black in color, with a black dorsal side, a gray belly, and a white chin. The white chin causes some to kill this snake, believing it to be the extremely dangerous cottonmouth, often called a water moccasin, a snake that also has a white chin. Other snakes that are similar in appearance to the racer are the indigo snake, the rat snake, and the garter snake.
Juvenile racers are blotched gray to reddish brown, and are smaller than the adults, which have an average size of between 20 to 55 inches (0.6 to 1.4 meters). The longest black racer ever discovered was 72 inches in length.
Where Do Southern Black Racers Live?
Southern black racers prefer to live in wooded areas, brush, and thickets, but can also be seen in more open areas. Like all cold-blooded specimens, which regulate their temperature by moving in and out of sunlight, this snake will reside in any place where there is both exposed and covered ground.
As they are very active in the daytime and less afraid of humans than most snakes, it is fairly common to see these snakes in suburban yards. Although they are not venomous, they can be aggressive, especially if handled. These snakes will never tolerate being picked up, and will defecate a foul smelling musk if provoked.
What Do Southern Black Racers Eat?
Black racers are predators that live on frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, rodents, and other small mammals. They essentially eat any small animal they can overpower through suffocation or by crushing them into the ground.
While these snakes are the enemies of the aforementioned specimens, the natural enemies of black racers are domestic dogs and cats, coyotes, and birds of prey such as the red-shouldered hawk and the broad-winged hawk. These birds use their extraordinary eyesight to identify black racers and attack them from above. The element of surprise these birds employ when attacking black racers renders their speed and ground awareness ineffectual.
How Do Southern Black Racers Behave?
One of the key facts to remember about these snakes is that they are fast moving, as suggested by their name. They will use their speed to escape from most threatening situations, and to add to their impressive ground mobility, they are also great swimmers and climbers.
While usually choosing flight over fight, if they are cornered, they are not afraid to bite repeatedly and with extreme force. They have also been known to charge at people to frighten them.
How Fast Is the Southern Black Racer?
Racers are fast snakes, slithering at a top speed of about four miles per hour (6.5 kilometers per hour), about the speed a human walking quickly. If threatened, they use this speed to flee into bushes, tall grass, or the low-hanging branches of nearby trees.
Do Southern Black Racers Shake Their Tails?
If these snakes feel threatened, they are known to vibrate their tails in leaves and grass in order to mimic the sound (and appearance) of a rattlesnake. Because of this, they are often found resting or hunting in grassy areas.
Southern Black Racer Shaking Its Tail
When Do Southern Black Racers Breed?
Southern black racer snakes breed and lay eggs between March and August. The female can lay up to 23 eggs, and, once hatched, the young, freshly-hatched snakes measure around six inches (15 cm) in length. As with other reptiles, they do not protect nor feed their young.
Are Southern Black Racers Endangered?
The black racer is considered an endangered species, according to the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. In Maine, racers are limited to the southern third of the state and could be lost entirely if their habitat continues to be destroyed by human activities.
Man is the greatest enemy of these snakes. They are often killed accidentally on highways, or intentionally by humans operating out of fear. By educating the public and teaching them how to identify these non-venomous snakes, perhaps their numbers will cease to decline.
Do Southern Black Racers Keep Poisonous Snakes Away?
There are a few myths associated with black racers that this article aims to expel, one of these being that they fight off venomous snakes. While black racers do sometimes eat other snakes, there is no evidence that they actively target venomous snakes. In fact, they prefer rodents to other types of prey, and they sometimes hibernate with venomous snakes like copperheads and rattlesnakes.
Another myth is that black racers mate with copperheads to create venomous, black snakes. This is not true. The myth stems from the appearance of juvenile black heads, which have colored markings similar to those of the copperhead. These markings fade to black, though, as the snake reaches adulthood.
Yet another myth is that black racers are entirely harmless. While it is true that they are not venomous, their bites are very painful and may become infected if not cleaned and treated properly. Still, if you see a black racer in your garden, you should let it be. Simply keep your distance to avoid being bitten.
- Palmer, E. Laurence, ed. (1974). Fieldbook of Natural History (2 ed.). McGraw Hill. ISBN 0-07-048425-2.
- The Reptile Database. www.reptile-database.org.
- Stejneger, L.H., and T. Barbour. 1917. A Check List of North American Amphibians and Reptiles. Harvard University Press.
Questions & Answers
I have a black racer snake in my yard, and my two cats like to get close and chase it. Are my cats in danger?
Black racers are non-venomous. They like to crush their prey and swallow it whole; typically small animals such as mice and frogs. A cat is generally too big to be in any serious danger.
I live in Spring Hill, Florida, and it is commonly believed that black racer snakes keep rattlesnakes and other venomous snakes away, so no one bothers the black racers in their yards. Is there any truth to this?
Black racers won't generally keep other snakes away. They do sometimes kill and eat other snakes, but they usually prefer other prey. Black racers have been known to hibernate with other snake species, including rattlesnakes and copperheads.
I have two (at least) black racers in my yard (Merritt Island, FL), and I don't mind them at all, except I now have a tame squirrel that I raised from a baby. He lives outside, but comes in every day to visit. I am terrified the snakes will catch him. Are they dangerous to squirrels?
Adult squirrels are generally too big for a black racer. The black racer has no venom, and lacks the body strength of a constrictor. They swallow their prey whole, so prefer smaller animals.
© 2011 Paul Goodman