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A Snake in the Grass

head of a blue-green adult eastern yellow-bellied racer

The eastern yellow-bellied racer is a common snake in the grasslands of western South Dakota.  True to their name, racers are speedy snakes, long and slender.  They’re nonvenomous and, in my opinion, beautiful: the archetype of what a snake should be.  I was delighted to see this blue-green adult racer, roughly three feet in length, as I walked home for lunch today.The eastern yellowbelly is a subspecies of the racer Coluber constrictor.  The species as a whole is distributed throughout the Lower 48 states and as far south as Guatemala, but racers fall into nine different subspecies.  My local resident eastern yellow-bellied racers, C. constrictor flaviventris (from the Latin flavus, meaning yellow, and ventris, stomach), occur on the prairies from Saskatchewan to Texas.

Commonly called blue racers, these snakes zip away through the grass if you get too close.  They have a reputation for coiling and striking people who attempt to handle them (and really, who can blame them?) but they won’t do any real harm.  Like most snakes, they prefer to avoid confrontation, and they do so in sometimes interesting ways: one racer I startled a few years ago along a roadside began vibrating its tail rapidly against dried-up leaves of grass, mimicking the sound of a rattlesnake.

It takes young snakes two to three years to attain adult size and coloration.  Until they reach about thirty inches in length, racers are strongly patterned in shades of brown and tan.  South Dakota Game, Fish & Parks has photos that illustrate the dramatic difference between the patterned young and the solid-colored adults.

To learn more about racers, visit the University of Michigan’s Animal Diversity Web.  To learn more about snake conservation, check out the website of the Orianne Society.

a long, slender eastern yellow-bellied racer </i>(Coluber constrictor)</i> slithers across a driveway

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