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The Tentacled Snake, Erpeton tentaculatum – an ideal choice for those seeking an unusual pet serpent

Introduction
The snake world is full of species that “break the mold” – none more so than a Southeast Asian import that sometimes appears in the trade, the tentacled snake.

The care of this snake differs greatly from that of all others, and I’ll devote a full article to it shortly.  For now, I’d like to introduce the species to those of you who may be looking for a new challenge.

The Tentacles

The tentacled snake is unique among snakes in its possession of 2 fleshy tentacles (adjacent to the nostrils), the function of which is still unknown.  It has been suggested that they have a sensory function, detect water movement, lure prey or break up the outline of the head. 

Unique Adaptations
This inactive snake resembles a water-logged root, an effect that is heightened by its color, rigid posture, habit of remaining anchored to sunken branches, and the covering of algae that grows on the scales.  It rarely swims, waiting instead for fish to approach closely before striking.

Completely aquatic, this species lacks the broad ventral scales of terrestrial snakes and is helpless on land.  When disturbed, it becomes rigid and immobile (in Thailand, it is known as the “Board-like Snake”).  The nostrils can be sealed to exclude water, and it may remain submerged for 30 minutes before surfacing to breathe.  Tentacled snakes are thought to aestivate by burrowing into the mud during droughts.

Tentacled snakes produce mild venom that is effective against the fishes and tadpoles upon which they feed.  The venom has not been shown to be dangerous to humans – the two people I know of who have been bitten experienced mild swelling that disappeared within a few hours.

Unusual Relatives
The subfamily to which this species belongs, Homalopsinae, contains a number of aquatic snakes that frequent unique habitats and hunt in unusual ways.  For example, the white-banded mangrove snake, Fordonia leucobalia, hunts crabs on tidal mud flats in Southeast Asia and northern Australia.  It is quite effective at overcoming this unusual prey – utilizing constriction and crab-specific venom before finally tearing off the crab’s legs.  It may even employ its oddly blunted teeth to help crush its victims’ hard shells – the only snake known to use teeth in such a fashion.

Please look for my future article on the captive care of this species.  Until then, please write in with any questions or comments you may have.  Thanks, Frank.

Further information on tentacled snake natural history, as well as a picture, is posted at:
http://eobasileus.blogspot.com/2008/02/utterly-outrageous-tentacled-snake.html

12 comments

  1. avatar

    A reptile specialty store in my area is selling tentacled snalkes. I don’t know too much about them outside of what I had read on the internet and in 1 book. I would like your opinion on them, I have experience with several snakes although nothing aquatic, but I have kept fish tanks for many years. I would not want to get them if I might be putting them at risk, thanks.

  2. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog and my compliments on seeking advice before buying this unusual snake.

    Your fish and snake keeping experience should come in handy; they are not easy, but with care they can live long lives and may even reproduce. Several I cared for were received as adults and lived into their late teens.

    Most problems with tentacled snakes arise in 3 ways:

    1. Badly shipped specimens – they are often shipped wrapped in burlap, without water, and suffer skin abrasions. These will be apparent as cut or reddened areas. Avoid injured snakes, as skin problems in this species are harder to deal with than is true for terrestrial species.

    2. Parasites. Most tentacled snakes in the trade are wild-caught and carry a number of internal parasites…the situation is made worse if they have been held in less-than ideal situations prior to their arrival at the store. Try to obtain captive bred animals. A fecal check by a veterinarian is a good idea in any event.

    3. Skin fungus…this arises often among captive tentacled snakes, and is still quite puzzling. Some people recommend acid water, but in my experience such is not the whole answer. Keep an eye on your snakes and please write in if fungus appears (white-grey fuzzy patches)…I have tried a number of cures and can offer some advice.

    Some other things to keep in mind:

    Install the snakes in a large, well-planted aquarium supplied with numerous holdfasts in the form of driftwood and sturdy live plants. These snakes rarely swim and are stressed if unable to find a suitable attachment site.

    Use very dim lighting (peace lilies will fare well under such) and a powerful filter. Outflow from the filter must be slow, however, as they do not abide fast currents. Well-established undergravel filters are ideal.

    The water should be slightly acidic (app. 6.5) and soft if possible; weekly partial water changes are important.

    Use a soft (i.e. clay-based) substrate.

    Temperature should be kept at 76 F. An incandescent bulb should be used to create a warm area (85 F) at the water’s surface. Position wood and plants below this so that the snakes can bask (in water, at the surface). The wood and plants can also be used to prevent the bulb from illuminating the rest of the aquarium.

    Feed a wide variety of live fish…they will not thrive on minnows alone; offer goldfish no more than once monthly. I suggest swordtails, mollies, guppies, platies and similar fish, as well as minnows and shiners. Tentacled snakes require more food than do most snakes … I have always fed them twice weekly (more often for growing animals).

    Cover the aquarium well…use cage clamps and seal openings around filter tubes with duct tape (this is difficult…another reason I use undergravel filters with tentacled snakes).

    Disturb them as little as possible, and do not handle (please note their bite produces a mild reaction in some people) as they stress easily. Keep their aquarium in a little-used room if possible, and do not turn on the aquarium light if the room is dark (use room light or a timer). A group I kept at the Bronx Zoo ceased breeding when their exhibit was re-located to an area near a frequently used door.

    I hope that helps. Please be in touch if you decide to go forward, and I’ll suggest some useful products.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Hello,
    I wrote in the past concerning tentacled snakes and now have 2 set up in the way you have described. One looks at home, always in the same spot but the other swims about a lot which I gather is not normal. Also, I have live plants (not sure of type, Sword?) but with the low light level they are not doing well. Can you help me with some information (again!) thank-you.

  4. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    Congrats on starting out with tentacled snakes, I hope you do very well. The snake that is moving about has likely not found a secure place to anchor. I suggest adding more plants and/or driftwood. Try arranging it in various levels in the tank, as these snakes are pretty choosy. I’ve also noticed that they are quite individualistic in this regard – what suits one may be rejected by another.

    Amazon swords and most other aquatic plants will prove difficult under dim lights, but dim is certainly the way to go, especially as the snakes are settling in. Peace lilies (a “land” plant sold at most garden supply stores, florists) grow very well in water and thrives in low light. Its leaf shafts are very sturdy and make great anchoring sites. Also, they grow extensive root systems when kept in water…the snakes will love to shelter in these. Pothos positioned just at or below the surface will also make a good resting area for the snakes…it is fairly tolerant of low light levels also.

    You might try adding Blackwater Conditioner to the water. This will darken it a bit, and may help in making the snakes feel at home. Some people feel that humeric acid (which is an ingredient of the conditioner) is beneficial for tentacled snakes’ skin. We tried this at the Bronx Zoo when faced with a fungal outbreak in our colony…I can’t say that it made a great difference to snakes already afflicted, but certainly it can do no harm in your case.

    Please let me know if you need anything further, and please keep me posted.

    Good luck. Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    Many thanks to Frank Indiviglio for his advice on care of Erpeton tentaculum, the tentacled snake, as he tries to help me with a recent health issue with my snakes. I recently acquired a few of these snakes, which initally ate well during the first week (rosy reds).
    I noticed what I thought were a few small abrasions on the skin of some of them – mostly on the head, possibly from rubbing against something in their transport container, or from their sneaky habit of trying to stick their head out of the water and through any crack or crevice that they could find in my aquarium lid. But, very soon I was concerned that there might be associated fungal growth (or perhaps this was fungus all along?). They haven’t eaten in more than a week, so I thought they might be under stress.
    I did some additional searching on the web, and came across this blog, which was very informative. I emailed Frank Indiviglio, and he quickly responded with some possible treatments that have been used for fish and amphibians – acriflavine (half the fish dosage), methylene blue, and blackwater extract – but also said that effectiveness of these treatments with Erpeton has been limited and variable in the past. I also had a friend suggest sulfa dip used for turtles.
    I took additional precautions to reduce any additional stress on the snakes, further reducing light and water flow, and making sure the water was slightly acidified.
    About the same time, I came across a research paper on a particular skin infection in Erpeton tentaculum, caused by CANV. It is unclear if my snakes have this particular fungal infection, but it is a very informative paper. I have enclosed the link to the abstract of this paper.
    http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1638/04-020
    Some additional treatments suggested in this paper, such as iodine treatment, and dilute formalin baths, appear to slow the progression of the infection, and postpone snake death.
    On two snakes, I swabbed all visible areas with iodine solution, and let it dry for 20-30 minutes before returning them to the tank. I also treated tank with acriflavine (half fish dosage). One snake prefers to keep its head out of the water for extended periods, and Frank informed me that this may also help kill the fungus. The other snake spends much more time underwater. I plan to continue daily iodine treatments.
    In addition, a third snake, smaller than the other two, died just prior to treatment of the other two snakes. Oddly, this snake had no visible skin lesions, but was smaller than the other two snakes (maybe malnourished too? – it’s difficult to know which snake was eating all the fish). So, this death could be due to malnourishment and/or stress, or possibly something internal.
    As has been mentioned in previous posts, and in this research paper, the source of the fungal infections is unclear, and stress associated with capture, transport, crowding, suboptimal temperature, etc. could be contributing factors to onset of the fungal infection. I will keep you posted on how my snakes are doing, and look forward to additional advice.

    Bill

  6. avatar

    Hello Bill, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the kind words and the most interesting post.

    I’m glad you are keeping notes as even zoos with long-established populations of this species continue to experienced problems. Stress, as you mentioned, may explain some of the widely varying results we have with medications. Unfortunately, most Tentacled Snakes in the US trade are wild-caught, and arrive in poor condition. A goldfish only diet has been implicated in health problems in other reptiles, and may have a role in some cases here as well.

    Thank you for the reference to the article concerning iodine treatment – most useful and well-worth investigating further (Note: Tentacled Snake keepers, please check out this article) Please keep me posted, I’d like to include your notes in a future article; I’ve written to a colleague who may have further insights and will get back to you with any new information he can provided.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  7. avatar

    Unfortunately, another snake died. It was the largest of them all, and with the least visible spots – one large spot between it’s eyes. So, maybe more stressful?
    I’ll keep you posted on the remaining snake.
    This won’t be my last attempt with this interesting species.
    So, I have another question, regarding stress and feeding. If a snake gets stressed, and stops feeding (which would lead to more stress, right?) – which happened with these snakes – how do you get them to feed again?

  8. avatar

    Hello Bill, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Sorry for the news…you’re serious, and on the right track however, and as we need to learn to breed this species consistently I hope you keep at it.

    Stress is always a factor…birds moved to new exhibits in zoos may die from breathing in Aspergillosus and other fungi that is ever present and causes no problems when they are not under stress, and so on… Fungi may also be internal; same for bacteria that take hold after fugal attacks. These will only be eliminated by injectable meds..a good herp vet is essential, let me know if you need help in finding someone. Parasites are always present in wild-caught animals, and play a role – fecal tests useful for new animals.

    The ideas you’ve mentioned earlier re stress reduction are all excellent. Using a red/black bulb for heat illumination helps. Dense plant cover (artificials easier due to low light, but live peace lilies often do ok) and plenty of sunken branches important. I sometimes cover most of an enclosure with dark paper for stress prone animals, especially snakes and others that show little outward signs of it until too late. In the wild Erpeton favor dimly lit waters with thick cover, their body form likely mimics submerged roots/branches.

    Adjust feeder fish to the water slowly, so that they will live and behave normally – helps induce feeding and lessens need for intrusions to remove dead fish, etc. Minnows, shiners, platies, swordtails etc. preferable to goldfishes.

    I’ll keep an eye out for captive born animals and will let you know.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  9. avatar

    Hi Frank,
    good news, for now – the remaining tentacled snake is still alive. He wasn’t eating but just noticed he is shedding, and it looks like a nearly complete shed. He still has several white marks on the dorsal skin, but they don’t appear to be getting larger. I continue to keep him secluded from additional stress, and perhaps since he is the only snake left in the tank, this could help too.
    I don’t have high hopes that he will survive a long time, but will continue treatments, and we’ll see if he starts to eat again.
    I just realized that there was a better place on your blog that I could have placed these posts – under Fungal Infections (Mycotic Disease).
    I’ll keep you posted,
    Bill

  10. avatar

    Hello Bill, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the update; Shedding is a good sign…in fact the snakes with fungal infections/external parasites often go through several rapid shed cycles.

    My contact has not turned up much other than what we’ve discussed, found the iodine note interesting as well. He’ll look further.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  11. avatar

    Do you know where I can purchase a tentacled snake? I’m having a hard time finding one and want to get one for my boyfriend for Christmas who is an aquatic fanatic with several tanks.

  12. avatar

    Hi Brianna,

    They are not at all common, and are usually snapped up right away when available. Keep an eye on Kingsnake.com – “Other Colubrids” ; you might also contact Glades Herp..they carry when available, and may be able to put you on a contact list. Good luck, best, Frank

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About Frank Indiviglio

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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