The final part of a series of five articles, in this last article, James gives us an overview of some of the most popular Asiatic Ratsnakes available within the hobby covering; Elaphe bimaculata, E. carinata, E. dione, Euprepiophis mandarinus, Orthriophis moellendorffi, Coelognathus radiatus, E. schrencki & Orthriophis taeniurus friesi.
This very attractive snake is a small species (2-3 feet) that not only does well in captivity, but will also breed if given the correct conditions. Elaphe bimaculata is a light-brown to yellow snake with a series of reddish-brown spots that continue along the body, being divided only by a vertebral stripe which varies from brown to yellow. The spots are edged in black and the head pattern is reminiscent of the more familiar com snake Pantherophis guttatus (the species is sometimes referred to as the Chinese corn snake).
This is a snake which can be maintained easily in captivity as it feeds readily on small rodents and requires only a small vivarium (24x12" should suffice). This species apparently requires slightly cooler temperatures than the North American ratsnakes and a daytime high of 70F is ideal. They require only a basic terrarium set-up with the bare minimum of furnishings (hide box, water bowl and maybe a rock).
Elaphe bimaculata is easy to breed in captivity, requiring a two to three month hibernation period at temperatures of 59F or less for fertile matings to occur. The eggs have a very short incubation period (can be as little as one month) and the hatchlings, which are extremely attractive, feed well on pink mice. It is unfortunate that this species has not so far been bred in larger quantities as, I am sure, it would be a very popular due to its manageable size, attractive appearance and ease of husbandry.
The Twin Spotted Ratsnake is, in my opinion, by far the most suitable Asian Ratsnake on the market for beginners.
STINKING GODDESS - Elaphe carinata
I contemplated a little before including Elaphe carinata in my article at all as many people doubt the validity of this species as a true ratsnake and many feel that it will be placed in a different genus in the near future. I finally did decide to include it, however, due to the number of these animals currently being imported and the fact that I have seen many for sale in the last few months. I would just like to warn the prospective owner what he is letting himself in for and, hopefully, at the end of this piece beginners will have second thoughts about the purchase of this creature.
There is no doubt that the stinking goddess is a beautiful serpent indeed. A black snake with a gorgeous lemon yellow pattern of flecks all along the body. In my opinion the snake which most closely resembles Elaphe carinata in appearance is the Florida kingsnake Lampropeltis getulus floridana, although the latter is smooth whilst the former has keeled scales. Looks aside this species is nearly impossible as a captive specimen for the inexperienced keeper possessing one of the most aggressive temperaments of any snake. I have seen them continually striking at their keepers and defecating when handled (it is from the foul-smelling secretions produced that the common name is derived).
The stinking goddess can reach lengths exceeding seven feet on occasion and, therefore, its bites are particularly painful and bloody. Worst of all though this snake preys on reptiles in the wild and will often prefer to feed on lizards and snakes in captivity even when rodents or chicks are scented to resemble the favoured prey.
I won’t even talk about the breeding of this species as I can’t see why anyone would want to! This is one snake that is better left in the wild or kept only by experienced herpetologists or in zoological collections.
DIONES RATSNAKE - Elaphe dione
Dione’s ratsnake is dull brown in colour with a pattern consisting of darker brown to red blotches. In many ways they resemble Elaphe bimaculata (size, build and general appearance) but are far less colourful. Elaphe dione ranges all over Asia, but is most common in Southern Russia.
As far as captive care is concerned, this snake is eminently suitable for even novice snake keepers, but has, in the past, not been available in large numbers. As this species has a wide range and diverse habitat type in the wild we can deduce that it will adapt to most vivaria, although I favour a basic set-up (24x12x12" cage, furnished with water bowl, hide box, branches and rocks). This snake should be maintained at a day temperature of around 80F with a substantial drop in temperature at night (to 68F). This snake will take a wide variety of foods and is even reported to prey on other snakes so should possibly be kept singly. They do, however, normally feed voraciously on small rodents.
To breed this species, a winter hibernation period is essential. The temperature during this time should be dropped to at least 55°F (but preferably 50F) for several months. The female lays anything from 5 to 16 eggs and the young should feed on pink mice from the start.
TRINKET SNAKE - Coelognathus helena
This is another of the Asian ratsnakes which is relatively rarely encountered in captivity. This very attractive snake hails from all over India and is very distinctive in appearance. Two dark lines start from the base of the head and carry on for about a quarter of the animal’s length, where they gradually fade in most specimens. At this point brown crossbars surrounded by white flecks appear.
I have found this snake reaches an average of three feet in length and is, therefore, suited to the smaller vivarium. Interestingly, this species shows distinct sexual dimorphism; females attain around four feet, whilst males can be approximately a foot smaller (Dieter Shulz).
This snake adjusts brilliantly to life in captivity, feeding well on rodents and rating as one of the easiest of the ratsnakes to breed. As Coelognathus helena is a tropical species it requires no hibernation period and will mate and lay eggs throughout the year (averaging 5 eggs per clutch). John Weir has reported seven clutches being laid in a single year. It may be of advantage to leave an egg-laying box in the vivarium at all times so the female becomes accustomed to it.
Note; Egg-laying is no doubt a tremendous stress on the female so if you attempt to achieve multiple clutches of Coelognathus helena, be sure the female is of good weight and in good health.
MANDARIN RATSNAKE - Euprepiophis mandarinus
In my opinion this species rivals Zamenis situla as the most gorgeous of all Ratsnakes. The background colour is pale silver-grey, marked with bright yellow blotches heavily outlined in black. Some specimens also have red flecks between these markings.
Unfortunately this snake is only rarely imported from its native China these days, but has been imported in large numbers in the past. The majority of such specimens are very stressed by the importation process and also carry large numbers of both internal and external parasites and, thus, make very poor captives.
Euprepiophis mandarinus reaches approximately 3 feet in length and should be kept in a small vivarium with ample hides (as for Z.situla). This snake feeds on appropriately sized mice and requires a daytime maximum tempera ture of 75° F. This shy species should not be handled excessively as this will put it off its food.
RED HEADED RATSNAKE - Orthriophis moellendorffi
This large (7 foot) snake has often been compared to the cornsnake in appearance but, unfortunately, is not as easily kept in the terrarium. This often stems from the fact that, like the previous species, it is often weakened by stress and disease having been imported from China and often dies within a month of purchase. I personally feel that this is not acceptable and that such snakes should only be taken out of their native environment to provide fresh blood in the breeding pool and should then be imported under far better conditions and with more care.
This species, although possessing similar saddle markings to Pantherophis guttatus, has a larger head which is rusty brown to pale red in colour (the tail is also similar in colour). This snake requires cool temperatures in captivity (about 68°F during the day) and feeds well on rodents and, especially, chicks (to which a vitamin supplement should be added). A large terrarium (about 48x18x18") should be used and this should have plenty of hides and, perhaps, a climbing branch.
Captive-breeding is virtually unheard of but they are known to lay around eight eggs and the babies are then reared on pink mice.
COPPER HEADED RATSNAKE – Coelognathus radiatus
This is another of the Asian snakes of which the front and rear halves could well come from two different species, so different are they in appearance. The front half is copper-coloured with two chunky black vertebral stripes down the back and another two thinner stripes down the sides. There are two black stripes that originate at the eye and continue down to the jaw and a third which continues down the neck. The rear half of the body is darker brown and has a similar iridescent sheen to the trinket snake.
This is a medium-sized (about 5 feet) snake, but is rarely seen in the hobby due to its irascible temperament. This is a shame as it makes an undemanding captive and feeds well on mice and chicks. Breeding is easily accomplished with or without a hibernation period and the 10 or so eggs hatch after about two months. The juveniles feed well on pink mice.
General captive-care should be similar to that detailed for C.helena
RUSSIAN RATSNAKE - Elaphe schrencki
Formerly there were two subspecies, Elaphe schrenki and E.s.anomala (Elaphe anomala) of which the former is, by far, the most commonly seen in captivity. This snake looks very reminiscent of the North American common kingsnake and, thankfully, adapts almost as well to captivity as the Lampropeltis species. This subspecies has a black background colour with a series of bands, which may be white or yellow, down the entire body length.
By contrast E.anomala is olive green in colour with only faint striped markings. The juveniles of both subspecies are similar, being slate-grey to brownish with irregular paler stripes.
The Russian ratsnake will live well in a 48x12x12” vivarium furnished with a selection of good climbing branches and should be given a basic diet of mice and chicks. Elaphe schrencki requires drastic cooling if reproduction is desired (at least three months at 50F or less). Clutches can be large and it is not uncommon for in excess of 20 eggs to be laid.
This was a very popular species in the late 80’s, but interest declined in the ninetys, but again in this decade we are seeing it making a return to hobbyists vivariums.
TAIWAN BEAUTY SNAKES - Orthriophis taeniurus friesi
There are number of subspecies as follows: O. t. taeniurus, O. t. ridleyi, O. t. vailanti, O. t. grabowskyi, O. t. schmackeri, O. t. friesi, O. t. yunnanensis & The Blue Beauty O.t.spp. The most commonly seen in captivity and, hence, the one which will be covered in this article is the largest of the subspecies - Orthriophis taeniurus friesi. This subspecies has background colour of yellow (sometimes with a hint of green) with a series of ‘dumb-bell” markings which are black in colour. In addition many of the yellow scales are also tipped with black, giving a very attractive overall effect. The tail is black and has a yellow stripe running down to the tip.
This is a very large snake (the largest of all the Ratsnakes) commonly exceeding six feet in length and having large girth. They are quite lively animals but in spite of this are fairly non-aggressive. The vivarium should be as large as possible and a large piece of cork bark should be included (in my experience this is frequently sought out by the occupants). The Taiwan beauty snake also enjoys climbing so a few stout branches should also be provided.
This subspecies should be kept at a temperature of 77-85F during the day, with a slight night-time drop. Most will prove voracious feeders and it can prove hard to fill them up, but avoid feeding excessively as fat animals will rarely reproduce.
O. t. friesi will breed if given a winter hibernation period at a temperature of 55F for 2-3 months. In the spring mating should then take place and 7-11 large eggs will subsequently be laid. The hatchlings are large and robust, although darker in appearance than the adults, and will feed well on large pink mice.
Ratsnakes: A Hobbyist’s Guide to Elaphe & Kin by Ray Staszko and Jerry G. Walls. (T.F.H. Publications, Inc.).
Keeping and Breeding Snakes by Chris Mattison. (Blandford Press).