Baird’s Ratsnake, Pantherophis (Elaphe) bairdi, is a North American species. Its range is defined as Western Central Texas and into adjacent areas of Northern Mexico (Weir, 1991). Originally described as a species, this snake was later reduced to being a subspecies of the common North American rat snake, Patherophis (Elaphe) obsoletus before being reinstated as a full species.
This article is an account of keeping and breeding this species in captivity.
The adults are quite variable in colour, typically some shade of grey, or even blue-grey, with orange on the leading edge of the anterior scales. The adult pattern of four stripes may be indistinct or bold, but again this is variable.
Young Baird’s Ratsnakes are silvery-grey with dark brown or black narrow transverse bars. Usually the juvenile markings and coloration begin to subside by the time the animals are a year or more old.
Of all the ratsnakes I have kept, I must say that this species is one of the least demanding, and is suitable for any keeper, be they beginner or more experienced.
It was my friend Mark Hemmings who had always wanted to keep Baird’s Ratsnakes, after we’d visited Chris Mattison’s home and seen the stunning pair of adults that Chris owns. Many readers will probably be aware that Mark and I breed snakes between us from our respective homes. By exchanging and buying we ended up with two males and three females of this species, all during 1992, which would hopefully reproduce during 1993. All of the animals we’d obtained fed well and grew, so breeding should have been straightforward.
The breeding group (along with other temperate species in our respective collections) were hibernated from late November ‘92 through to the end of February ‘93. Before food could be offered they all entered a slough, but after they had all sloughed they accepted food (freshly killed or defrosted mice) without problems. Of the five snakes one pair was larger than the remaining three and most likely to breed, so once feeding was regular, this pair were introduced to each other towards the end of March. The female was reluctant to begin with, but became receptive in a short while and three witnessed matings took place before the female refused the male’s advances. The two smaller females and male showed no interest in mating at that stage, though within two to three weeks later all three females had mated and were gravid. Unfortunately, due to completely redecorating my bedroom, I have mislaid the records I made of mating dates and laying/hatching dates, though these were consistent with data published by Weir (1991). The gestation period for this species is between thirty two and fifty days and the eggs take sixty to seventy days at 28°C on average to hatch.
The largest female of the group laid five rather elongated eggs, of which four hatched and produced healthy hatchlings. One of the smaller females also laid five similar eggs and the third female laid four eggs. Only two of the second female’s eggs remained viable, but both hatched. The same happened with the third female’s eggs, but unfortunately both young were dead in shell. The females were provided with a laying-box once the pre-laying slough had been completed. This consisted of a 2-litre plastic container with damp sphagnum moss. Once the eggs had been laid they were transferred to the same size of box but with damp peat as the incubation medium, and heated to 28°C on a heated shelf system at Mark Hemmings’ home. Mould appeared on the infertile eggs, and these were removed once it was certain that they were beyond all hope. The other eggs, though not affected, were sprayed once with a weak solution of gentian violet to inhibit any mould growth that may have arisen.
From a total of fourteen eggs, we ended up with six hatchlings, three males and three females. This seems a poor result, but as far as we know this was the first time any of them had bred, so we have high hopes for better results next year.
Since they bred, they have all continued to grow and continue to pose no problems whatsoever. They are housed individually in vivaria measuring 55 x 30 x 38 cm in my heated reptile room. The temperature in this room reaches a maximum daytime high of 30C, falling overnight to a minimum of 24C, the average daytime temperature being a fairly constant 27C. The young have all been sold and were feeding on defrosted pink mice before they left our care.
This species is extremely “tame”, and neither myself or Mark have been bitten by an adult or youngster. Their only sign of displeasure is to vibrate their tail and give off a musk-like odor. The young are usually larger than other common ratsnake species at hatching and typically feed from the word go.
We recommend them to anyone!
Weir, J., 1991. Baird’s Ratsnake, Elaphe bairdi. The Herptile 16(1), pp 40-45. Journal of the International Herpetological Society.
Reproduced with permission from the Reptilian Vol.2 No.3.