Group #7:

General Care of the Baja California gopher, Pacific gopher, and
Great Basin gopher snakes

 

Text by Shannon Hiatt

Scientific Names:
Baja California gopher snake (Pituophic catenifer bimaris)
Pacific gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer catenifer)
Great Basin gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer deserticola)

Background Information:

Average size: 4.5’ to 5’ for P. c. catenifer and P. c. deserticola; 3.5’ to 4’ feet for P. c. bimaris. A few P. c. catenifer and P. c. deserticola reach lengths in excess of 6’, and P. c. catenifer have been reported at 7’. 5’ is large for a P. c. bimaris.
Average lifespan: 12 to 15 years for all three species with a record of 33 years 10 months for a Great Basin gopher snake and 22 years 6 months for a Pacific gopher snake. No longevity records are available for the Baja California gopher snake.

Housing
The first "bullsnake" I caught was a neonate Great Basin gopher snake. I was ten. We lived in Northern Idaho in an area of pine forests and open grasslands. Lucky for me, my Dad, who was a coach at the local junior high, had our neighbor, a science teacher, give me a quick course in snake keeping. We housed the little snake in a 10-gallon aquarium that seemed way too big. By the time my Dad packed us up two years later for a new coaching job in Arizona, that little snake had graduated to a 20-gallon and then a 30-gallon aquarium. This was just about right for a gopher snake that ate a mouse every week without fail. An average adult would fit into a 30-aquarium long, even though a 55-gallon would be even better if you have a pair and house them together.

Many breeders prefer a space saving tray system for Pituophis, and I have maintained several subspecies in 32-quart plastic trays. I do use, however, larger and deeper plastic trays for breeding – these are the same length and width as the 32-quart trays but are 12” to 16” deeper. This allows a bit more room during the courtship stage, which can result in mad dashes around the tray, tails slapping against the sides of the tray, and all sorts of interesting behaviors. Ideal breeding cages are 48” X 24” X 24” Sandmar melamine cages with sliding glass doors. These offered plenty of room and these Pituophis seemed to do better in them than the trays. I use these cages only during the breeding season. Right after being assured of a successful mating, I moved the breeding pair back to their individual 32-quart trays.

Substrate: My substrate of choice is Care Fresh ™, a recycled paper product, which is gray colored. I add three to four inches of Care Fresh ™ to my trays, place sheets of newspaper over the Care Fresh ™, then place a crock water bowl on top of that. The newspaper serves as a steady base for the water bowl and a hide for the snake. What you will find is that most snakes burrow into the Care Fresh ™ under the newspaper right under the bowl. The bowl apparently offers a firm contact point for the snakes—like a tight burrow—that appeals to them.

One problem with Care Fresh ™ is that it is purported to cause dehydration in some snake species if there isn’t an adequate water supply offered. I have never encountered this problem with these Pituophis. And some folks do not like the “wet paper” smell of Care Fresh ™ if it gets wet. The company that produces Care Fresh ™ also offers a more expensive form of Care Fresh ™ that is white and gives off less of an odor when wet. (Type in Care Fresh ™ as a general search term on an internet search engine for more information.) I spot clean my cages often and let the Care Fresh ™ get wet ONLY when a snake is in the blue. When one is blue, I spray the snake and the surrounding Care Fresh ™ with a little water every other day until the snake sheds. If you use under tray heat tapes, the Care Fresh ™ will dry out rather quickly so there is no need to remove the dampened Care Fresh ™ UNLESS you maintain a Pituophis subspecies that does not do well with additional humidity – like P. c. bimaris.

There are several other choices of substrate available, but they have been adequately covered under the
Group 1 heading. I do not need to expound on their virtues further except to say use newspaper during any quarantine period(s) (and every new snake added to a collection should be quarantined for at least 60 days – even though 90 days is better). Do not add Care Fresh ™ or other substrates, use disposable bowls, keep the tray clean, and check it daily.

Temperature:
I find that these Pituophis do well within the “average” range of temperatures advocated for most snake species—70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit within the cage and the ability to choose the temperature they require. Offering this type of microclimate within the cage has become a standard herpetocultural practice. This simply means that the snake has a cool end and a warm end from which to choose its own comfort zone (e.g., the ability to thermoregulate within the cage). However, the Baja California gopher snake requires temperatures a bit lower. And I'd suggest care information offered for P. c. vertebralis as a good baseline for P. c. bimaris. What works for P. c. vertebralis will work for P. c. bimaris since they both hale from the same limited microclimate of the Baja. A range of 70 to 80 degrees Fahrenheit is ideal for them. An electronic thermostat is not necessary to maintain any of these Pituophis. In fact, a heat bulb used during the day and turned off for the night is usually adequate, unless the temperature in the room falls below what would normally be comfortable for human inhabitants (e.g, below normal “room temperature”).

Feeding:
All three Pituophis in this group will do well on frozen, thawed mice of the appropriate size. Neonates eat pinkies and fuzzies; juvies require fuzzies, hoppers, and weanlings; adults feed on small adult mice up to large adult mice (depending upon the size of the adult, of course). Rat pups are a good optional meal for adults. With my Pituophis, I also like to offer frozen, thawed chicks or quail, when I can find some. The occasional small, 4-5 day old pigeon squab have been an added treat since I usually have some on hand. I recommend these as the occasional added treat for Pituophis species, using the appropriate size. Care should be taken to not provide meals that are difficult to acquire or that may carry internal parasites. Never offer wild prey to captive Pituophis.

The Pacific and Great Basin gophers can eat much larger meals than the more slender Baja California gopher. In fact, feeding too large a meal, or too often, can lead to chronic regurgitation problems in P. c. bimaris. If a snake regurgitates a meal, let it rest for 10 to 14 days. Yes: do NOT feed the snake for up to two weeks after regurging before offering a much smaller meal (e.g., if the snake was eating a weanling mouse, offer it a hopper mouse). Then allow the snake to digest that smaller meal and pass fecal material BEFORE offering another it a second small meal. I'd suggest at least three small meals before offering the next larger meal.

Shedding:
As with all snakes, offer fresh water as is required, but especially during the shedding cycle. I have a spray bottle that I use to spray these snakes in shed every other day when they are blue. Since I use Care Fresh ™ and newspaper, and no heat tapes, the surrounding paper retains some moisture, and I do not need to spray them daily. There are usually no stuck sheds as a result, but I check each snake – especially in neonates – after they have shed for retained eye caps or old skin on the tail tips.

Handling:
I handle my snakes daily. That's why I keep them. The handling is brief and is simply to check the snake's well being: I check for good muscle tone as the snake glides over my fingers, active tongue flicking, and, as with some Pituophis, a little tail rattling. Even my most tractable Pituophis will do a bit of this if they are doing well. I also make sure that their water bowl is clean and that there are no wet fecal spots in the Care Fresh ™. I remove all fecal spots and all surrounding soiled substrate and dab the spot with a paper towel laced with a water and bleach solution. All of my trays get a monthly cleaning. That's when I change out the tray, clean the old trays, spray in some mite killer as a preventative, and store the empty trays until the next monthly tray exchange. It makes the cleaning routine easier to have a tray to simply change out with the old, dirty, tray.

Ailments:
Other than the occasional regurgitation problem I've noted above for P. c. bimaris, Pituophis are remarkably healthy snakes. Be vigilant for this syndrome and for mites. Mites can travel from one snake room to a second snake room on your shoes, clothing, hands, etc. If you have visited another herpetoculturist or a pet shop, be advised that you snake room (that has had no history of mites) can easily become infested, especially in the summer when the mites reproduce more quickly. My suggestion is to change your shoes and clothes and wash your hands thouroughly before entering your own snake room to help avoid the risk of infesting it with mites. Bringing new snakes into your snake room can also begin a mite infestation. If possible, always quarantine new snakes in a separate room. Handling your Pituophis daily can also alert you to problems early. At the first sign of a behavioral change, unless it is the breeding season or nearing time for brumation, have your snake checked by a qualified reptile veterinarian.

All veterinarians, even those who have little or no experience with reptiles, can examine a fecal sample from your snakes to check for internal parasites. I'd suggest you do this at least once a year and treat the snakes accordingly if they prove to have parasites. Then follow up with another fecal exam to ensure you have eliminated the problem. A fecal exam is easier, and makes more sense, than a shotgun approach whereby you simply treat blindly for parasites without knowing what type your snake has. If your Pituophis is a wild caught snake, then the chances of it having internal parasites of some sort is greatly magnified. Don't think, however, that captive-bred snakes don’t have parasites – they can be infested with the same parasites wild caught specimens are prone to carry.

Variations among group members:

1. P. c. bimaris – smallest of the three subspecies highlighted in this care guide, it also has the darkest blotch coloration. One herpetologist has postulated that this subspecies is nothing more than a color morph of P. c. vertebralis, but I'll leave that to taxonomists to debate.

2. Pacific gopher – about equal in size to the Great Basin gopher if fed the same. Wild caught Pacific gopher specimens tend to be larger than Great Basin gophers due to their habitat; P. c. catenifer is found in more agricultural regions than P. c. deserticola, which inhabits a more arid region. Color variations include both albinos and anerythristics, which produce snow Pacific gophers when combined. Pacific gophers also have a beautiful striped version that is common for this subspecies, although the blotched version is more prevalent in collections.

3. Great Basin gopher – this subspecies reaches the most northern range of any Pituophis, and, as a result, tends to be darker than most with a pattern that tends to have blotches interconnected rather than discretely separated. This subspecies has more side pattern than the Pacific gopher, although that can vary from population to population. The darker coloration, of course, is thought to lend itself to enhanced thermoregulation by allowing more heat retention during basking. This subspecies has no color morphs at this juncture although, like all gopher snakes, there is extreme variation between populations that range over such large expanses. In some of these populations the blotches are, in fact, discrete elements that are separate and distinct.

References:

Bartlett, R.D. and Patricia P. Bartlett. Snakes: A Complete Owner's Guide. Hauppauge, NY: Barron's, 1998.

Bartlett, R.D. and Alan Tennant. Snakes of North America: Western Region. Houston, Texas: Gulf Publishing Company, 2000.

Behler, John L. and F. Wayne King. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Reptiles & Amphibians. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. Stebbins, Robert C. Peterson Field Guides: Western Reptiles and Amphibians, 2nd Edition. Boston, New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1985.


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