Corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) are medium-sized rat snakes native to North America. They are commonly found in the southeastern United States, ranging from New Jersey to Florida and as far west as Texas. These corn snake facts will tackle their popularity in the pet trade, along with some misconceptions about them.
You can find the corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) commonly referred to by different names, some of which may initially appear misleading. The term "corn snake" originates from the resemblance of their belly's checkerboard pattern to the checkered kernels of maize or Indian corn.
Some believed that they acquired their name from their tendency to inhabit cornfields or agricultural areas where mice and rats, their primary prey, eat harvested corn. These snakes are known to hunt rodents attracted to corn crops, earning them the name "corn snake."
People also sometimes call them "red rat snakes" due to their reddish coloration and their diet of rats and mice. While corn snakes can inhabit various habitats beyond cornfields, their association with agricultural areas and diet played a significant role in their common name.
Corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) and rat snakes (Elaphe and Pantherophis spp.) are closely related and belong to the same genus, Pantherophis, within the family Colubridae.
Unlike the Old World rat snakes renowned for their aggressive nature, corn snakes, often mistaken for New World rat snakes, are known for their docile temperament, making them an excellent choice for beginner snake enthusiasts.
In the past, corn snakes and other rat snakes were classified under the genus Elaphe, but taxonomic revisions have led to the reclassification of several species into the genus Pantherophis.
Pantherophis includes a diverse group of non-venomous colubrid snakes found predominantly in North America. Various species exist within this genus, some of which were previously considered rat snakes.
Corn snakes are a specific snake species within the Pantherophis genus. In contrast, rat snakes encompass several species, such as the Eastern rat snake (Pantherophis alleghaniensis), Texas rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus), and the great plains rat snake (Pantherophis emoryi).
Related read: Types of Snakes.
In their natural habitat, corn snakes typically have a pattern of reddish or orange scales with large, dark-bordered blotches running down their bodies. However, selective breeding over the years has led to a wide array of color variations and patterns known as "morphs."
Over 50 selectively bred morphs of the corn snake are available in the pet trade. Two of the most popular morphs are the red-eyed Snow Corn Snakes (with white or cream-colored bodies and black or dark gray markings) and Lavender Corn Snakes (exhibiting a pastel and soft purple or lavender coloration).
Corn snake hybrids (also called jungle corn snakes) also exist. Examples include King Corns (corn snake x California king snake), Coral Snows (corn snake x snow corn snake), Turbo Corn Snakes (corn snake x Pituophis species), Butter Corns (corn snake x butter ball python), and Creamsicles (corn snake x albino California king snake).
Corn snakes are native to the Southeastern United States, ranging from New Jersey to the Florida Keys and as far west as Utah. Wild Corn snakes prefer habitats such as overgrown fields, forest openings, trees, palmetto flatwoods, and abandoned buildings or seldom-used buildings and farms. They can also be found on rocky hillsides and tropical hammocks.
In colder regions, corn snakes brumate during winter. They enter a state similar to hibernation, slowing their metabolism and becoming less active. However, in the more temperate climate along the coast, it shelters in rock crevices and logs during cold weather.
Another interesting corn snake fact is that they are skilled climbers who can access shrubs and trees. This enables them to target bird nests as a potential food source. While they are primarily terrestrial hunters, their climbing skills allow them to ascend trees and expand their foraging opportunities.
The preferred diet of corn snakes consists primarily of small mammals2, particularly rodents. In the wild, they commonly feed on mice, rats, and other small rodents suitable for their size. Studies on the feeding habits of corn snakes suggest that they play a crucial role in controlling rodent populations.
Corn snakes are opportunistic feeders, meaning they will eat a variety of prey when available. Apart from rodents, they may consume unguarded bird eggs, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.
Corn snakes are polygamous (have multiple mates) and typically breed in the spring or early summer, usually between March and May. Males court females using body movements, head bobbing, and tongue flicking. Once the female accepts the male's advances, they engage in physical interactions, positioning themselves alongside each other to align their cloacae for copulation.
The male then inserts one of his hemipenes into the female's cloaca, allowing the transfer of sperm to fertilize the eggs. Researchers don't know why these species have two penises, but it may be for higher reproductive success. Because each testis is dedicated to a single hemipenis, an alternating pattern of hemipenis use would allow a male a second chance to transfer a fresh batch of sperm to other females.
One shocking fact about corn snakes is that a female can control whether she wants to be pregnant after mating. Under unfavorable conditions, a female can store sperm from a single mating event for an extended period3, potentially up to five years. This phenomenon allows female corn snakes to delay fertilization until conditions are favorable for egg-laying and incubation.
Additionally, she gets to choose which sperm to use. Her clutch can comprise multiple offspring from different fathers!
After around 60-65 days, females lay 20-30 eggs. Unfortunately, baby corn snakes don't have the chance to meet their parents as the mother usually leaves the eggs after laying them. The young corn snakes, generally around 8 to 12 inches long, may eat small rodents like Pinky Mice and Fuzzy Mice.
Corn snakes, like many colubrid snakes, are not venomous because they lack the specialized glands and fangs required for venom production and delivery. Instead, they are constrictors, which means they subdue their prey through constriction rather than venom injection. Corn snakes have powerful muscles and flexible bodies that can overpower their game.
A corn snake detects potential prey by using its keen sense of smell and flicking its tongue to pick up scent particles in the air. When the time is right, the corn snake strikes, seizing the prey with its sharp teeth and coiling its body around it. They then swallow their prey whole, usually head first.
Corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) are often mistaken for venomous copperhead snakes (Agkistrodon contortrix) due to certain similarities in their appearance. Both snakes display patterns of dark blotches and reddish or brownish colors. However, several key differences between these two species can help distinguish them.
Copperheads are venomous, while corn snakes are not. Copperheads have triangular-shaped heads and vertical pupils, while corn snakes have rounded heads and round pupils. The body patterns are also different, with copperheads having hourglass-shaped markings and corn snakes having a pattern resembling maize kernels. Furthermore, copperhead snakes have vertical pupils, while corn snakes, like other colubrids, have round pupils.
In the UK, most corn snakes are bred in captivity rather than being wild-caught. Captive breeding has become the preferred method for producing corn snakes in the pet trade for several reasons, including the preservation of wild populations and the ability to make a variety of color and pattern morphs.
Moreover, they are among the most popular captive-bred snakes and a perfect choice for beginner snake owners. Captive corn snakes tolerate being held for an extended period. They are also relatively calm. Furthermore, corn snakes play an ecologically important role as they help control populations of wild rodent pests that damage crops and spread disease.
Next on our corn snake facts list: They have an impressive lifespan in the wild, ranging from 15 to 20 years. They possess remarkable resilience, adapting to their surroundings and employing nocturnal behavior to effectively navigate challenges such as food scarcity and predation.
The disparity in lifespan between wild and captive snakes suggests a significant longevity advantage when they live in captivity. They are sheltered from predators in a controlled environment, receive regular and reliable meals, and benefit from carefully managed living conditions.
The illegal pet trade has a devastating impact on the ecosystem. One of its consequences has been the unregulated spread of the red rat snake beyond its native habitats in North America, enabling it to establish new colonies in different regions.
In Australia, the corn snake is listed as an invasive species. The species appears to thrive despite capturing 79 of them between 2002 and 20141.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species has not considered the corn snakes endangered or threatened in the wild.
While the corn snake is not currently under significant threat, habitat destruction can pose a local threat in some areas. Human activities such as urbanization, agriculture, and deforestation can impact their natural habitats. Furthermore, people often kill them as they mistook them for the venomous copperhead.
We're glad that you've learned some interesting facts about corn snakes and have gained an appreciation for these incredible creatures.
McFadden, M., Topham, P., & Harlow, P. S. (2017). A Ticking Time Bomb: Is the illegal pet trade a pathway for the establishment of Corn Snake (Elaphe guttata) populations in Australia? The Australian Zoologist, 38(4), 499–504.
Degregorio, B. A., Weatherhead, P. J., & Sperry, J. H. (2016). Ecology and predation behavior of corn snakes (Pantherophis guttatus) on avian nests. Herpetological Conservation and Biology, 11(1), 150-159.
Shine, R. (2003). Reproductive strategies in snakes. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 270(1519), 995–1004.
Chinny Verana is a degree-qualified marine biologist and researcher passionate about nature and conservation. Her expertise allows her to deeply understand the intricate relationships between marine life and their habitats.
Her unwavering love for the environment fuels her mission to create valuable content for TRVST, ensuring that readers are enlightened about the importance of biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation efforts.
Fact Checked By:
Mike Gomez, BA.