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Egg-eating Snakes – Natural History and Care in Captivity

Frank is always eager to give up-and-coming exotic pet enthusiasts a chance to get published, and share their interests and findings with the world. The following article is writen by That Reptile Blog Guest Blogger Joseph See and contains information that may be of interest to our readers. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of Frank Indiviglio.

Hello all, I am Joseph See. As a college student working towards a degree in biology, I thought I would write about a very underrated group of snakes, which also happen to be the first snakes I kept and bred. When I was younger I kept all the manner of creatures around the house, except snakes, which my parents disliked. But upon moving out in college I decided to try my hand at one species that I read much about and always fascinated me.

Egg-eating Snakes (Dasypeltis) are fascinating, highly specialized colubrids that are featured in almost any book on snakes, due to their bizarre feeding habits. Egg-eating Snakes feed solely on bird eggs, and can swallow eggs several times the size of their heads. They are also undemanding and easy to keep, as long as you start with established specimens.

Natural History

The 5 species of the genus Dasypeltis live in Africa, usually in forested areas. Baby egg-eaters presumably feed on the eggs of small finches and weaverbirds before taking progressively larger fare like chicken eggs! Without functional teeth, egg-eaters are defenseless and thus have evolved colors and behavior to mimic the venomous vipers found alongside them. By rasping their scales together they can produce a hissing noise in the same way as some vipers, and they will frequently flatten their necks or heads to more resemble a venomous snake.

Egg-eaters in Captivity

Egg-eaters are not often kept, but wild caught imports are occasionally available. The Rhombic Egg-eater (Dasypeltis scabra) and the East African Egg-eater(Dasypeltis medici medici) are the most frequently imported. Their care is similar to other small colubrids (such as African house snakes).

Feeding

The main difficulty keepers of these snakes encounter is acquiring eggs to feed them. Most egg-eaters are too small to take regularly available chicken eggs. Depending on the size of your snake you may feed eggs from pigeons, Coturnix quail, doves, Button quail, or finch. Generally speaking, Coturnix quail eggs (the quail egg eaten as a delicacy) are the easiest to obtain, whether it be from ethnic food markets, feed stores, or local bird breeders. These eggs are cheap to obtain and suit most large egg-eaters. Button quail (Coturnix chinensis) eggs are smaller and also easily obtained for smaller specimens. Other eggs can be obtained from local petstores, bird breeders, etc. (often for free). A final note: while small egg-eaters cannot eat overly large eggs, large egg-eaters have no qualms on taking small ones. Eggs should be stored in the refrigerator until they are used (and should keep for a month or so).

Feeding problems

Probably the most common problem reported in keeping egg-eaters is simply that they refuse to eat. This is especially the case for freshly wild-caught imports. Of course, you should make sure the snake is well hydrated and in a comfortable environment. Here are a few tips for getting stubborn egg-eaters to eat.

Make sure the eggs you are offering are the appropriate size and fresh. Scenting the eggs (by refrigerating them, freezing and thawing them, rubbing on a birds breast or placing in a bird’s nest etc.), may help. Some prick the shell with a pin and smear some of the contents on the egg. Egg-eaters can go for many months without food, so be patient. However, if a snake is losing weight, tube feeding several milliliters (the approximate amount in an egg the snake would otherwise eat) of whipped egg with a syringe and catheter tubing may be required. I would highly recommend consulting an experienced keeper or veterinarian to demonstrate the procedure before trying, if done incorrectly one could force fluid into the lungs, which is usually fatal. Egg-eaters have actually been raised almost solely by this method, since it is hard to find enough finch eggs for a whole clutch of babies, being fed once every two weeks or so.

Hope this article piques your interest in perhaps trying your hand at these oft read of-but seldom kept snakes!

Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally published by Dawson.

11 comments

  1. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    Just thought I’d update you on my own eggeaters.
    I have now owned my female for about 10 months…and during this time she’s increased in length by at least third.(she’s just over 3 feet). The babies have done well(on mostly tube feedings due to difficulty in obtaining a constant supply of finch eggs)-seems they grow a few mm after every feeding-they are now over 1 ft in length(but still incredibly small by most hobbyists standards!). Hoping to get some CH babies from an importer who had a female lay eggs as well as try for another clutch from my female next spring. The adult female(now named Daisy)…has tamed down to the point where she will now take eggs out of my hand and has put on a show at a few reptile shows I’ve taken her to.

    All the Best
    ~Joseph

  2. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    Have you any experience with other species besides scabra/medici? A few different eggeaters have been coming in lately. One importer got a black Dasypeltis atra-tempting. Also has a few of what appear to be large female atra of the red phase. I’d love to try a new species if I can find a pair. Actually, I would love to get ahold of some scabra if you know any leads. Also, do you know if their is a taxonomic key for the genus Dasypeltis out there? I’ve looked and can’t seem to find one.

    Thanks!
    ~Joseph(btw-adult female medici “Daisy” downed a chicken egg a few days ago. Looking to get a few CH babies from an importer and also will try breeding the female again next spring.

  3. avatar

    Hello Joseph, Frank Indiviglio here.

    A chicken egg being swallowed is something to see, isn’t it?! Glad to hear you are doing well.

    Unfortunately I do not have any useful contacts and, as far as I know, a key has not been written. I’ll keep my eyes open. Sounds like some very nice animals are coming in, please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  4. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    I was wondering if you might have an idea on this question.
    Various other snakes feed on bird eggs(rat/kingsnakes for example) at least occasionally. I would assume that if one were to feed them a diet solely of eggs eventually some kind of nutritional deficiency would come up. Are eggeaters perhaps specially adapted physiologically to subsist on nothing but egg yolk and perhaps tiny fragments of shell they might occasionally ingest? Could be a neat experiment.

    Thanks!
    ~Joseph

  5. avatar

    Hello Joseph, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for another great post; yes. Egg-eaters are likely highly adapted to that diet; rodent-eating snakes would almost certainly fare poorly, although some that we think of as typical actually consume an wide array of prey – anacondas, black racers and indigo snakes pop into mind.

    Most specialists, such as those that feed on solely on slugs and snails, fish and amphibian eggs, etc. cannot digest other foods properly; we see that with all sorts of animals – scores of silver leaf & proboscis monkeys died in zoos until we realized that diets designed for typical primates were killing them, and so on.

    Interestingly, Eastern Hog-nosed Snakes, which are toad-specialists, seem to do well, long term, on a diet comprised of toad-scented mice.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Happy Holidays, Frank Indiviglio.

  6. avatar

    Interesting on the monkeys! I suppose proboscis monkeys probably require some kind of special mangrove leaf based chow? I was watching David Attenboroughs ‘Life of Mammals’:Life in the Trees…which mentioned a cyanide laced bamboo eating lemur. What higher animals can actually survive on with only moderate modification is amazing.

    On hognose-have you or anyone you know successfully kept Easterns long term on mice? I’ve thought of keeping them but have heard mixed reports(such as mice fed Easterns being less vigorous and developing skin problems/eye cataracts…contrasted with people who claim to keep and breed mice fed Eastern hognose). They apparently eat other things in the wild at least occasionally so are not super specialized. Wonder if it matters if mice are live/frozen/prekilled. I’d love to keep them but would feel guilty giving them toads.

    Actually, I’ve heard of people converting mudsnakes over to bullfrog tadpoles and then siren or tadpole scented mice. I’m not sure if much long term success is being had, however.

    I suppose eggeaters and hognose aren’t too difficult to feed-imagine sourcing food for a centipede snake with any regularity.

    ~Joseph

  7. avatar

    Hello Joseph, Frank Indiviglio here.

    eThanks for your note; at first we had boxes of mangrove leaves sent up from Fla for the proboscis monkeys, used this along with browse cut locally and high fiber/low nutrient greens. The nutritionists cooperated with a lab and produced a dry chow, but they never did as well after that became their mainstay. Several lived into their teens, maybe a bit more, and there were a few births, but many problems, digestive and otherwise.
    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Re specialist mammals, I can recall mixing weird soups for giant anteaters and tamandua, using Carnation malted milk as the ingredient officially listed on the diet card as “fortified bat food” , visiting live poultry markets for blood for the vampire bats, and so on. Yes, amazing as you say…just consider baleen whales!

    I’ve heard the anecdotal reports you mention…in one case a very reliable source; as I recall I kept wild-caught eastern hognoses for 2-3 years on mice; they bred, young were raised on same for 1 year and then released. The cataract report is very interesting, and makes a lot of sense…largely insectivorous herps fed rodent-rich diets often develop cloudy eyes, which upon further investigation at the Bx Zoo turned out to be lipid deposits. Theory was that they could not metabolize the mice properly; I’ve seen this in tiger salamanders, basilisk, White’s treefrogs….

    Just working on an article on centipedes now…but these fellows would eat the snakes you mention!…if you’re on twitter, check under my name, I linked to a video of one catching a bat.

    Best rgards, Frank Indiviglio.

  8. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    Looking forward to the centipede article! Out of all pet bugs those things give me the heebie jeebies. Having dealt with a few Scolopendra polymorpha(tiger centipedes) I could imagine what those big Asian species would be like. Imagine dropping one on the floor…

    If Eastern hognose do well enough on mice I may give them a try. One of the coolest North American snakes…kind of like a pocket cobra. haha

    With spring on the way the male and female eggeater have been coinhabiting all winter. I’ve seen no signs of breeding, however. Do you think I should seperate them for a few weeks(absence makes the heart grow fonder?).

    ~Joseph

  9. avatar

    Hello Joseph, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the update. “Pocket cobras” — very good! They do put on some show, easy to see how someone/something could be intimidated…

    I would definitely separate them for a bit, even a short term split can be useful. Not sure if you’ve run across this before, but an old-timers trick to get snakes and monitor lizards interested in mating was to shake things up a bit; but 1 snake in a bag, carry it around for awhile, then return it; sounds counter-intuitive bit it has worked. Changing to a different substrate also – i.e. from wood chips to dead leaves. Seems the “excitement” wires for all sorts of activities are close together! (you may notice that some frogs will try to grasp others in amplexus when feeding?)..I’ve had water monitors copulate after disturbing the male…can’t say if it is coincidence or not….

    Anyway, I wouldn’t disturb eggeaters too much, but separating them and changing the substrate would be worthwhile.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  10. avatar
    tiegan pennignton

    does any one know were i could but an egg eating snake i would love one and i have been researching them for months but find it difficult to find one in england to bu.

  11. avatar

    Hello,

    Unfortunately I do not have any sources in England but will keep an eye open, 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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