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Corn Snake Notes: History, Breeding Preparations, Color Phases – Part 2

Please see Part I of this article for information on the history of corn snakes (Elaphe/Pantherophis guttatus) in the pet trade and breeding preparations.

Color Strains

Young herpers may find it hard to believe that there was a time when only normally colored corn snakes were to be found in the pet trade. Today, a bewildering array of color phases and patterns are available, far more than exist for any reptile. I just reviewed a wholesaler’s price list and counted 48 color and pattern strains being offered!


Corn snakes have also been hybridized with closely and even distantly related species, including, respectively, black ratsnakes and gopher snakes. Indeed, the corn snake’s genetic propensity for producing numerous color morphs and hybrids is at the core of its popularity and its value in revealing to us the details of snake color inheritance and captive breeding.

Natural vs. Captive-Produced Corn Snake Colors

Oddly, the naturally colorful “Okeetee Phase” corn snakes are now less in evidence than other forms, and consequently are becoming highly prized. They really are gorgeous, and, in light of their history, hold a special interest for me. However, some of the captive-generated morphs are quite unique and its great fun to work on producing new strains. Some of the more descriptively named corn snake varieties include:

  • Sun Kissed
  • Sunglow
  • Rootbeer Striped
  • Reverse Okeetee
  • Snow Striped
  • Lavender Motley
  • Hypo Striped
  • Golddust
  • Ghost Striped
  • Ghost Blood Red
  • Creamsickle
  • Christmas
  • Charcoal
  • Caramel motely
  • Butter Striped
  • Black
  • Albino Recessive Okeetee
  • Albino Abberent

I’ve often thought someone should establish a collection comprised of representatives of every known corn snake color phase and hybrid…if you are on your way to that, please let me know!

Further Reading

The taxonomy of corn snakes and related species has been revised in recent years. To view its current status and learn more about corn snake hybrids, please see http://www.jcvi.org/reptiles/species.php?genus=Pantherophis&species=guttatus.


Corn Snake Notes: History, Breeding Preparations, Color Phases – Part 1

The books Snakes: the Keeper and the Kept and Snakes and Snake Hunting, written by Staten Island Zoo curator Carl Kauffeld, turned “Okeetee, South Carolina” into a household name for legions of snake enthusiasts worldwide (myself included). An incredibly productive snake collecting area, Okeetee was especially noted for its brilliantly colored corn snakes, Elaphe (Pantherophis) guttata, and abundant Eastern diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus adamanteus). A road sign from the area still graces the corn snake exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, where I worked for many years, and photographs taken from collecting trips to Okeetee in the 60’s and 70’s line the back rooms of the zoo’s 100 year old reptile house.

The Influence of Okeetee

These “Okeetee corns”, as they became known, were largely responsible for the explosion of interest in captive snake breeding in the late 60’s and 70’s, and ushered in a new age of husbandry innovations; today the corn snake remains the world’s most commonly bred snake species. Corn snakes have provided untold numbers of aspiring herpetologists with an introduction to snake keeping and snake breeding, and have played an important role in a number of research efforts.

Preparing Snakes for the Breeding Season

For those of you who plan to breed corn snakes, now (late summer) is the time to begin preparations. Your snakes should be fed heavily until autumn, at which time they can be chilled to 50-59 F (after a 2 week fast) for 6-8 weeks. Although corn snakes may reproduce at the tender age of 11 months, breeding should be withheld until they are at least 2 years of age…females that are bred too early often fail to attain full size, and tend to produce small clutches and weak offspring.

Mating occurs from March to June in most regions, with the eggs being laid 25-50 days thereafter. A second clutch may be produced in late summer/early fall. An average clutch consists of 16 eggs, but may range from 6-26. At 82 F, incubation time averages 62 days in length, and the young are 8-11 inches long upon hatching.

As we will see in Part II of this article, years of intense captive breeding efforts have produced a mind-boggling array of corn snake morphs, strains and hybrids. The reproductive cycle of all parallels that just described, but individual details, such as clutch size, etc., will vary among the various types of corn snakes.


Further Reading

The Southwestern Center for Herpetological Research has posted some informative notes and blog entries concerning the influence that Carl Kauffeld and Okeetee, SC have had on the snake-keeping community:

The care of corn snakes roughly parallels that of black rat snakes. Please see my article The Captive Care of Black Ratsnakes for more information.

The Natural History and Captive Care of the Black (Eastern) Ratsnake, Elaphe (obsoleta) alleghaniensis

Black Rat Snake
The black rat snake and the related corn snake, E. guttata, were among the first to become firmly established in North American herptoculture, and remain pet trade staples. At least 11 species of the genus Elaphe are found throughout North and Central America.

The taxonomy of this genus is confusing due to a wide variation in the appearance of individuals of the same species, and to the fact that different species inter-breed where their ranges overlap. The black ratsnake was formerly known as E. obsoleta, but that name is now assigned to the Western ratsnake. Recently, genetic evidence has shown that many North American ratsnakes should actually be classified within the genus Pituophis, along with the bull, gopher and pine snakes.

Physical Description
Although usually a uniform black in color, with an off-white underside, some individuals show traces of dark gray blotches and stripes. Juveniles differ markedly from adults, being pale gray and strongly patterned in dark gray or brown. Hobbyists have developed a number of unique color morphs, including albino individuals, and frequently hybridize this snake with related species. Black ratsnakes average 3 – 5 ½ feet in length, with the record holder being a giant of 8 ½ feet recorded from Westchester County, NY by noted herpetologist Raymond Ditmars.

Black ratsnakes living from North Carolina through the Florida Keys vary greatly in appearance from northern specimens, being various shades of yellow and orange in color. Formerly classified as distinct subspecies, known as the Everglades’s ratsnake and yellow ratsnake (both popular in the pet trade), they are now considered to be local color variations of the black ratsnake.

Range and Habitat
Black ratsnakes occupy much of Eastern North America – from SW New England and S Ontario to the Florida Keys and from SW Wisconsin to Oklahoma and N Louisiana. Happily for NYC-based “herpers” such as I, they are still to be found within NYC limits (parks in the Bronx and Staten Island), and in suburban Long Island and Westchester. Quite adaptable as regards habitat, they utilize forests, fields, rocky hillsides, swamps and overgrown suburban lots. It is one of many snake species drawn to farms, stone walls, trash dumps and abandoned buildings in search of mice and rats. In some habitats, black ratsnakes are highly arboreal and shelter in tree hollows.

Status in the Wild
Population levels appear stable in most areas, although the species is listed as of “Special Concern” in Minnesota and elsewhere. It adjusts well to some human presence and, if left alone, may become common on farms and near refuse disposal areas. Large scale captive breeding has removed collection pressures from wild populations.

Black ratsnakes are powerful constrictors. They tend, as adults, to focus on mammalian prey such as squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, bats, voles, deer mice, rice rats, small opossums and similar creatures, but also take birds and their eggs. Young snakes include lizards, frogs and large insects (i.e. cicadas) in their diet.

A colleague of mine observed 6 foot-long (yellow-phase) black ratsnake attempting to constrict a white-tailed deer fawn on St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia. The fawn, which might have set a new “snake swallowing record” had it been overcome, eventually escaped.

Mating occurs from March to May, with 6-30 eggs being laid 27-28 days thereafter. Second clutches, laid in August, have been reported in captive situations but not in the wild. The eggs are secreted in cavities below fallen trees and rocks, or within rotting logs and stumps. The young, 11 – 13 ½ inches in length, hatch in 47-85 days.

The black ratsnake frequently shares hibernation dens with rattlesnakes, copperheads and other species. In some parts of the country it is known as the “pilot blacksnake” or “rattlesnake pilot”, in the mistaken belief that it guides rattlesnakes to their winter retreats.

Black Ratsnakes as Pets

With their moderate size and even temperaments, black ratsnakes make excellent pets. They are hardy enough for beginning hobbyists, and yet are so interesting that even well- experienced keepers often reserve a place for 1 or 2 in their collections.

Space and Other Physical requirements
Black ratsnakes do well in glass terrariums or aquariums which, ideally, should be a bit longer than the snake itself and as wide as possible. Be sure to secure the tank’s screen top with cage clips, as snakes are notorious escape artists. Cypress mulch or other substrates designed for use with snakes should cover the cage bottom. A reptile-safe disinfectant should be used to swab the cage floor after the snake defecates.

Rat snakes appreciate a shelter in which to hide and a bowl large enough for soaking. The water bowl should be filled to a level such that it will not overflow when the snake enters, as damp terrarium conditions may lead to respiratory and skin infections. If space permits, a stout branch for climbing and basking should be included.

American hobbyists favor a fairly “sterile” set up for rat snakes, but in Europe they are commonly kept in large, planted exhibits. Black ratsnakes take well to these, and, while management is a bit more complicated, the range of behaviors exhibited by snakes in such settings makes the undertaking well-worthwhile. I shall write more about keeping snakes in naturalistic exhibits in a future article.

Light, Heat, Humidity, etc.
Cage temperatures should range from 75 – 82 F, with a basking spot of 88 – 90 F. This species has no need for UVB light, but full spectrum lamps emitting UVA may be of some value. The cage should be kept dry at all times (see above).

Black ratsnakes thrive on a diet of mice and rats. They take readily to dead prey and should not be offered live rodents due to the likelihood of injury to the snake. Adults should be fed every 7-10 days.

Captive Longevity
The captive longevity record for this species is just over 34 years.

Although black ratsnakes will, like most animals, bite in self-defense, they are, as a whole, mild-tempered. Most respond well to gentle handling, but individual animals vary greatly in this regard. Never startle a snake by picking it up suddenly, and do not handle snakes after you have touched food animals. Future articles will deal with the specifics of handling in detail.

Breeding will be covered in depth in a future article. Except for snakes originating in the southern-most portions of the range, black ratsnakes breed most reliably when subjected to a winter cooling period. This species has been bred in captivity through multiple generations.

A number of European and Asian relatives, such as the Russian ratsnake, E. schrencki, may be kept as described for the black ratsnake. Other species referred to as “ratsnakes”, such as the arboreal red-tailed ratsnake, Gonyosoma oxycephala, have slightly different husbandry requirements. Please be sure to research potential pets carefully, as trade names can be misleading.

Additional Resourceshttp://people.wcsu.edu/pinout/herpetology/eobsoleta/index.html (detailed information on natural history)

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