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The elusive Blue Racer

Sun, Jul 23rd, 2000
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Monday, July 24, 2000

In an edition of this column published earlier this year (Fillmore County Journal Vol. 15, No. 34, May 29, 2000) we briefly examined how the physical geography of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, in combination with the past geologic history of the Blufflands, has created a topographically rich mosaic of interconnected but different habitats throughout much of southeastern Minnesota, and how these habitats in turn harbor a diversity of reptile species unrivaled anywhere else in the state.

Although not strictly confined to the Bluffland region, one of the more spectacular of these local reptiles is a lean, mean, fighting machine of a snake commonly known as the Racer. Not just any old Racer either mind you but the Blue Racer, uniformly light grayish blue dorsally as an adult, which is certainly an unusual color for a snake indeed. While beautiful, the animal is unfortunately only rarely seen, at least by those of us residing here in Minnesota.

Such is not the case elsewhere in North America, however, where the “Blue” is just one of as many as 12 to 14 currently recognized geographic varieties or subspecies of Racer. In fact, the species may be found in at least parts of all 48 contiguous states, as well as in southern Canada and through Mexico to at least northern Guatemala, making the Racer one of the most widely distributed reptiles on the continent. In many regions the animal is often exceedingly abundant as well, with Racers frequently being the single most commonly encountered snake species as one progresses southward throughout the eastern and central United States.

As might be expected from an animal with such an extensive distribution, a significant amount of variation in both size and coloration is evident among the various geographic populations, a fact that is typically reflected in the local common names for the species. In addition to our Blue for example, such basic appellations as Black, Tan, Yellowbelly, Brown-chin, Black-masked, and even Buttermilk, sometimes in combination with directional terms like northern, western, etc., are frequently used to descriptively differentiate most of the 10 or 11 Racer varieties found within the United States.

Despite this variability in color and size, overall appearance, habits and habitat preferences are remarkably similar throughout the Racer’s geographic range. Generally most active during daylight hours except in hotter more arid areas, all are slender, agile and relatively fast moving snakes. Most of the various subspecies will readily bite as well, often doing so with a repeated ferocity rivaled by few living animals. Fortunately these snakes are not venomous, and although often quite formidably sized, Racer bites are relatively painless and cause little if any physical damage.

While clearly adaptable enough to exploit a variety of environmental conditions, all of the various subspecies most often occur in more open habitats such as prairies, meadows, and other more sparsely forested landscapes. Typical habitats in Minnesota include sand dunes, bluff prairies, abandoned fields and pastures, and similar grassland areas.

Food preferences are quite cosmopolitan as well, with Racers consuming virtually any animal that can be caught and subdued. Recorded prey species include grasshoppers, crickets, caterpillars and other assorted invertebrates, turtles, lizards and snakes (including other Racers), birds and bird eggs, and a variety of mice, voles and other small mammals. Although known to science as Coluber constrictor; a name bestowed on the species in 1758 by none other than the great Linnaeus, the founder of modern taxonomy, Racers do not use constriction when killing their prey. Instead, captured animals are simply overpowered by force of superior strength, a factor that obviously limits the maximum size of prey animals Racers can consume.

While not commonly encountered here in Minnesota, the exact status of the Racer population within the state remains uncertain at the present time. Theoretically, Blue Racers should occur throughout much of the Driftless area, although verified records in Fillmore County are still utterly lacking. Southeastern counties with verified Racer records include Olmsted, Goodhue, Wabasha, Winona and Houston. The species is also known to occur as far west as the Minnesota River in both LeSueur and Blue Earth Counties, and as far north as extreme southeastern Pine County.

Outside Minnesota, actual Blue Racers also occur, often abundantly, throughout most of southern Wisconsin, along Iowa’s eastern edge, and throughout virtually all of northern Illinois. Michigan, Indiana and Ohio each have extensive resident populations as well. Beyond these boundaries, Blue Racers gradually give way to an assortment of neighboring geographical races.

Any of a number of factors including climate, a lack of suitable habitat, and other related environmental conditions and/or ecological limitations could account for the apparent rarity of the Racer in Minnesota. At the same time, the current scarcity of Racer records within the state may likewise simply be attributable to a lack of competent observation. Insuring the Racer remains a viable component of Minnesota’s environment, however, obviously warrants additional research of the species distribution, abundance, and management needs.

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