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Contains articles and advice on a wide variety of snake species. Answers and addresses questions on species husbandry, captive status, breeding, news and conservation issues concerning snakes.

Assisting Snakes During “Dry Sheds” and other Skin Shedding (Ecdysis) Related Problems: Soaking and Commercial Shedding Aids


Shedding problems, collectively referred to as “dry sheds” by herptoculturists, are a not uncommon occurrence in snake collections.  As I’ve never encountered a wild snake bearing unshed skin, despite having handled innumerable specimens, I am led to believe that establishing proper environmental conditions in captivity helps greatly in avoiding problems in this area.

Soaking Pools

Ribbon SnakeAn important first step is providing an adequately sized pool for soaking.  Although some snakes will not make use of a pool, most, even some highly arboreal species (i.e. red-tailed ratsnakes), will.  Snakes that frequent moist habitats, such as the ribbon snake pictured here, should always have access to a large pool and dry basking sites (even highly aquatic species are prone to fungal infections if unable to dry off).

Leucistic Burmese PythonThe leucistic Burmese python pictured below is over 20 feet long and nearing 21 years of age.  She resides in an exhibit that I recently refurbished at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in NYC – her pool measures 5 feet square, and is 4 feet in depth, allowing her to completely submerge (not an easy feat in a private collection!).

Arboreal Snakes

For arboreal snakes that might be reluctant to soak in a pool, such as green tree pythons, emerald tree boas and garden tree boas, maintaining the proper ambient humidity (while providing adequate air flow) is important.  Extra misting is usually necessary when these snakes are ready to shed.

Soaking Containers

Most shedding difficulties can be resolved by confining the snake in water overnight.  Keep the water at a level which allows the snake to breathe without having to swim, and provide a brick or rough stone for it to rub against when loosening the old skin.

Snakes so confined will try to escape their unfamiliar surroundings, and very often rub their snouts raw if a screen top is used.  I have found ventilated plastic garbage cans to be perfect for soaking snakes – be sure to secure the top with duct tape and/or bungee cords.

Moss as a Shedding Aid (High Strung, Desert and Arboreal Snakes)

Crotalus durissusSome species or individuals are simply too high strung to tolerate confinement in a bare pool of water.  I have found this to be true for black racers, certain garter snakes, coachwhip snakes, eyelash vipers and Neo-tropical rattlesnakes (pictured below).  Note: Eyelash vipers and rattlesnakes were under my care in zoos, and, being venomous, are not suitable for private collections.

For other species, standing water seems to be such a foreign element that confinement to it causes extreme stress.  Among this group are African egg-eating snakes, vine snakes, patch-nosed snakes and rough/smooth green snakes.

These snakes and similar species do very well when confined to containers of damp moss  instead of water.  They usually burrow right into the moss, finding security and moistening their skins in the process.  When provided with a rough stone, they most often shed by morning.

Commercial Shedding Aids

Specially formulated shedding aids  are now available and are proving to be quite useful, especially when paired with the foregoing suggestions.  Some individual snakes have difficulty with every shed – for these, you can apply the shedding aid once the snake has become opaque (once the eyes cloud over).

Checking the Eye Caps

After a problematical shed, be sure to check that the old eye caps (technically known as the brille) have been shed.  This can be difficult to ascertain, so please seek the advice of an experienced snake keeper if you are unsure.  Retained eye caps can be removed with the aid of mineral oil and a fine tweezers, but again this is not an undertaking for one inexperienced in the procedure.


Cannibalism and Carrion-Feeding in Rattlesnakes (Genus Crotalus) and Water Moccasins (Agkistrodon piscivorus) – Research Update


Writing in the current issue of the journal Animal Behavior, researchers from the University of Grenada report that female Mexican lance-headed rattlesnakes frequently consume infertile eggs and non-living young after giving birth.  This is said to be the first documented case of cannibalism among rattlesnakes (please see below for my observations, however).  Interestingly, with a sole exception, the females did not consume young that were born alive, even though these remain inactive for several hours after birth, and appear (to us, at least!) to be dead.

Rattlesnakes bear live young, and females use up a great deal of energy and body mass during gestation (they do not feed while gravid).  It is theorized that consuming those young which are dead upon birth helps them to recover their strength.

Rattlesnake Cannibalism in another Species

While working with the comprehensive rattlesnake collection at NYC’s Staten Island Zoo, I had the opportunity to participate in breeding efforts for a number of species.  Most births occurred at night and were not filmed, so I cannot say if females of other species ever consumed non-living young.  However, newly born Neo-tropical rattlesnakes (Crotalus durissus) did consume litter-mates on two occasions.

Hog Fat and other Unusual Snake Foods

Contrary to popular belief, many snakes consume non-living prey (i.e. carrion) in the wild.  The most unusual incident I recall was a note published in the journal Herpetologica…a water moccasin (Agkistrodon piscivorous) was observed stripping fat from a road-killed feral hog!

Of the snakes I have worked with in the field and captivity, moccasins, indigo snakes, black racers and anacondas stand out as taking the widest variety of prey species, and each engages in cannibalism.  One particularly large moccasin I cared for consumed a northern water snake that shared its exhibit (not my idea – I had moved on by then!!).  I’m sure the same occurs in the wild, in areas where moccasins and various water snakes co-exist.

A Collection for Rattlesnake Aficionados

I had the wonderful opportunity of participating in the renovation of the Staten Island Zoo’s reptile house, former stomping ground of legendary snakeman Carl Kauffeld (known to all snake keepers as the author of Snakes, the Keeper and the Kept and Snakes and Snake Hunting).

As in former times, the zoo now boasts an impressive rattlesnake collection…please visit if you have the opportunity.  Pictured here are a few exhibits that I set up for the opening – Neo-tropical rattlesnakes, banded rock rattlesnakes and desert Massasaugas.

Further Reading

Lance-headed rattlesnake photos and natural history information are posted at:




Captive Care of the Ball or Royal Python, Python regius – Part 2

Click: Captive Care of the Ball or Royal Python, Python regius – Part 1, to read the first part of this article. Or, click:  The Natural History of the Ball Python, Python regius: Ball Pythons in the Wild to read about the natural history of Ball Pythons.


Most ball pythons take readily to pre-killed mice and small rats, with hatchlings usually being large enough to handle a “fuzzy” mouse.  In the wild, ball pythons do not feed when nighttime temperatures become cool (January-February in some areas), during much of the breeding season, and while incubating eggs.  They are well adapted to long fasts, and frequently go off-feed in captivity.  This can occur even in captive-hatched animals, tuned, perhaps, to an internally-controlled cycle, and is rarely a cause for concern.

Individuals that go off feed regularly should be fed once weekly during those times when they do accept food, as should hatchlings and young animals.  Regularly-feeding adults do fine with a meal each 10-14 days.

Leaving a food animal in the terrarium overnight may induce reluctant feeders to eat.  Particularly stubborn animals may sometimes be tempted by switching food animal species…Mongolian gerbils are a particular favorite, but sometimes a weaning rat does the trick.   Of course, you may then be saddled with the responsibility of always providing that favored food item, so think carefully before offering anything too exotic.  “Scenting” a mouse by rubbing it with a with a favored food item is a well-known technique for tricking fussy snakes into eating.

Captive Longevity

A ball python kept at the Philadelphia zoo died at age 47.6 years, and holds, as far as I know, the longevity record for captive snakes.  Another was reported to have survived until age 51, but the record is unpublished.  A number of specimens have lived well into their 30’s.


Ball pythons are fairly mellow in disposition, but even long term captives will bite if provoked.  Their habit of coiling into a ball, while interesting, is a defense response – please do not harass yours into exhibiting this behavior.  As with all snakes, the head should not be placed in the vicinity of one’s face.


Only snakes in good body weight should be used for breeding purposes.  Success will be more likely if the male and female are housed separately outside of the breeding season.

Ball pythons should be subjected to a semi-natural temperature and light cycle prior to and during the breeding season.  In October or November, nighttime temperatures should be allowed to fall to 68-72 F, and a night (dark) period of 12-14 hours should be established.  Daytime temperatures should remain as usual.  Feeding should be discontinued 1 month prior to turning down the temperatures, to allow for digestion of the last meal.

One month after the cooling period has begun, the female should be placed in the male’s cage for 1-3 day periods each week.  This process should continue for 6 weeks or so, after which temperatures and the day/night cycle should be returned to normal.

Gravid females will usually not feed.  Eggs may be expected from 2 weeks to 2 months after the reintroductions have been discontinued, depending upon when copulation had occurred.


The Rosemond Gifford Zoo ball python information sheet is posted at:


Captive Care of the Ball or Royal Python, Python regius – Part 1


Please see The Natural History of the Ball Python: Pythons in the Wild, for information on the natural history of the ball python.


Ball pythons are now very well-established in the pet trade, and captive born animals are readily available.  They have much to recommend them as pets, including a mild disposition and manageable adult size.  Particularly unique is that they offer a “big constrictor feel” in a small package – thick bodied and muscular, ball pythons put one in mind of a much larger snake.

I heartily recommend this species for those interested in boas and pythons, but who lack the space required by larger snakes.  The very real safety issues involved in keeping giant constrictors are also not a factor with ball pythons, yet they display all of the behaviors exhibited by their larger relatives.

Ball pythons are available in an amazing array of color morphs and unusual patterns.

Captive Habitat

The Enclosure

Hatchlings may be started off in a 10 gallon aquarium and moved to a 20 long style aquarium as they increase in size.  Such might accommodate a small adult as well, but larger specimens do best in a 30-55 gallon aquarium.  Screen cover clips or metal cover screen locks are absolutely essential.

Heat, Humidity and Light

Ambient temperature should be maintained at 80-85 F, with a basking site of 90 F.  Temperatures can be reduced to 75-80 F at night. A ceramic heat emitter or under tank heat pad can be used to warm the air and create a basking site.  You can also use, in combination with these or solely (depending on terrarium size) an incandescent bulb.  The Coralife Reptile Spot Brightlight provides UVA and heat.  Ball pythons do not require UVB light, but may benefit from the provision of UVA.

The R Zilla Nightlight Red Halogen bulb or other night viewing bulb will provide heat at night without disturbing your pet’s natural day/night cycle.  It will also enable you to view the snake’s nocturnal activities.  The ceramic heat emitters and under tank heaters mentioned earlier also provide heat without visible light.

A water bowl should be provided for drinking and soaking.  Fill it only to a level such that it will not overflow when the snake submerges its head or body.  The terrarium should be kept dry…moist conditions will lead to bacterial skin infections (“blister disease”).


R-Zilla Douglas Fir Bedding or Zoo Med Aspen Snake Bedding are good substrate choices.  Both allow for easy “spot cleaning”.  All substrate should be removed and the terrarium cleaned with R Zilla Terrarium Cleaner on a regular basis (i.e. once monthly).

Physical Environment – Habitat Type and Terrarium Decorations

Your ball python should be provided with a secure retreat….R Zilla Rock Dens and Hagen Hiding Caves are ideal.  A piece of freestanding driftwood will provide a rough surface upon which your snake can rub when in the process of shedding its skin.

If space permits, consider adding a log or piece of driftwood for your snake to climb upon.


Breeding East African (Kenyan and Egyptian) and Indian Sand Boas (Eryx colubrinus loveridgei, E c. colubrinus and E. johnii)


I’ve come across several of the 11 unique snake species known as sand boas, and have had the good fortune of working with breeding groups of an Asian and African species. Following are some remarks drawn from my notes and conversations with colleagues.

Indian Sand Boa

The Indian sand boa (2 possible subspecies) ranges widely through India and Pakistan.  Those I have kept have reproduced without a winter cooling period (this likely varies among the various populations).  It is a good deal larger than the more popularly kept Kenyan sand boa, sometimes reaching 40 inches in length.  Unfortunately, this impressive burrower is not commonly kept in the USA.


Males in breeding condition go off feed and actively search for females.    During courtship, the male attempts to unearth the female’s tail (she is generally below the sand when found) with his head.   His spurs stand out slightly from the body and are rubbed along the female’s back.  Copulation seems a quite awkward affair, with the male burrowing below the female and flipping more or less unto his back.

The Young

The young are born alive after a 4 month gestation period.  They are larger than those of related species, averaging 10-11.5 inches in length.  A bit of umbilical cord usually remains attached for a few days, after which time it dries up and falls off.

The young shed within 2 weeks of being born, after which most accept pink mice.  In common with other members of the genus, young Indian sand boas likely prey heavily upon small lizards in the wild.  “Scenting” pinkies with a lizard may encourage reluctant feeders.

East African Sand Boa (Kenyan and Egyptian)

The East African sand boa is frequently classified as two separate subspecies, the Egyptian and Kenyan, with the Kenyan being the more brightly colored race.  However, taxonomists disagree on this point, with some considering the entire species’ name invalid (please see reference below).

Their reproductive mode parallels that of the Indian sand boa, but breeding is more likely if they are subjected to a winter cooling period (70F ambient, with a warmer basking site and a drop in temperature to 65F at night).

Mating usually takes place in June-August, and the young, 4-18 in number, are born in October-December.  They are 5-8 inches in length at birth, and reach sexual maturity at approximately 2 years of age (at which time they are approximately 16 inches long).

Sand boa taxonomy is currently in flux; you can review the species currently accepted by the American Museum of Natural History at:


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