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Introduction

Coelognathus helena are named after the daughter of the Greek god Zeus, who was famed for being the most beautiful woman in Greek mythology. More usually in English speaking countries, they are called the Common Trinket Snake or the Indian Trinket Snake, they are arguably the most beautiful of all Ratsnakes.

 

 

In various ‘Indian dialects they are called; Arbaki Sab & Kumro-doga (Bengali), Rupsundri (Gujarati), Kaatu pambu (Malayalam), Taskar (Marathi), Kalu kateya, Katakaluwa, Mapil habara, Mudu habara, & Mudu karawala (Sinhalese), Azhagu sarpam, Kattu pambu, Kattu viriyan, Mega-rekula-ponda, Micro pambu & Mothiravallaiyan (Tamil) and Megarukula poda (Telugu). Perhaps the occurrence of multiple names within any one dialect is a reflection of their wide range and therefore familiarity to humanity throughout their range.

 

Words struggle to convey their true beauty – the phrase ‘various shades of brown’ fails to conjure up an appropriate image of their real splendour. Especially after a slough they have this wonderful iridescence to there scales, with natural sunlight bouncing back all the colours of the rainbow. Their pattern is also attractive, white ‘collars’ or bands edged with black break up after the anterior third as they travel down the body toward their tails, with flecks of white and black interrupting their brown to tan background, along with short thick black stripes along their neck and an even smaller ‘eye stripe’. Schulz describes the iris as being ‘golden-yellow’ but the authors note that this is sometime more of a green, a colour that seems to compliment their brown backdrop perfectly.

A few colour variations are marketed in the hobby, which include the ‘High Yellows’ which the authors believe to have originated from Sri Lanka, as these variations are not genetic morphs and most probably are locale variations. Some examples have an olive greenish hue. These are stunning as they usually contain a high amount of light flecks along the anterior part of their body. There are also some hatchlings being sold as heterozygous for albino, although as yet, no one who has purchased these and bred them, have produced any albino mutations. An albino specimen is reliably on record however (Gohil, 1983) and also completely black or melanistic specimens (Wall 1913). Some blue-turquoise specimens have been observed which are particularly attractive, also probably originating from at least one other location. These colour variations have been noted as coming from near or in Nepal and southern mainland India. As is common with many species of ratsnake, neonates are more colourful and have more contrast to their pattern than adults but adults still retain their beauty and the difference isn’t usually that great between the two.
 

The Trinket Snake is an attractive captive with some interesting features. One of these being their sexual dimorphism in size between adults, which is very apparent within this species, once a certain amount of maturity has been achieved. Females can attain lengths of between four and five foot (122-152cm) whilst males are small in comparison only averaging three foot (92cm) and are comparatively slimmer. On occasion, females have been recorded at a little over five and a half feet (168cm) but this is most exceptional. Both sexes in our experience undergo the same growth rate until around twelve months of age, after this time the males’ growth rate will slow down and noticeable differences in food intake become obviously apparent.

When resting their body it is often formed into a series of waves, a trait that is also shared with other Ratsnakes, Elaphe climacophora, C. radiatus and Orthriophis taeniurus spp. Something that is remarked on by a lot of keepers when holding a Trinket Snake for the first time is how different they feel, being more rigid and solid feeling, not so flexible as other Ratsnake species when in the hands. They are however, still capable of great flexibility and are very able agile climbers.


Like their cousin the Radiated Ratsnake C. radiatus, they too have quite an intimidating display where they ‘S’ up, inflating their throat and a gape exposing the black lining to their mouth. This is usually only a defensive pose adopted by hatchlings occasionally, captive bred adults will very rarely exhibit such behaviour. As the snake grows, so does their confidence which likely reduces their perceived need to posture. They generally are a gentle snake and very rarely attempt to bite once adult, although may be more nervous when young or if startled.

Such an attractive, moderately sized, easily catered for and highly prolific species is surely set to become more popular within the hobby.

A Brief Taxonomic Description

This snake falls within the largest snake family Colubridae, residing in the subfamily Colubrinae, genus Coelognathus and species of helena. This species knows two subspecies which will be described a little further on.

Throughout the history of its description, this species has formerly been known by a variety of names; Coluber helena (Daudin 1803), Natrix helena (Merrem 1820), Herpetodryas helena (Schlegel 1837), Cynophis bistrigatus (Gray 1849), Plagiodon helena (Duméril, Bibron & Duméril 1854), Herpetodryas malabaricus (Jerdon 1854), Cynophis helena (Günther 1864) and was first known by the more well known tag of Elaphe helena (Minton) in 1943.

More recently, Utiger, Schätti, Helfenberger and colleagues have demonstrated that along with some other Asiatic ‘Elaphe’ species Elaphe helena were more closely related to five other species than the former Elaphe genera. So the then defunct genus of Coelognathus was revalidated to reflect this and along with the five other species (C. erythrurus, C. phillipinus, C. radiatus, C. subradiatus & C. flavolineatus) they were placed in a separate genus from the former catch-all Elaphe genera.

Such name changes are inevitable, as these recent studies into ratsnake systematics shed more light on our understanding of the relationship (phylogeny) between snakes and subsequently their evolution from a single common ancestor (monophyletic relationship or paraphyletic relationship if not all of the descendants are represented in a particular lineage). Although not completely agreed upon by all, the proposals mentioned above are readily accepted by those who wish to differentiate between Asiatic ‘racer-type ratsnakes’ and their more Elaphe-like ratsnake cousins e.g. E. schrencki, E. dione, E. climacophora and E. quatuorlineata for instance. They certainly seem to be embraced by those of us (with only the vaguest comprehension of MtDNA sequencing), that wish to demonstrate the various marked differences between the various New and Old World species.

Myth

The Katakaluwa, it is believed by Sri Lankans, are extremely venomous and a bite will result in discolouration not only of the site of the bite but the whole body, blood and urine. Perhaps the idea for the discolouration has its origin in the inside of the snake’s mouth which is usually dark to black. The popular myth follows that the snake will watch its ‘victim’ from the safe confines of a tree, until the victim dies, only then will it climb down to the ground and go on its way. It’s possible that people believe that the snake ‘must’ be venomous because it will readily bite when encountered in the wild and demonstrate its impressive defensive display. As already mentioned, captive specimens are much more evenly tempered as adults than their wild counterparts.

As fantastic a tale as this sounds, it is equally nonsense. Trinket snakes are considered to be non-venomous or harmless at least. Localised swelling and prolonged blood flow has been noted in some people and studies show that a close relative (C. radiatus) shares the same kind of 3FTx or three finger toxins that are synonymous with cobra-like venoms. Trinkets, if they do share the same properties as their close cousins the Radiated Ratsnakes, also have a very much diluted derivative of this saliva and lack an efficient delivery system for administration into large mammals’ blood streams. Rest assured many hobbyists have been bitten numerous times by small hatchlings and never experienced any discomfort at all.

This snake is aglyphous, which basically means that it has no fangs or grooves along any of its teeth to administer its saliva into its prey. It has to chew to do so and as already mentioned, the properties in its saliva if present at all, are so weak that it would only likely have some effect on very small prey and is utterly useless as a defensive weapon.

Natural History

There are two subspecies of the Indian Trinket snake, the nominate form Coelognathus helena helena and the Collared or Montane Trinket Snake C. h. monticollaris. The latter is very rare in the hobby and has only been kept and bred on a few occasions that we know of.


The nominate form has a natural range that includes most of India, some sources stating that it is particularly prevalent in coastal regions, although it is possible that this is due to central India not being surveyed as thoroughly as other areas. Areas known to hold populations of C. helena are Jammu & Kashmir, Gujarat, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bangladesh, Manipur, Orissa, Nagaland, South Pakistan and Sri Lanka. There are unconfirmed reports from more central Pakistan too. On the Island of Sri Lanka, it can be found between sea level and at altitudes up to around 900m, where it has a preference for scrub areas at the edge of rain forests, rice fields, plantations and the edges of meadows, especially in the vicinity of water like irrigation ditches or small pools.

Generally, these snakes have a tan, olive to brown background with two strong black stripes on their neck, followed by bands of white bordered with black or checks on the anterior third of their bodies which merge to form two dark brown to black longitudinal stripes onto their tail. The ventral scales are pearly white in both subspecies, in C. h. monticollaris they have black tracing that edges the ventral scales joining the more strongly defined bands or collars. There may be some keeling on the scales on the posterior portion of snakes of either subspecies.

Differences in pattern and colouration are noted from different localities, those from southern and central Nepal seem to often have stronger collars or bands behind the head and lack the central stripe that usually separates the two parietal head scales (the rear two largest head ‘plates’) than those found throughout the rest of the Indian subcontinent. Interestingly, this is a trait reminiscent of the rarer subspecies C. h. monticollaris which also shares higher elevations. These are the only representatives of the nominate subspecies that inhabit elevations up to 1500m.

The pattern of Bengalese animals is said to be more pronounced than their southern and eastern relatives, often having bands/collars similar to C. h. monticollaris although not as well-defined. Their background colour is also variable geographically, on Sri Lanka the background may become so light in Ceylon that it is rendered yellow, while back on the southern mainland turquoise specimens may be found.

The Collared Trinket Snakes’ range is restricted to the Western Ghats – Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka, Goa and Maharashtra where it has been found in towns as well as the expected evergreen forests. It is strictly a montane snake, inhabiting the southwest Indian mountain range at altitudes between 700 and 1900m.

There is an area of uncertain taxonomic residence of one subspecies or other, to the west of Mumbai and the east of Chandrapur in Maharashtra, whether this is an area of subspecific integration or a race of either subspecies has not been verified to date, as far as can be ascertained.

In the wild the diet of C. helena consists of reptiles, frogs and small mammals as well as birds and their young, although they seem to strongly prefer mammals, particularly mice and rats. It has also been noted that young Trinket Snakes will take insects and small lizards as part of their diet. A non-feeding hatchling that one of the authors kept several years back was enticed into feeding with a standard brown cricket, probably due to the erratic movement eliciting a strike.

They can be both diurnal and crepuscular/nocturnal in summer months, also noted as sheltering in termite mounds, rock piles and crevices, presumably both as a means to evade excessive temperatures and avoid predation. In cooler times of the year, they have been observed resting draped on bushes and trees with heavy foliage, where it can be presumed they would be hard to notice unless they were in motion.

Although noted as a prolific species that can breed throughout the year in warm tropical parts of its range, specimens that inhabit more northerly climes or at higher elevations probably do not mate all year round, with some form of rest period during the cooler months likely taking place. Whether this takes the form of a metabolic break (brumation) or a brief reduction in their period and level of activity is poorly understood at present in such populations, especially in the case of the Montane Trinket Snake, as little is known about its natural history. Captive specimens have been maintained in a similar fashion to the nominate subspecies and fed on a diet of mice and rats, so it is likely that many aspects of their natural history are shared with the more common subspecies.

Husbandry

Trinket Snakes do not require a large vivarium and can be successfully maintained in the standard formula for vivarium size, that being length x width = the length of snake.

As might be expected over such a large geographical range, temperatures experienced throughout the seasons are quite variable, corresponding with the wide scope of climatic conditions. Trinkets in the northernmost part of their distribution are likely to experience a greater scope of temperatures, than their lowland insular relatives. For captive C. helena, it can be assumed that a temperature of 84F is approaching their upper limit of high temperature tolerance and 68F their low temperature tolerance.

So by providing a wide thermal gradient for your Trinket Snake, you’ll be hedging your bet regards being able to provide its preferred body temperature at any one given time, an enclosure incorporating a thermal gradient with a hot spot of 84F and the temperature slopping off to around 77F, should provide ample flexibility to thermoregulate properly. A night time drop within the cooler area of their enclosure to 68F is acceptable, as suggested by Schulz but not necessary, we have found a drop of a few degrees to be sufficient. Like any other snake, higher temperatures within the parameters set out above, will be preferred by gravid females, to aid digestion or to accelerate ecdysis (shedding), while cooler ones are likely to be favoured when resting.

Being a shy species several hides should be placed in various areas of the cage, with one of them being a humid hide, which is essential for the overall well being of this species, without such a hide it will likely have problems sloughing. Another benefit of having a permanent humid hide is that it can be very hard to determine when a female is gravid and so this can also double as a laying box. An overall humidity of between 70-80 % should be aimed for and a medium sized water bowl will also help to increase the humidity. When they are approaching a slough it is also recommended that you spray the cage daily with tepid water. Multiple hides will provide several secure places within the temperature range for the snake to choose a temperature to best suit its needs.

C. helena is mainly active during the night and early morning, for most of the day they are hidden away in their hides or occasionally found resting amongst the greenery attached to their branches, mirroring wild observations.

In captivity C. helena will readily accept a diet of rodents, an interesting observation is their ability to constrict multiple food items at once. If you offer food via tongs, the first will be seized and constricted. Then while offering an additional food item before the snake has finished its investigation to find the head to begin consuming it, it will strike out and take the second into its coils, prior to continuing to eat both food items. We have observed this in both juvenile and adult specimens. Trinkets snakes have a marked preference for smaller food items and larger items may be ignored or constricted and left. This is to be expected for a snake with a relatively elongated head and smaller gape than some other Ratsnakes. Females have a voracious appetite and will feed every 5-7 days whereas the males will probably only feed every 10-14 days once adult. The intense feeding schedule for females is essential to maintain good body weight because of there prolific breeding abilities. Reducing this food intake can successfully reduce the rate at which they reproduce, with a view to a more sensible regime for curtailing the rate at which they are physically capable of reproduction.

Breeding Coelognathus helena helena

The Trinket snake has been bred in the UK for nearly twenty years with the first UK breeding by Trevor Smith in the late eighties, since then they have steadily gained popularity in the hobby and within the last two to three years many hobbyists are sourcing this beautiful species for there own collections.

C. helena is a tropical species and as such does not require a hibernation period, in earlier times of keeping this species in captivity, specimens were lost to hibernation in the belief that they required this to be able to produce viable sperm. Trinket snakes are fairly prolific and will lay eggs all year round, with approx 2-8 eggs in each clutch and an average of 4 clutches per year, up to 7 has been recorded for this species (Schulz 1996). Therefore it is of prime importance that adults especially the females be well conditioned. The females will store sperm (Amphigonia retarda) and up to four fertile clutches can be achieved from one mating, although pairing every second clutch may be more successful in insuring the fertility of the clutches.

Copulation can be a lengthy affair with pairs hooked up for several hours, (Smith 1990) commented on the stamina of his snakes which were hooked up for five hours. One of the authors also witnessed a pairing lasting in excess of 12 hours.

Hatchlings emerge from their eggs as miniature replicas of their parents although their colouration is more intense. Most are unproblematic and will accept pinkies directly after their neonate slough, they are fast growing and some males have been reported to be sexually mature at 8 months, although 18 months is more usual and much preferred.

In December 2006 one of the authors attempted to breed a pair of adults for the first time. Introducing the male to the females cage, although no copulations were witnessed the pair spent a lot of time sharing a flowerpot hide so pairing was probably in seclusion. After around 10 days of the male being introduced, tail rattling could be heard from within the hide, from day 14 to 17 the male took to hiding in the plastic foliage which was attached to a branch in the vivarium. These cues were a sign that the female was no longer receptive to his advances and he was moved back to his own enclosure. Throughout the time he was with the female and for three weeks after he refused all food, although he didn't lose any weight during this time he was coaxed back into feeding by offering him large rat pups which he took with gusto a couple of feeds of these and his usual fare was offered which he accepted.

The female continued to feed throughout gestation every five to seven days on medium sized mice and the occasional rat pup, she completed a pre-laying slough on 13th January 2007 four days later she laid 4 eggs in her moss box. The eggs were transferred to an incubation box that was set up ready in the incubator so that the correct humidity and temperature could be achieved before the eggs were laid. The incubation medium was damp sphagnum moss, the eggs were laid on the top of this and then a loose layer was placed over the eggs. The female accepted two medium mice a few hours after laying. The eggs began pipping on the 24th March 2007 after 69 days at an average temperature of 80F.

A second clutch of four fertile eggs were laid 130 days after her last clutch on the 25th May 2007. Again this occurred four days after her pre-laying slough. These eggs measured :

6 cm x 17mm (11g)

5.5cm x 1.8cm (10g)

4.9cm x 1.7cm (8g)

5.2cm x 1.8cm (9g)

All four eggs hatched after 62 days incubation at 30C.

A very mature female who measured 5 foot plus laid a clutch of 8 eggs on 28th September 2007, they averaged 4.5cm X 2.2cm. Sadly due to an electrical fault most of the eggs were lost, at day 66 when no hatchlings had emerged, they were manually pipped to find only one live hatchling which was badly deformed.
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Another female and some egg laying data.

Following brief introductions with a male, a female shed on the 9/02/08 and 5 eggs were laid on 12/02/08. These were experimentally incubated at temperatures ranging between 75.2-80.6F (24-27C). Some measurements taken on hatching:-

  1. 4cm x 1.75cm, 9g – hatched after 91 days.
  2. 4cm x 1.75cm, 9g – hatched after 92 days.
  3. 4cm x 2cm, 10g – failed 12/4/08, was cut open to reveal a solid egg.
  4. 4cm x 1.5cm, 8g - failed 24/2/08.
  5. 3.5cm x 1.5cm, 6g – infertile.

Number 1 egg measured at time of hatching, 5.5cm x 2.5cm, with the resultant hatchling measuring 29cm. Number 2 egg at time of hatching measured 5.2cm x 2.3cm, with the resultant hatchling measuring 28cm.

She then sloughed on 19/3/08, laying 5 eggs on 22/3/08 without any introductions with a male. Some measurements of this clutch:-

  1. 5cm x 1.8cm, 11g
  2. 5cm x 1.8cm, 11g
  3. 5cm x 1.8cm, 11g
  4. 5cm x 1.9cm, 11g*
  5. 5cm x 2cm, 12g

* This egg had a slight bulge on it, presumably the first laid as it was on the bottom of the pile. All these eggs had failed by 6/4/08.

This same female then completed another slough on 2/6/08 after a deliberate reduction of food in an attempt at slowing her egg production down, laying a further 6 eggs all of which looked white and fertile measuring:-

  1. 5cm x 2cm 11g
  2. 5cm x 2cm 10g
  3. 5cm x 2cm 11g
  4. 5cm x 2cm 12g
  5. 4.5cm x 2cm 9g
  6. 4.5cm x 2cm 9g

All these eggs are currently being incubated at a more even temperature of 80.6F (27C), the resultant egg size upon hatching and their hatchlings will be measured to compare them with the first clutch, although it is expected that these won’t be as large as the young that underwent the lengthy incubation.

 


References:

GOHIL K.K. 1983 An Albino Trinket Snake (Elaphe helena). Hamadryad, Madras 8/1: 14.
GUIDO NIEHAUS & SCHULZ K-D. 1989 Asian Ratsnakes of the Genus Elaphe Part X1. Elaphe helena (Daudin 1803) Snake Keeper.
METHA R S. 2003. Prey Handling Behaviour of Hatchling Elaphe helena (Colubridae) Herpetologica 59 (4) pg 469-474.
SCHULZ K-D. 1996 A Monograph of the Colubrid Snakes of the Genus Elaphe Fitzinger.
SMITH T. 1990 The Trinket Snake, Elaphe helena The Herptile. Vol 15. No.1.
SMITH T. The Captive Care & Breeding of Two Asiatic Ratsnakes. The Reptilian Vol. 1 No.2.
SOMAWEERA R. 2004 Guest Article: Sri Lankan Colubrid Snakes Sri Lankan Naturalist Vol. 6 No. 3-4 pg 32-46.
STASZKO R & WALLS J G. 1994 Rat Snakes: A Hobbyist’s Guide to Elaphe and Kin.
UTIGER U, SCHÄTTI B & HELFENBERGER N. 2005 The Oriental Colubrine Genus Coelognathus Fitzinger, 1843 and Classification of Old and New World Racers and Ratsnakes (Reptilia, Squamata, Colubridae, Colubrinae) Russian Journal of Herpetology Vol. 12, No.1. pg 39-60.
UTIGER U, HELFENBERGER N & SCHÄTTI B, CATHERINE SCHIMDT, MARKUS RUF & VINCENT ZISWILER. 2002 Molecular systematics and phylogeny of Old and New World Ratsnakes, Elaphe, auct., and related genera (Reptilia, Squamata, Colubridae). Russian Journal of Herpetology Vol. 9, No.2. pg 105-124.
WALL F. 1913 A Popular treatise on the common Indian snakes. Part 19. Coluber helena. J. Bombay nat. hist. Soc. 22: pg 22-28.
WHITAKER R & CAPTAIN A. 2004 Snakes of India: The Field Guide.

 


Previously published in the July 2008 edition of our Ratsnakes Digest

 

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