This study investigated how demographic characteristics of black rat snakes Elaphe obsoleta are affected by the length of the active season, and also used the resulting demographic data to determine the proximate factors responsible for male‐biased sexual size dimorphism (SSD) in the species. Demographic data collected from 1981 to 1998 in Ontario (ON; 583 males and 588 females) and from 1942 to 1976 in Maryland (MD; 180 males and 150 females) were used to develop growth models with the von Bertalanffy growth equation. Instantaneous growth rates declined significantly with increasing snout–vent length (SVL) in males and females of each population. The growth models predicted age using SVL satisfactorily, but the accuracy of the model decreased significantly with increasing SVL. As predicted, based on the brevity of their active season (ON ≊ 135 days, MD ≊ 190 days), rat snakes of both sexes from Ontario had lower and more variable instantaneous growth rates and matured at a more advanced age (ON ≊ 9 years, MD ≊ 4 years) than snakes from Maryland. However, the rapid growth and early maturation in Maryland snakes occurred at the expense of longevity (maximum: ON ≊ 30 years, MD ≊ 20 years). Slower growth and later maturation will make rat snakes in Ontario less capable of recovering from population declines. Within each population, males grew faster than females. Survivorship for Ontario snakes did not vary by sex, but increased significantly with increasing SVL. The demographic consequence of sex differences in growth was a male‐biased sex ratio among larger snakes. Because SSD is a function of males growing faster than females, SSD in black rat snakes is probably a product of sexual selection, suggesting that large size confers a mating advantage in males.
Snakes were opportunistically captured at hibernacula