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The Corn Snake and its Relatives – Natural History and Captive Care

Corn SnakeAlso known as the Red Rat Snake, the Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttata), is one of North America’s most beautifully-patterned reptiles, and the world’s most popular serpent pet.  Corn Snakes figured prominently in the development of American snake-keeping, and their history is tied up with the legendary Carl Kauffeld and his famous collecting site, Okeetee, South Carolina.  My own history leads me to Corn Snakes as well…I was in awe of Mr. Kauffeld as a child, and in later years I was the consultant for the renovation of his beloved reptile house at the Staten Island Zoo.  So, despite having crossed paths with hundreds of species, I reserve a special fondness for these interesting, undemanding beauties.

Recent Name and Classification Changes

The taxonomy, or classification, of the Corn Snake and its relatives has recently been revised. All have been moved from the genus Elaphe to Pantherophis; several species have been combined, and new ones have been described.  We are left with the following (please see article below for details):

Eastern Corn Snake (the species most often kept as a pet)

Slowinski’s Corn Snake (limited to Louisiana and Eastern Texas, and named for herpetologist Joe Slowinski, who died of snakebite at age 38; please see article below)

Eastern Ratsnake (formerly the Black Ratsnake, and now incorporating the Yellow, Everglades and Texas Ratsnakes)

Western Ratsnake

Midland or Gray Ratsnake

Great Plains Ratsnake

Baird’s Ratsnake

Eastern Fox Snake

Western Fox Snake

Natural History

Slowinski’s Corn SnakeCorn Snakes are native to the USA, where they range from southern New Jersey to Florida and Texas.  Background colors may be red, orange, yellow or gray, and most are marked with red, brown or gray blotches.  Hybridization with related species and subspecies occurs where ranges overlap.

Corn Snakes frequent forest edges, overgrown fields and farms, and often take up residence in abandoned buildings.  Typical prey for these powerful constrictors includes chipmunks, mice and voles, but they also climb well and sometimes take nestling birds and bats.

The name “Corn Snake” may have arisen due to their habit of hunting rodents in corn fields and barns, or to the pattern of the belly scales, which resembles dried “Indian corn”. 

Corn Snakes as Pets

Ideal for beginners yet interesting enough for advanced hobbyists, Corn Snakes may live for over 20 years, are easy to handle and breed, and can be kept in modestly-sized terrariums…truly an ideal reptile pet. Breeders have developed over 25 unique color phases, as well as hybrids with King, Gopher and other Rat Snakes.

Fox Snakes and other species in the genus Pantherophis, listed above, may be kept in a similar manner to the Corn Snake.  Please write in for detailed information.

Housing

Setting up the Terrarium

Hatchlings may be raised in 5-10 gallon aquariums. An average-sized adult measures 2.5 to 4 feet in length (exceptional individuals can exceed 5 feet) and may be kept in a 20-55 gallon tank.

The screen top must be secured with clips, as all snakes are escape artists.

Corn Snake HatchlingStout, well-anchored branches or rock ledges can be added as basking sites. A hide box should always be available, as even long-term pets will be stressed if forced to remain in the open. 

Substrate

Newspapers or washable terrarium liners work well as substrates.  Douglas fir, aspen bedding and dead leaves allow for easy “spot cleaning” and lend a naturalistic touch.  However, wood chips can lodge in the mouth during feeding; feed your snake in a bare-bottomed enclosure to prevent this.

Heat and Light

Corn Snakes fare best in a temperature range of 77-82 F; night-time temperatures can be allowed to drop to 70 F or so.  An incandescent bulb should be used to create a basking spot of 90 F. 

Large enclosures are necessary if a thermal gradient (areas of different temperatures) is to be established.  Thermal gradients, critical to good health, allow snakes to regulate their body temperature by moving from hot to cooler areas. 

A ceramic heater or red/black reptile “night bulb” can be used to provide heat after dark and will also enable you to view your pet’s nocturnal activities.

Corn Snakes do not require UVB exposure. 

Feeding

Corn Snake eating a mouseAdult Corn Snakes readily accept pre-killed mice. Hatchlings can usually handle pink mice, but particularly small individuals may need sectioned pinkies at first. 

Youngsters should be fed once weekly; adults do fine with a meal each 7-10 days.  Vitamin/mineral supplements are not necessary.

Water for drinking and soaking must always be available.  Bowls should be filled to a point where they will not overflow when the snake curls up within, as damp conditions will lead to fungal infections of the skin and other health problems.

Breeding

The Corn Snake was the firstUSspecies to be captive-bred in large numbers, and remains an excellent introduction to snake breeding. Females produce clutches of 8-26 eggs, sometimes twice yearly, and the 8 – 11 inch long hatchlings are not difficult to rear. Please see the article below for further information.

Please check out my posts on Twitter and Facebook.  Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

 

Please also post your questions and comments below…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

Corn Snake History, Breeding and Color Phases

Carl Kauffeld and American Snake Keeping

Corn and Ratsnake Taxonomy

Herpetologist Joe Slowinski, Obituary

Corn Snake Hatchling image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by John Stone

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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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