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Thursday, June 9, 2005


Four-lined rat snake

* Japanese name: Shimahebi
* Scientific name: Elaphe quadrivirgata
* Description: Unfortunately, despite the name, this snake does not always have four lines running down its length. Often it has black lines running down a light-brown body (as in the photo), or sometimes lighter, dashed lines that are harder to see. Sometimes, there are none at all, and the whole body is black (in this case it is known as the Crow snake). All Four-lined rat snakes, however, are 80-200 cm long.
* Where to find them: Again, despite the Japanese name (meaning "island snake"), this species is very common all over mainland Japan, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, in grassland, farmland and the lowlands of mountains. They can also commonly be seen in gardens and parks in urban areas. Rat snakes found on islands, however, tend to be larger than their mainland counterparts. They like resting in trees after eating. Rat snakes hibernate over winter, often in houses, but don't worry -- they are generally placid and not venomous (although, of course, no snakes should be handled without expert advice). When they emerge in the spring they are soon ready to mate. The female lays 4-16 eggs in August, and about 50 days later, the young are ready to hatch. They use a special "tooth" on the snout to tear open the egg shell (the tooth falls off when they are done).
* Food: Other species of rat snakes live up to their name, but the Four-lined rat snake, already contrary in not always having lines, doesn't eat rats, either. This species prefers lizards and frogs, as several studies of its regurgitated stomach contents have discovered; in the north of Japan frogs are preferred, but further south, it's lizards.
* Special features: Four-lined rat snakes carry sophisticated sensory apparatus. In a row next to the teeth there are special sensory glands packed with taste buds and nerve cells. The amount and complexity of the chemical sensory cells (taste buds) are among the highest in all vertebrates: The rat snake gets a lot of information about its prey through its mouth.

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