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The Natural History and Captive Care of the Red-Tailed Ratsnake (Red-Tailed Racer), Gonyosoma oxycephalum, and Jansen’s Ratsnake (Sulawesi Ratsnake, Black-Tailed Ratsnake) – G. jansenii – Part 2

Please see Part I of this article for further information.

Handling and Enrichment

Red-tailed ratsnakes are best suited as exhibit animals.  Most do not hesitate to bite when approached, and fight vigorously when restrained.  Some may become moderately tame, but such individuals must be watched closely and not allowed in the vicinity if one’s face or near children (or, obviously, your parakeet!).

Naturalistic terrariums suit red-tailed ratsnakes well, but it can be difficult to remove them from among vines and branches.  A tall cage that allows you to clean while the snakes remain safely overhead will go a long way in reducing stress on both the snakes and yourself (not to mention wear and tear on your skin!).

They are very alert – “scenting” the cage with novel odors – i.e. a snake or lizard shed, or an egg – will keep the snakes occupied and provide a peek into their foraging behaviors (in zoo circles, this long-known practice is now termed “enrichment” and is currently very much in vogue).


Red-tailed ratsnakes under my care and housed together in pairs have bred throughout the year without being subjected to a variation in temperature or humidity levels.  Others have bred after being subjected to a 3 month period at 70 F, during which time they had access to a basking site of 76 F.  Given their wide distribution in the wild, I suspect that these snakes are quite adaptable in this regard, or that populations vary in their breeding biology.

Most females that I have kept produced 2-3 clutches per year, with one female laying 3-4 times each year for a period of 8 years or so.  Gravid females seek secluded, moist sites in which to lay their eggs; damp sphagnum moss within a cave,  flower pot, or cork bark retreat is ideal.  Some individuals seem to prefer elevated nest sites; perhaps in the wild eggs are sometimes deposited in tree hollows and similar situations.

Please see “Reproduction” in Part I of this article for further details.

Jansen’s or Sulawesi Black-Tailed Ratsnake

The red-tailed ratsnake’s closest relative, and, per recent taxonomic changes, the only other member of the genus Oxycephala, is the Jansen’s ratsnake, also known as the Sulawesi black-tailed ratsnake, G. jansenii. 

Limited in distribution to Sulawesi, Indonesia and some small nearby islands, this gorgeous snake is variably colored in black-flecked olive or tan, and sports a black tail.  Those on Sulawesi are heavier-bodied than typical red-tailed ratsnakes, and are said to spend a good deal of time on the ground. Specimens from Salayar, an island south of Sulawesi in the Flores Sea, are pure black and quite striking in appearance.  Thinner in build than their relatives on Sulawesi, they are, like red-tailed ratsnakes, highly arboreal.

Although not widely available at this point, Jansen’s ratsnakes are prized by collectors and will likely become established in the trade in time.

Further Reading

An interesting review of the 55 snake species that inhabit Sulawesi is posted at http://www.seh-herpetology.org/files/bonnensis/035_DeLang.pdf.

The range of the Taiwan beauty snake overlaps with that of this species, and their husbandry needs are similar.  Please see my article The Natural History and Captive Care of the Taiwan Beauty Snake  for further information.


Image referenced from Wikipedia.

The Natural History of the Red-Tailed Ratsnake


My first contact with the strikingly marked red-tailed ratsnake came many years ago, when they were rarely seen in the pet trade.  It was a wild caught adult and showed up, unexpected, in an order sent to an animal importer for whom I worked at the time.  She would eat only birds, which, fortunately for her, were in good supply (bird imports in those years were not well managed, and shipping-related deaths were all too common).

After a few months, she was so set on an avian diet that even bird-scented rodents would not pique her interest.  Eventually, the snake was purchased by one of the few people who could supply her preferred diet – a hobbyist with access to inexpensive chicks from the chicken farm near his home on Long Island!



Red-tailed ratsnakes are placed within the family Colubridae.  They were formerly classified, along with corn, black rat and similar North American species, in the genus Elaphe.

In the pet trade, red-tailed, mandarin and bamboo rat snakes, along with Taiwan beauty snakes and similar species, are often collectively referred to as Asian or Old World ratsnakes.

Physical Description

These slenderly built snakes vary widely in color throughout their huge range, but are generally pale to emerald green, with a red or reddish tail.  A yellow band of varying width separates the green and red-colored areas.

Gray and silver individuals are common in Java, and yellow specimens are known from Thailand and the Philippines.  Orange and yellow/black speckled strains are being selectively-bred in the pet trade.

Red-tailed ratsnakes average 5 feet in length, with rare individuals reaching 7.5 feet.  Females are generally longer and stouter than males.


Red-tailed ratsnakes range widely throughout south and Southeast Asia, and occur in Myanmar, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and on the Andaman and Nicobar Islands off India.


Mangrove swamps, primary rainforest, bamboo forests, overgrown fields, agricultural areas, brushy areas on village outskirts and large parks.

This snake is highly arboreal, often dwelling 40 feet or more above the ground, but occasionally descends to earth in search of prey.  In some areas, it is said to frequent timber and thatched-roofed dwellings.

Status in the Wild

This species’ status in the wild is largely unstudied, but they are likely threatened due to habitat loss in many areas.  However, if unmolested, red-tailed ratsnakes will take up residence on farms and near houses, where they prey upon the rodents and birds that frequent these areas.


Bats, mice, rats, squirrels and other mammals, birds and their eggs, treefrogs and lizards.

Prey is killed by constriction; the tail is highly prehensile, allowing for long strikes at fast-moving, arboreal prey.

There is some evidence that, especially in young animals, the red-tipped tail is waved as a lure to attract frogs, lizards and birds to within striking range.


Mating occurs during the rainy season, which over much of this snake’s range falls between November and March.  The eggs, 5-8 in number, are laid approximately 60 days after mating.  The clutch is deposited in a sheltered, moist location, sometimes within moss and epiphytic plants among tree branches.  The young hatch in 100-140 days, and are 12-18 inches in length.

Well-fed females can lay up to 4 clutches each year, an unusually large number for a snake.


The ratsnake’s color offers exceptionally good camouflage among vines and tree branches, and this is its first line of defense.  However, even when there is an opportunity to flee, disturbed individuals often stand their ground.

When threatened, red-tailed ratsnakes compress and inflate the first third of the body while rearing up in an “S” shaped coil.  If this display fails to intimidate the foe, they strike repeatedly.

Check back soon for an article on the captive care of the Red-tailed Ratsnake.

Image referenced from Wikipedia.

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