Snakes: Colubrid

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

The Colubridae comprise the largest family of snakes, with 249 genera and more than 1,000 species. The vast majority are harmless, although they can bite. The boomslang snake is venomous, with a hemotoxin in its bite. Some colubrids are small, insectivorous species, while others can be larger (constrictor snakes such as the racer and the indigo snake). Many are colorful and very attractive. Most colubrid snakes sold at pet stores make excellent pets that are easy to care for. Some of the more popular colubrid snakes are described below.

The Corn Snake

This readily available snake, Elaphe guttata, is a yellow to gray snake with a series of red to brown marks that go around (circumferential). They are now available in a variety of color variations (morphs), which range from gray to bright orange to a ghost color formation.

"Corn snakes are typically easy to handle, docile, and relatively low maintenance."

Corn snakes are typically easy to handle, docile, and relatively low maintenance. They are a manageable size and adapt to captivity very well. Adult corn snakes may reach a length of 4–6 feet (1.2-1.8 m) with optimum diet and housing. They make excellent pets.

Mice should be the majority of their diet. They should be housed at a temperature of 25°C–30°C (77°F–86°F), although they can withstand marginally cooler weather in winter. Corn snakes breed well in captivity, with around 10–15 eggs in a clutch. If incubated at 28°C (82°F), they hatch in around 70 days and, if big enough, will take newborn pinky mice immediately. After 2–3 years, they reach sexual maturity. Their life expectancy is 12–15 years with proper care.

The Rat Snake

The rat snake, Elaphe obselata, has a number of subspecies that range from the dark Texas rat snake, to the black rat snake with its white chin, to the slender yellow rat snake, to the orange Everglades rat snake, which is a beautiful orange color. All these subspecies are generally easy to maintain and take well to captivity.

In general, rat snakes are easy-going, but some individuals can be aggressive. Most species of rat snake can reach a length of 4–6 feet at full maturity, but some species may grow to be 10 feet. The adult diet consists mostly of small rodents, but in the wild they consume frogs, bird eggs, and some amphibians. Being arboreal (living in trees), they require branches on which to climb and rest.

The King Snake

These species, such as the common king snake, Lampropeltis getulus, are well-marked with vibrant patterns on their skin and are robust animals. There are over 45 subspecies of king snake. Adults may reach lengths of 2–6 feet (0.6–1.8 m). They generally require a large cage, which should be kept around 25°C–30°C (77°F–86°F). Although they rarely climb, they benefit from having some type of hiding space.

Their food in captivity should be mice, which they constrict and eat. King snakes have been known to eat other snakes. The California king snake has been reported to be resistant to the venom of a rattlesnake. Large and small king snakes should not be housed together, in case the large snakes eat the small ones. When stressed or frightened, king snakes may emit a “musk” odor, which is thought to ward off predators.

The Milk Snake

The milk snake, Lampropeltis Triangulum, is a member of the king snake family. It is a tricolored snake with yellow, black, and red circumferential rings. They resemble the poisonous coral snake, but are differentiated by the arrangement of the three colors. Remember, "red on yellow, kill a fellow; red on black, friend of Jack".

They are considered more delicate than other Lampropeltis species and, since they come from a wide geographical range, they need corresponding variation in temperature. Northern species can be hibernated at 6°C–10°C (42°F–50°F), while southern species only tolerate a drop of 5°C–10°C (41°F–50°F) from their normal temperature range.

They are opportunistic eaters and eat a variety of animals, but are kept well in captivity on a diet of small rodents. They obtained the name milk snake because they are commonly found around barns. However, they are not looking for milk; they are hunting for mice that live around the barn.

The Grass Snake

This olive-green snake, Natrix natrix, is a native of Great Britain. Although it exists happily at temperatures found in the UK, some individuals do not adapt to captivity well.

"Although it exists happily at temperatures found in the UK, some individuals do not adapt to captivity well."

The snake requires a diet of fish and amphibians. It is not a good choice for inexperienced snake owners because of this tendency for poor adaptation.

The Garter Snake

There are many species of the genus Thamnophis. The garter snake is generally easy to care for, responds well to handling, and is active and diurnal (awake during the day), making it an ideal snake in captivity. Thamnophis marcianus, the checkered garter snake, is a particularly attractive snake. Although it may be found in dry regions of North America and Central America, garter snakes always require water. Western subspecies are more terrestrial in habit than are the eastern subspecies of the common garter snake. Garter snakes may eat slugs, insects, earthworms, lizards, amphibians (frogs), birds, fish, and rodents.

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