The Mandarin Ratsnake is one of the most breathtaking ratsnake species. Problem is, they are just as hard to acclimate and keep alive, as they are pretty. Very few imported specimens stay alive longer than just a few months, the amount of snakes that actually live and do well are maybe in the 2-5% range. Now I know that sounds crazy but to get five snakes to live and do well for you, you will need to get 100 or more imports.
Now you could just skip that altogether and buy captive born mandarins. They are now being bred in small numbers. However, I know that not everyone has the $1000 dollars or so, to shell out on a pair of these snakes. I am writing this article to give some insights that my help you with this amazing creature.
The Mandarin Ratsnake can be found in Northern Burma, Vietnam through southern China. It inhabits forest growths in mountain ranges that sometimes actually get cold enough to snow! Found beneath leaf litter, moss and other hide outs, it is mostly nocturnal.
CARE AND INFO
The Mandarin Ratsnake typically obtains sizes between 3.5 - 6 feet in length. Funny enough, all of the ones I have ever seen that were over 4 or 5 foot were males. I had one male that was almost a whopping seven feet in length, he was probably a rarity as well. They don't really get that big!
Mandarin Ratsnakes have a poor record due to lingering time in bad exporter facilities. This is a snake not unlike the Emerald Tree Boa which is very susceptible to all kinds of bacterial infections and other ailments due to stress. Any dirty enclosure littered with other snakes and diseases is a death trap to a Mandarin Ratsnake. These snakes sit sometimes for months waiting to be exported and by that time they have a few weeks left to live which is exactly when we end up getting them. These snakes are extremely fragile and stress easily. Different exporters offer different chances with these snakes. The best time to get them is right when they enter the country so they can be put on a variety of drugs to rid them of their problems.
I once acquired 10 female Mandarin Ratsnakes from a friend in Florida who sent them out the day he received them from China. These females, he believed were gravid and they were hand picked for me. Upon arrival I also suspected they were gravid and set them all up with nest boxes. Eggs could clearly be felt in the animals. Well after a couple of weeks at my place the animals proceeded to release waste products, only thing is most of the waste matter was solid mucous. Turns out, all those eggs I felt, were a completely mucous filled stomach. Frequently cleanings of the horrible odoriferous cages you've ever smelled in your life. I felt bad for those little things.
When they ended up dying I brought them to a vet for necropsy. This was not the first time I had imported Mandarin Ratsnakes but the first time for the necropsy. The studies revealed pin worm eggs and a bacterial infection that became septic meaning it ran into the blood stream. It was previously thought that these animals were dying due to liver damage from warm environments that we put them in, but this did not seem to be the case for most specimens I had. The major cause was the septic blood disease. The problem with bacterial infections, is, as soon as they become septic, there is nothing we can do.
The remaining Mandarin Ratsnakes that I had including 10 or so males and other smaller females were started on a dose of oral baytril, citricidal and panacur. These drugs seemed to greatly increase activity and the life span of the snakes, before I go any further, I must give a few husbandry notes.
These snakes love to bury. Imports must be kept in an environment where they can bury fully and completely. This can be accomplished by bark mulch and green moss that they particularly love. I suppose aspen bedding may work but due to the high humidity requirements of imports it is not advised. The humidity should be high but not too high as the mixture of cooler enclosure and high humidity can cause health problems.
Mandarin Ratsnake imports need a variety of temperatures to survive. Originally when I worked with imports I kept them at very cool room temperatures. Well most of them ended up dead.
On my second shipment of imports I started experimenting and finding some of the snakes spending considerable amount of time buried atop a heat pad at almost 85 degrees F!
Now that sounds outrageous but I suggest a temperature range of at least a minimum low of 60F and a maximum high of 82F. This means larger enclosures will be needed.
Hide boxes placed around the enclosure will be used most like Sand Boas that bury right under them and hang out. Water should be available at all times. They do dehydrate fairly easily and they love to come out and take a drink at night. Bright lights should be avoided for newer imports, but as they do better, gradual stepping up of the light intensity can begin.
They should not be handled frequently until they begin feeding. Feeding Mandarins is the most frustrating part. Often times it may take months and in some cases (I know of) over a year before they show signs of wanting food.
When they do start to eat, it is most times a small pink rat or hairless mouse left in the enclosure over night. Live animals will stimulate the appetite more than frozen thawed or pre-killed. When the animals are newborn mice or rats there is nothing dangerous about leaving them overnight.
Mandarin Ratsnakes will stalk their prey under the litter then grab and start to feed. Tease feeding cannot be done, it usually takes a considerable amount of time to get them to even strike although they usually assume the 'S' shape when confronted. With the exception of this giant seven foot male I had, he would strike when your hand entered the enclosure. The animals that strike and defend themselves seem to do better than the shyer animals that turn and run or bury their heads when confronted. But again these snakes get stressed when you just open the lid to the enclosure so it's best to not mess with them at all.
They have very small mouths and will probably never eat full grown mice but will probably feed on larger fuzzies and the like. Back to dosing the animals - the best bet for success is to dose them in a shotgun fashion. Some think this stresses the animal out and it does. But I've had better success doing shotgun therapies for the first three or four weeks, once per week than leaving them for three months then another three or four weeks once per week. The only way they will eat is if they are healthy and the only way to get them healthy is to dose them with the appropriate medication that can be determined by your vet and a stool sample.
Once your animals are established it can take several years for them to breed. Incidentally, my vet necropsied a female mandarin that I received that was barely 3 foot in length, if that, and he told me she already had produced and laid eggs in the wild and was producing mature follicles for breeding. That shocked us both that a female that small could actually breed! Usually females will need to be over three foot in length.
From the breeding I know about, the breeders used cycling not unlike the Kingsnakes and Ratsnakes from the USA. A period of cool temperature between 50F and 60F degrees for 6 weeks or so followed by a warm up period was utilized. Females produced between four and six eggs, which were incubated between 72-82F degrees and hatched in 45-55 days.
The captive born snakes have proven to fare much better and are not as susceptible to problems from lower humidity and they seem to tolerate higher temperatures, many keep their captive born at temperatures in the high 70's. Some opt for a basking site of around 82F or so.
To sum things up, the Mandarin Ratsnake is a beautiful and difficult species to work with. However if you get lucky and get clean imports or clean them up yourself, they are a joy to own and the effort is worth it. However if you plan to work with imports be prepared for the consequences - they may not live. If you're looking for a breeding project with them I suggest starting with CB because in the long run it may just save you money.
Originally published in The Alberta Reptile & Amphibian Society Bulletin Oct - Dec 2002, reproduced by permission of TARAS.