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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 IV. Raising of Hatchlings to Adult Breeding Size

This article concludes the series pertaining to the husbandry and captive breeding of the genera Elaphe, Pituophis, and Lampropeltis. This article is intended to indicate some of the techniques developed in recent years for successful raising of hatchlings to adult size in a relatively short period of time.

In the last 3-4 years, it has been found that the reproductive capability of these genera is a function of size and not age. It was thought by several leading herpetologists in the field that it required a minimum of 3-4 years of age before these snakes became reproductively active. However, due to recent methods of advanced husbandry, it has been determined that males can be successfully mating as early as 9 months of age and females as early as 18 months of age with viable offspring resulting from these matings. In order to achieve this, it is necessary to maintain a STRICT feeding schedule in addition to various feeding techniques for various species. For rapid growth it is necessary for a continuous feeding schedule-as often as the snake will eat. Increasingly large food items should be offered as the snake can handle them. Generally, this schedule requires pinkies or fuzzy mice every 2 days for the first 5-6 months and to be interrupted only by the shed phase. Since there is very little or no fur on the feed items, they are rapidly digested. From 6 months to adult size, feedings can be every 4-7 days with more food items per feeding. A good indication that the snake is growing rapidly is that skins are shed every 21 -30 days.

It takes approximately 80-100 individual feedings and about 14 months to reach adult size in females following this method. Males can successfully breed at much smaller sizes and may only require 8-10 months of this feeding schedule to reach breeding size. Whether or not the breeder desires to rapidly raise his hatchlings is a matter of choice. It requires a good deal of work and a substantial rodent colony.

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There has been some suggestion that "forcing" snakes in captivity to grow more rapidly than in the wild may cause detrimental health problems. However, there is no indication in the literature or among captive breeders of these snakes that this is true. At any rate, the following techniques could prove useful for anyone wishing to raise hatchlings.

The set-up that seems to be the most successful is to provide each hatchling with the following:

  1. A plastic shoe box (available in various department stores) with several 1/8-inch holes drilled through the top. The lid needs to be secured using heavy tape, etc. Most shoe boxes measure 12"L x 6 1/2"W x 3 1/2"H. This serves as the cage for the hatchling until about 12 months of age when it can be moved to a larger permanent cage. The main reason that plastic shoe boxes are used is that it provides easy access to the hatchling; a small confined area for the snake and its live food items; easy heating using a heat tape; and an inexpensive, compact cage source.

  2. A FLEXIBLE Heat Tape (Wrap-on Heat Tape Brand is available through plumbing stores) that can be wired through a dimmer switch and will allow the spot where it passes under the plastic shoe box to maintain a temperature of 80-90F. A shelf can be used to place the shoe boxes with the heat tape running under the back 1/3 section of each of the boxes.

  3. A suitable substrate in the shoe box such as-a sheet of newspaper, non-toxic pine shavings, sand, or gravel.

  4. A butter dish with a hole cut in the top (or other small hide box) that can be placed in the shoe box directly over the spot where the heat tape runs under the box. This is of primary importance as the snake needs to spend most of its time directly over the heat tape area in order to rapidly digest food.

    The type of substrate that is optimum in the butter dish will be discussed in the species accounts below. Many of the species require constant humidity or moisture in the butter dish to inhibit water loss from the hatchling. Some specimens go for several months without drinking from a water dish under this set-up.

  5. A water dish that can't be tipped over. It is important to keep the shoe box substrate relatively DRY.

Various feeding preferences of different species have proven to be a challenge in some cases. The ideal food item for most keepers is usually laboratory mice or rats and that will be assumed here. Listed below by species are some of the feeding preferences of hatchlings, some methods of switching hatchlings over to lab mice or rats, and some ways of stimulating a stronger feeding response:

  1. Pituophis melanoleucus, Elaphe guttata and E. obsoleta: Increase size of live mice in early growth (pinkies to fuzzies to full grown mice) and later switch to rats when adult size is attained. Use MOIST peat or sphagnum moss in a butter dish for the first 6-8 months, then dry substrate after 8 months.

  2. Lampropeltis getulus and L. calligaster: Increase size of live mice throughout growth from hatchling to adult size. Maintain dry substrate in the butter dish from birth to adult.

  3. Lampropeltis triangulum ssp. (south of United States border): Increase size of live mice throughout growth. Use MOIST peat or sphagnum moss in the butter dish for the first 8-10 months, then dry substrate after 10 months.

  4. Lampropeltis mexicana, L. pyromelana, L. zonata, and L. triangulum (north of Mexican border): These can be the most challenging hatchlings to raise. Typically the natural food source in the wild is lizards in the genera Sceloporus and Uta. L. m. mexicana, L. m. greeri, and L. m. thayeri seem to show a stronger tendency toward starting on mice in captivity than do L. m. blairi and L. m. alterna. Hatchlings that will start on live mice should be given increasingly large live mice throughout growth. If a hatchling refuses mice, then the following can be tried in order of listing:

      A.) Rub or scent a pinkie on a sceloporine lizard before offering it to the hatchling.

      B.) Offer a sceloporine lizard in whole or part following it with a pinkie as the snake is swallowing the lizard. Eventually the snake may pick up on either a scented mouse or unscented mouse.

      C.) Offer the hatchling a wild-type pinkie ( i.e. Paramyscus ) following it with a lab mouse pinkie.

      D.) Raise the hatchling to adult size solely on lizards.

Methods "a" and "b" will usually work within the first 4-6 months and will completely switch the hatchling to lab mice. The best thing to do is to continually offer the hatchling a lab mouse in the event that it may decide to take it. All of the hatchlings in group 4 should be provided with MOIST peat or sphagnum moss in the butter dish for the first 8-10 months, then dry substrate after 10 months.

The main point to emphasize in raising hatchlings is to have the plastic shoe box-heat tape-butter dish set-up that will facilitate getting heat to the hatchling for food digestion. Once a snake is eating mice that are capable of harming it by biting, it is best to feed only pre-killed food. The hatchlings seem to prefer live pinkies and fuzzies as opposed to dead. If rapid growth is desired, then an abundant food source is necessary. If one method of feeding doesn't work on the more difficult species, then don't hesitate to try something else. Most of the methods presented in this article were derived by trial and error. There is the potential for even better husbandry approaches in the raising of hatchlings yet to be found.

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

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