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The Captive Breeding of Colubrid Snakes:

This document, written by Steven T. Osborne, was originally published as a 4 part series in the 1982 edition ( Volume 4: Number 3,4,7, & 9 ) of the San Diego Herpetological Society Newsletter.

Part l. A Brief History

In the last 3 to 4 years there has been a concentrated interest in the captive breeding of North and Central American colubrid snakes. This activity can now be found in the private, scientific, and institutional (Zoo) realms of herpetology. The major genera of concentration for this series will be Elaphe, Pituophis, and Lampropeltis.

There are four major reasons why these genera have been the chosen few. These are:

  1. accessibility to wild populations to establish breeding stock;
  2. ability for wild-caught, as well as captive-born specimens, to adapt and perform well in captivity;
  3. the beautiful colors and patterns that many species' groups exhibit;
  4. the commercial value of captive-born offspring.
In recent years many conservation laws have put strict limitations on the collecting of many species of snakes. Fortunately, many of the species in the Elaphe, Pituophis, and Lampropeltis genera were well on their way in captive breeding situations before these laws were initiated. Much of the original parentage was collected in the field between 4 to 8 years ago. The species that people were interested in were usually caught within 1000 miles (often much less) of home, and this created annual pilgrimages to the collecting grounds. Almost all of these species are relatively abundant and easily found in their native habitats. Whether or not these collected specimens would be used for captive breeding depended on the collector.
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These three genera have been documented as early as the 1890's for their ability to adapt to a captive lifestyle. The most common sign for this is their willingness to feed on the first and second day of Captivity. Most specimens lock right into an annual breeding performance as manipulated by the keeper. Perhaps the most dramatic example of domestic adaptation is the proven ability to raise a female captive-born hatchling to an adult which lays eggs at 18 months of age. The adult size of these snakes has also been significant because they require less cage space than larger constrictors.

Anyone who begins to observe the wide variety of patterns and stark colors in the Lampropeltis or Elaphe groups can attest to the fact that they are among the most beautiful of snakes. Many captive breeders have selected certain snakes, such as the two phases of the California king snake, to experiment with pattern polychromatism. Very valuable data from behavior, pattern types, and body morphology is being acquired that will perhaps redefine the now existing status of relationships within a genus and between genera. The favorite species among captive breeders are L. mexicana, L. triangulum, L. pyromelana, and various amelanistic (a partial albino lacking black pigment) subspecies found in L. getulus, P. melanoleucus, and Elaphe spp. This is primarily due to the beautiful display of bright colors on light backgrounds or in ringed patterns.

The commercial sale of captive-produced offspring is becoming a bigger part of captive breeding. Many amateur herpetologists, as well as institutions, develop a desire for more expensive specimens. It makes sense to want to produce commercially saleable offspring to offset the cost of the initial breeding stock. Many private individuals are looking to the years ahead when an actual profit can be made. In recent years there has been an ever-increasing value put on obtaining captive-produced offspring. The reasons for this are threefold:

  1. hatchling size is usually the only size obtainable;
  2. a hatchling is almost guaranteed to be free of any internal parasites;
  3. the intrinsic conservation value of obtaining a captive hatchling rather than collecting it in the field.

We can look forward to the knowledge of what will be learned from all aspects of captive breeding of reptiles and amphibians. There should be many breakthroughs in the next 10 years that will add to our appreciation of herpetology.

Click Here for Part II

All photos and text courtesy Steven T. Osborne - Professional Breeders

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