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Introduction

The first part of this series of articles looks at the Cornsnake & Great Plains Ratsnakes.

During the course of this series of articles I shall attempt to provide the reader with a basic guide to Ratsnakes, with notes on their captive care, my own observations and their breeding in the vivarium.

Ratsnakes are very widespread, many species being present in North America, a few in India, some in Europe and a large number in Asia. I have kept and studied many different species and the aim of this article is to set down my experiences and the husbandry techniques that have enabled me to keep these beautiful serpents successfully.


CORNSNAKE (Pantherophis guttatus )

The cornsnake is, without doubt, the most commonly-kept and bred snake in the world of herpetology, and for good reason. The cornsnake is a very attractive animal, not only in appearance but also in suitability for life in captivity.

There are now a great many colour variations which have been produced through careful selective breeding and I have briefly described just a few of the mutations which are now appearing on breeders’ lists.

 

  Common Cornsnake
CAROLINA CORNSNAKE

The Carolina corn is a naturally-occurring regional variation on the standard cornsnake. They now appear on a great number of lists and are possibly one of the most commonly-kept and beautiful varieties. The background colour is buff with rich brown, orange or red saddles running the length of the body. The saddles are further enhanced by being out lined in jet black. Carolina corns are, arguably, the most colourful of all of the cornsnakes and the snakes both from here and the Okeetee region are renowned for their attractiveness. The ventral surface is also unique as, in well- marked animals it is very pale porcelain in colour with an outstanding set of chequered black markings, gradually fading to brown to the base of the tail.
Photo Credit: Don Sodenberg 
  Amelanistic Cornsnake
AMELANISTIC CORNSNAKE

This was the first commercially produced colour variant which was commonly available. An amelanistic snake lacks the pigment melanin, which normally produces the black or brown colouration. These snakes are also sometimes (incorrectly) referred to as “albino” or “red albino” on pricelists (albinism being the absence of all pigments, producing an all-white animal).

Amels are also lovely snakes, being orange in colour with red saddles outlined in white (this, in my opinion looks very attractive). They have chequered belly markings which are pink instead of black and the eyes are reddish to pink. Another amelanistic variety is the ‘candy corn”, which has more red and white than the standard orange, and yellow.
Photo Credit: Don Sodenberg
  Anerythristic Cornsnake
ANERYTHRISTIC CORNSNAKE

This is, in effect, the opposite of amelanism, i.e. the variant lacks orange or yellow, thus producing an animal in which the melanin pigment is prominent. According to McEachern this is a naturally-occurring mutation which is more prominent in Florida than other parts of America. This variety is also sometimes referred to as the “black cornsnake”.
Photo Credit: Don Sodenberg
  Motley Cornsnke
MOTLEY CORNSNAKE

In common with many of the other mutations this is caused by a recessive gene producing an animal with irregular saddles and lacking the ventral chequered markings.
Photo Credit: Don Sodenberg
  Snow Cornsnake
SNOW CORNSNAKE

This mutation has become very popular recently and is achieved by crossing an amelanistic with an anerythristic adult. This, effectively, creates an albino animal lacking all pigment and, thus, appearing pinkish to white with very faint markings.
Photo Credit: Don Sodenberg
  Blood Red Cornsnke
BLOODRED CORNSNAKE

This variety is not believed to be found in the wild and has been genetically engineered by selective captive breeding. Hatchlings are marked in a very similar fashion to normal corns except they lack the black outline to the saddles and display much more red in general colouration. As the animal matures, the blotches disperse into a solid orange or bright red colour. According to Staszko and Walls this snake shows signs of weakness in captivity, growing more slowly than other varieties and being rather more shy of their keeper.
Photo Credit: Don Sodenberg

  Striped Cornsnake

 

STRIPED CORNSNAKE

These animals have longitudinal stripes instead of the normal saddle markings, although it is comparatively rare for the stripes to continue unbroken for the entire length of the body. The striped corn is often rather paler in colour than the Carolina corn, but is a very beautiful animal.
Photo Credit: Don Sodenberg


CAPTIVE HUSBANDRY

The cornsnake, in all of its colour morphs, makes a very suitable captive subject which is especially suitable as a snake for the beginner. I maintain hatchlings in small opaque plastic boxes (7’x3’x3 and as they increase in size are moved gradually into ice-cream tubs and then, finally adult vivaria. I have found a terrarium measuring 24”x12”x12” to be ideal for adults and only the most basic of set-ups is required. My preferred substrate is newspaper as it is cheap, easily cleaned and helps prevent bacterial growth and disease. A medium sized water bowl should be included and the snakes will sometimes wish to bathe, particularly when ecdydis is imminent. The two remaining essential furnishings are a hide box (a shoe-box is ideal) and a climbing branch as most ratsnakes have arboreal tendencies. A rough rock is an optional feature which will act as an aid to sloughing.

The cornsnake is easily bred in captivity (another reason for its huge following) and animals over two years of age may be regarded as sexually mature. Cornsnakes will breed with or without winter cooling, although a hibernation period is beneficial whether or not the snakes are to be bred. A winter rest will result in the male producing sperm and increase life-expectancy over animals which are kept active throughout the year. During early December I stop feeding all of my adult snakes and give them at least three weeks in which the remains of any food remaining in the stomach can pass through. This is very important as if a snake is hibernated with food still present in its digestive system, the food can ferment, leading to the death of the animal. Cooling down prior to hibernation should be gradual, the temperature ultimately being dropped to below 60C for the two-month dormant period. Cornsnakes require only minimal cooling to enable successful reproduction as their natural range includes areas in which the winters are mild.

All that is required during hibernation is a place to hide (preferably filled with burrowing material such as wood shavings), a water bowl and as little disturbance as possible. Lighting should be kept minimal. After the hibernation period has elapsed, the animals should be warmed gradually to normal temperature (typically 77F-86F). When feeding is recommenced, it is usual for only the female to resume feeding as males will often refuse until after mating has occurred. This period is critical for the female as she will need a good fat reserve to see her through the stress of egg-laying.

As soon as the female’s eyes become cloudy and ecdysis is imminent she should be placed in the male’s cage in order that mating can commence when she has sloughed. The snakes should be left together until several matings have been witnessed. The female should then be returned to her own vivarium and a good feeding pattern resumed with both adults. A suitable egg-laying site should be provided and a simple way to do this is to use an ice-cream tub with a hole cut in it half filled with moist sphagnum moss. The eggs should be laid four to nine weeks after mating and, towards the end of this period, the female will become very restless. It is best not to handle the female unnecessarily for the entire gestation period as there is a danger of damaging the eggs. The eggs (which can number from 8 to 26) are fairly small, but hatch rate should be good under the correct conditions. It is wise not to breed from animals which are either too immature or too small as the resulting hatchlings are often so small that they are difficult to maintain as they cannot eat whole pinkies but have to be given limbs and/ or tails.

The eggs should be placed in an incubator, which may be a purpose built unit or a converted vivarium or large polystyrene box. The most important equipment, no matter which form of heating, under-floor or ceramic, is used is a reliable thermostat. The eggs should be placed in an incubating box the same way up in which they were laid. The box (an ice-cream tub is ideal) should be half filled with vermiculite mixed with an equal quantity of water. The substrate can be moistened with a fine mist sprayer if it becomes too dry. If the eggs are maintained at a constant 82F throughout the incubation period, they should hatch after approximately two months. The hatchlings will normally all emerge within one or two days of each other and will commence feeding on pink mice following the neonatal slough. The juveniles should be maintained individually in small plastic boxes.


GREAT PLAINS RATSNAKE (Pantherophis emoryi )

The great plains ratsnake once thought to be a sub-species of Pantherophis guttatus and, as such, exhibits a great many similarities to the cornsnake such as similar saddle markings and chequered ventral pattern, but they are not as colourful and the markings are more subtle. They tend to be somewhat smaller (around 28") but have a more stout, stronger build. In my opinion they are equally good subjects for captive husbandry (if not better) but are, unfortunately, often overlooked because they are not as colourful as cornsnakes (few snakes are).
There was once a third sub species (Pantherophis guttatus rosacea) which is deeper orange in colour with reduced black edging around the saddles and a pink ventral surface. Many herpetologists cast doubt upon its validity as a subspecies, thinking of it as merely a colour strain. It is a very attractive animal which is now being bred in somewhat limited numbers.
This site has information on the following genera of Ratsnakes ... Spilotes, Spalerosophis, Ptyas, Zamenis, Elaphe, Rhinechis, Senticolis, Pseudelaphe, Pantherophis, Bogertophis, Orthriophis, Gonyosoma, Oreocryptophis, Oocatochus, Euprepiophis, Coelognathus, Archelaphe