The fouth part of this series of articles looks at the European Ratsnakes giving an overview of five ratsnake species. This article covers Zamenis longissimus, Z. situla, Z. hohenackeri, Rhinechis scalaris & Elaphe quatuorlineata.
AESCULAPIAN SNAKE - Zamenis longissimus
Unfortunately, this is the least commonly seen of the European ratsnakes. Zamenis longissimus is a fairly uniformly coloured species being either olive green or dark brown in colour with a number of white ‘fleck’ markings along the dorsal region. The hatchlings are more colourful than the adults and are often mistaken for grass snakes Natrix natrix due to the presence of a yellow “collar”.
There was once thought to be three subspecies which have all been given full species status, Zamenis longissimus - which is the most widespread, Zamenis lineatus - which hails from Italy and Sicily and Zamenis persicus from North Iran.
This species may be suitably housed in a vivarium of dimensions 36x18x18" equipped only with a hide box, a climbing branch and a small water bowl. The Aesculapian snake is, in my opinion, a good candidate for captive husbandry. It attains around 5 feet in length, is of quite slender build, can become quite placid and is a good feeder taking rodents and day-old chicks.
As far as breeding is concerned this species, in common with most European species, requires a more drastic cooling period than the North American ratsnakes (at least three months at 55F). The females lay approximately 8 eggs and the resulting hatchlings feed well on pink mice.
FOURLINED RATSNAKE - Elaphe quatuorlineata
There are currently two widely recognised subspecies which are commonly seen in captivity E.q.muenteri. and Elaphe quatuorlineata quatuorlineata. Elaphe quatuorlineata quatuorlineata is, in many ways, quite similar to the North American yellow ratsnake Pantherophis obsoletus quadrivittatus in appearance. It is, however, darker in colour (slate grey to dark brown ish) and the stripes down the back are more prominent. The temperament also differs in that the four-lined snake is some thing of a “gentle giant” and will take to gentle handling quite tolerantly. E.q.quatorlineata is a large snake attaining almost 80 inches in length. In common with the North American ratsnakes the juvenile is very different having a blotched pattern.
The eastern form of the four-lined snake Elaphe sauromates (once a subspecies of E.q.q now assigned full species status) is very different in appearance retaining the juvenile pattern and colouration throughout its life. It is also somewhat smaller than the E.q.q at around five feet in length.
Captive maintenance for both subspecies is identical.
Both subspecies are among the most frequently seen of the European ratsnakes and with good reason. Not only is the four-lined snake a calm animal it is a good feeder and, in the hands of an experienced snake-keeper can be easily bred.
Being relatively large compared to North American ratsnakes (they can easily top six feet in length and be three times the bulk of an adult cornsnake) the feeding requirements are considerable. Some German herpetologists feed this species with guinea pigs with success but, under normal circumstances, they will feed very well on mice, rats, chicks or even eggs which it crushes with its powerful stomach muscles.
To maintain this pleasant animal in captivity one requires a spacious vivarium 48x18x18” would suffice. The vivarium needs no added decoration as this is a powerful species which will quickly destroy any vivarium furnishings (therefore no artificial plants should be used). A hide box can be included even though the species is the not the most retiring snake in the world. A large and sturdy water bowl, an optional climbing branch or, perhaps, a rock would complete the furnishings.
Hibernation is imperative if this species is to breed. A winter rest period of about three months at a somewhat cooler temperature than that required for the North American ratsnakes should suffice.
LADDER SNAKE - Rhinechis scalaris
Hatchlings of this comparatively rarely seen species are very attractive; bearing two longitudinal stripes and dark crossbars which form the “ladder” from which Rhinechis scalaris derives its common name. Unfortunately as time goes by the hatchlings lose the crossbars which form the “rungs” of the ladder and are left with just the two longitudinal stripes. Markings on the head also fade as the animal matures. It is a rather small species rarely attaining lengths in excess of 48 inches.
In my opinion obtaining captive-bred young should be a priority if this snake is to be maintained in captivity with any degree of success. Captive-bred animals in general have a calmer temperament and are much less likely to suffer from both external parasites such as mites and ticks and internal parasites. The snake should do well in a vivarium as detailed for the four-lined snake, but the dimensions of the cage can, obviously, be smaller.
Breeding the ladder snake in captivity is something of a rarity. The probability is that this is not because of the difficulty of its maintenance but, rather, the scarcity of good captive-bred animals with which to establish breeding populations. In order to induce reproduction hibernation at 55F for around three months should suffice. According to my research Rhinechis scalaris lays about 8 eggs which should be incubated at a fairly standard 82F (although many herpetologists prefer to keep the temperature a little cooler during incubation of European snakes’ eggs).
As previously described the hatchlings are extremely attractive and feed normally aggressively on pink mice. If feeding difficulties are encountered the species can be started off on baby lizards and can then be weaned onto a more convenient diet.
LEOPARD SNAKE - Zamenis situla
In my opinion this is, without doubt, the most attractive of all the European species (if not the prettiest of all the ratsnakes). Zamenis situla is a silver to grey snake attractively marked with a number of red or warm brown blotches which are beautifully framed by their black edging. In many ways this gorgeous animals bears resemblance to the more familiar cornsnake at first glance. The head is also attractively marked with a black v-shaped stripe behind the eyes and another black band across the snout. These features make this species instantly recognisable.
Zamenis situla is a small (2-3 feet) species and one which may be fairly delicate. For this reason I could only really recommend the more experienced hobbyist to attempt to keep and, hopefully, breed this species in captivity.
The leopard snake requires only a small vivarium (24x12x12” could be ample) and this should have a thermal gradient with summer temperatures of around 85F at the warmest part of the cage. This is a shy species and so must have plenty of hiding places throughout the cage. A method I have found successful is to have a hide at the warm end of the cage, another in the middle and also one at the coolest end of the cage (furthest away from the heat source). This species does seem to enjoy to bask in the sunlight so a large rock at the warm end of the terrarium and the addition of a fluorescent tube will help to simulate the conditions which would be enjoyed in the wild state. During the summer months the UV. tube should be kept on for at least 12 hours a day.
With a three month cooling period (similar to that used for Zamenis longissimus) this snake should reproduce well in captivity. The ladder snake produces a maximum of 5 eggs and from these hatch large (around 12 inch) babies which are beautifully marked miniature replicas of the parents. If kept in small opaque plastic tubs (as described for raising cornsnake hatchlings in first of this series of articles, the hatchlings will usually feed well and, because of their large size, the babies can easily handle pink mice (unlike some baby cornsnakes).
Due to the small clutch size and lack of availability of captive-bred hatchlings the leopard snake remains relatively rare and, thus, expensive. Hopefully in the near future this amazingly beautiful snake will become more readily available.
TRANSCAUSCASIAN RATSNAKE - Zamenis hohenackeri
This species is only very rarely encountered either in the wild or in captivity and, consequently, little is known of its captive maintenance. The range of this species covers Turkey and the Caucasus and extends across to Russia and down to Iran
It grows to around three feet in length and is light-brown to greyish in colouration with a series of darker transverse markings. There is also a dark brown “horseshoe” shaped marking at the base of the head. They superficially resemble the more commonly seen Elaphe dione