The second part of this series of articles looks at the obsoletus species of North America.
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.
GREY RATSNAKE (Pantherophis obsoletus spiloides)
Although the grey ratsnake is not, by any stretch of the imagination, the most colourful of animals, it is one of my favourite snakes in the genus Pantherophis. I currently maintain two specimens of Pantherophis obsoletus spiloides and these are of two distinct colour varieties. The female is a grey animal with kidney brown saddles edged in pale yellow. These markings are present for the entire length of the body. The male snake is silver in colour with dark grey saddle markings mottled attractively in black. These animals are sometimes referred to as Gulf Hammock ratsnakes as they are restricted to the Gulf Hammock region of Florida.
The natural range of the grey ratsnake borders that of the black ratsnake and intergrades are, hence, common.
Pantherophis obsoletus spiloides is one snake that I can heartily recommend to anybody (beginners in particular). I maintain my animals on a newspaper substrate in 36x18x18 inch vivarium. In keeping with many of the North American ratsnakes I have found the grey rat to be an extremely competent climber and it will, therefore, require a stout branch in order that it can fulfill their arboreal tendencies. They are, in fact, locally referred to as the white oak ratsnake because of its reputation as a climbing species. They are very fond of bathing, especially prior to ecdysis, so it is desirable for them to be supplied with a water bowl large enough for them to accomplish this. They seem to benefit from a hide-box and this should, hence, be included. A rock to aid sloughing is optional.
The grey ratsnake feeds very well on mice of appropriate size or day- old chicks. During the summer this species should be maintained at 77F to 85F during the day, with a slight night-time reduction. In winter the grey rat requires a two-month hibernation period at about 55-60F.The techniques described in part one of this series for the cornsnake should be used.
The grey rat lays 9-18 eggs, which should hatch after approximately 65 days. The hatchlings are large (at least 12 inches) and will readily take pink mice. Grey rat snakes retain the juvenile pattern throughout their lifetime and adults eventually attain a maximum size of approximately 48 inches.
YELLOW RATSNAKE (Pantherophis obsoletus quadrivittatus)
As I have previously stated, most of the “obsoletus” ratsnakes lose their original juvenile markings after about two years and the yellow rat is no exception to the rule. They start life closely resembling a grey rat with brownish blotches (although the yellow colouration is present as a faint background hue). These blotches eventually fade to leave a yellow snake with four longitudinal stripes which continue for the entire length of the body.
In my opinion the yellow ratsnake is an excellent pet, feeding very well on mice, small rats and chicks. They do seem to have a preference for the latter to be included in the diet but chicks should only be offered infrequently as they are nutritionally poor. Yellow rats are extremely easy to breed in captivity and will reproduce without the benefit of a hibernation period. The only disadvantage can be an aggressive tendency, which can make them unsuitable for beginners. The adult size is considerably larger than that of the cornsnake in both length and girth and they commonly grow to sizes in excess of five feet.
An adult yellow rat should be maintained in a vivarium of generous dimensions (48x18x18"), but hatchlings are best maintained individually in small boxes. The vivarium should have suitable substrate (I use newspaper) and be furnished with a hide-box, water bowl and a stout branch.
The yellow rat must surely rate as one of the easiest snakes to breed in captivity and a complete hibernation is unnecessary, although two months at a slightly reduced temperature is advisable. Pantherophis obsoletus quadrivittatus lays between 10 and 40 eggs and the hatchlings are large and robust, being easily reared on pink mice.
If these snakes were of calmer disposition they would be excellent for beginners. Some people find being bitten by snakes very discouraging and I am, therefore, slightly hesitant about recommending them 100%, as I am happy to do for the grey rat.
EVERGLADES RATSNAKE (Pantherophis obsoletus rossalleni)
This subspecies is very variable in appearance, some animals being very similar to the yellow ratsnake (from which it is distinguished by its yellow tongue) and some being bright orange, with four dusky stripes running down the back.
After the grey rat this would be my second choice as the most suitable for captive husbandry. Yellow, black and Texas ratsnakes lag behind these two in suitability due to their larger size and more aggressive temperament. The care and maintenance is identical to that for the yellow rat.
BLACK RATSNAKE (Pantherophis obsoletus obsoletus)
This is, undoubtedly, one of the most aggressive snakes of the entire obsoletus complex, which is a great pity as a well-marked black rat is indeed a handsome animal. Pantherophis obsoletus obsoletus is an almost solid black snake with a white mottling over the body, white underside and a distinctive white chin. The black rat is a large animal that can occasionally reach nine feet in length and, being a snake of such uncertain disposition, a painful bite can be inflicted. This snake has declined in popularity because of its uncompromising temperament and hatchlings can be obtained very cheaply.
TEXAS RATSNAKE (Pantherophis obsoletus lindheimeri)
The Texas rat is renowned for its untrustworthy disposition and vies with the black rat as to which is the most aggressive subspecies. In my opinion it is not a particularly attractive animal, being a dull, yellowish-grey colour, with brown saddles which continue down the body.
The Texas rat is large, attaining a length over seven feet on occasion - and, for the majority, this can spell seven feet of difficult handling! The Texas rat is, however, an excellent feeder and will take mice, rats, chicks and most other appropriately-sized mammals.
Maintenance is the same as that for the black rat. Breeding is easily achieved and clutch sizes normally number from 10 to 23. The juveniles are more attractive than the adults and, in common with the grey rat, retain the saddle markings throughout life.
BAIRDS RATSNAKE (Pantherophis bairdi)
Pantherophis bairdi was, for many years, classified in the obsoletus complex, but is now recognized as a distinct species. The Baird’s rat is one of my personal favourites. It starts life as a small silvery/ grey hatchling with grey crossbars and, as it ages, it gradually fades in colour and develops attractive orange flecks, a yellow/orange belly and, sometimes, four faint dark longitudinal stripes. The Baird’s rat is fairly small (4 feet maximum) and fairly robustly built. They make admirable captive specimens and thrive best given a daytime temperature of 77-85F, with a small night-time reduction. The terrarium need only be fairly Spartan, (include only a hide-box, several rocks and a water bowl) and should be of the dimension 24x18x18”.
This snake will breed in captivity if given a winter rest at a temperature of 55-60F for several months. A large female will lay approximately 9 eggs. This snake has, up to now, not been bred in the numbers it should be as its natural range is remote and it was only discovered comparatively recently.
Pantherophis bairdi makes an ideal specimen for beginner and expert alike and, by visiting different breeders, one can locate some very attractive animals.