Rat snakes are large constrictors that range throughout the eastern United States and Canada. Although they may grow to be fairly long (over six feet), they are harmless unless you happen to be a rat, squirrel, or perhaps a distracted bird. Although, as I mentioned, they can be found relatively easily throughout half the continent and are normal components of many ecosystems, too many people freak out when they see them. Whether they're mistaken for boas, pythons, mambas, or executed for making the mistake of...being near a house, I guess, Rat Snakes provoke some odd reactions.
I didn't want to comment on a recent "news" story (e.g. here) that keeps popping up everywhere because it didn't seem interesting to me, but the sheer volume of articles about it as well as the ridiculous headlines and misinformation included within them has inspired me.
Apparently, a Tennessee family on a road trip parked their car in a wooded area and a Rat Snake took refuge under the hood, unbeknownst to everyone. When they hit the road the next day, they were accompanied by an unexpected and unseen hitchhiker. In the summer heat, a car powering down the highway can heat up the engine pretty quickly, and the snake crawled onto the hood to escape the high temperatures. The snake's reaction was probably familiar to anyone that has ever rolled out of bed and found themselves on a car hood traveling 65 mph on a highway. Clearly confused and uncomfortable, the snake crawled back and forth in an attempt to figure out how to remove itself from this unfamiliar environment.
At this point, the family looked for a safe spot to exit the highway and let the snake loose.
But seriously, at this point the family whipped out their cell phone camera to film the snake crawl back and forth on the windshield as they cruised through the passing lane. As the driver of the car laughed nervously at the situation, I assume she was under the impression that she was the one in dangerous predicament. Her husband, a worship minister at his church, prayed (I use the term loosely) that the snake (erroneously identified as a water moccasin) would fall off. For whatever reason, the snake did fall off, much to everyone's delight. We are unable to determine whether the drivers behind the hapless Tennessee family obliged their commands to "Kill it!" but I don't think we have much reason to be optimistic for the temporarily famous Rat snake.
I was confronted by a similar scenario a few years ago, when a Kingsnake implanted with a radio-transmitter was being transported to a study site (its location of original capture) for release. We had planned to spend the next year monitoring the snake in a longleaf pine forest, but it apparently had other plans. At some point, we noticed with dread that the pillowcase that had formerly held the snake was a little light. The snake was nowhere to be seen. We slowly pulled off to the side of the dirt road and scratched our heads in frustration. Light bulbs went off when we realized we could use our telemetry antennae to locate the snake, but the inner workings of our field truck foiled our attempts to pinpoint the snake's location. We decided to leave the truck where it was, not too far from the research station. When we returned the next day we were able to locate the snake in neighboring woods and relocate it to where we had originally intended to release it.
It's important to first consider your own safety when driving and I'm glad the Tennessee driver remained relatively cool and collected when confronted by this odd scenario. Future drivers should be aware that any snakes on your windshield are not there to terrorize you. If it is safe to do so, you might consider pulling off and removing the snake, or letting it crawl into the woods on its own. Future journalists should be aware that just because a potential story involves a snake, it does not mean they are required to include a joke related to "Snakes on a Plane"