Pantherophis guttatus / Red ratsnake - Care
Pantherophis guttatus, (Linnaeus, 1766)
The Pantherophis guttatus is strongly represented in our hobby. Due to their calm behaviour, ease of care and reproduction this species was found to be very suitable for the beginning hobbyist and thanks to this medium-sized snake many hobbyist have been introduced to the care of snakes and other reptiles in the terrarium.
In spite of the taxonomic reclassification in 2002 this species is still known by many as the Elaphe guttata, the name received in 1917 by Stejneger and Barbour. The genus at that time contained a large group of species of both the new and the old world. In 2002 (Urs Utiger) this genus was divided, partly based on the fact that the American species are genetically different from the species found in the old world.
General appearance: Today there are many colour and pattern variations, mutations and combinations and this is partly is one of the major reasons for the popularity of these snakes. Various types of albinos, animals missing all the red or individuals with stripes instead of spots, everything seems possible. But the ‘normal’ form certainly does not lose to the many 'extreme' colour variations with its great colour and pattern.
Pantherophis guttatus hatches at a size of 15-22cm long. Adult red ratsnakes measure an average of 120-150cm but larger ones up to 180cm are known. The belly scales, also called ventral scales, are almost white in colour with a black 'chess board' pattern. The overall body colour is a shade of red. This colour may vary from red, brown, orange to rusty/red depending on location and individual. Over the entire length of the back the animals have a pattern of red spots with a black border. On the sides the snakes have an irregular pattern of red-black bordered or black spots and lines. The head is barely separated from the neck. For more features we refer to the images at the beginning of this article.
Behaviour: By nature this snake is mainly active during the dusk and during the night. However, this may differ in the cooler periods so as to make use of the heat of the sun during the daytime. They are mostly found on the ground but are also very good climbers and are regularly found in vegetation or for example in roofs of farms and barns looking for a possible prey or to hide. They are active hunters who use their good smell. The Pantherophis guttatus is a constrictor, which means that they kill their prey by suffocation/oppression. When this snake feels threatened it will assume the classical S position and sometimes raises its body of the ground to make itself look bigger. Also they tremble with their tail against objects like leaves or a stem making a quick ticking sound which is likely to distract any attacker. Even a wild animals will not bite soon but if you do not observe and respect the warning signs the snake will bite short and fast to hopefully chase his attacker.
In captivity this behaviour is almost exclusively seen in young animals. In the wild they are the prey for many species of predators and thus they will defend themselves. However, with patience and regular (not excessive) handling this behaviour quickly decreases and they will calmly crawl around and experience little stress. In the terrarium most activity takes place in the evenings but during the day they will sunbathe or shortly crawl around. Especially during the mating season males are very active looking for a potential partner.
Natural origin and habitat: This North American snake is very common in its distribution area which is located in the east and southeast of the United States. Because the Pantherophis guttatus easily adjusts to different habitats and circumstances this species occurs in many parts of Florida, New Jersey and Louisiana, Kentucky, Maryland and Mississippi. The Pantherophis guttatus is also invasive in some country’s including some of the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, and the Virgin Islands. However, it is not yet known whether it only contains escaped/released specimens or these are reproductive populations derived from introduced captive animals.
They can be found in different habitats, from grasslands and forests, marshes to cultivated areas where this snake is welcomed to hunt for the rodents that come to harvest in the barns and farms.
Housing: The easy care of this snake makes it an ideal beginner's species. This of course does not mean that you will not have to meet some of the necessary requirements. But the climate that this snake has a preference for is certainly very easy to imitate with current techniques.
Young Pantherophis guttatus can be best started in a simply furnished terrarium of for example 45x45x45. With good care, the snake will grow out of this terrarium at an average of 12 months after which they can be directly placed in their lifetime enclosure which must measure 100x50x50 for an animal or small couple> 130cm. If you want to house a trio together or a large couple (<140cm) then a terrarium of 120x60x60 is required. Larger, of course, is always better.
It will be found that this snake although it is predominantly a terrestrial snake will be active throughout the whole terrarium and make much use of the furniture and will also climb when possible. Decorate the terrarium with diagonally positioned trunks so that the snakes can climb. By means of semi-circular cork stems or 'reptile caves' you can create shelters placed in various temperature zones. By means of (artificial) plants one can decorate the terrarium further. As a substrate you can use aspen bedding, Beech chips or for example reptibark. These substrates are not dusty and absorb enough dirt. The red ratsnake has a rapid metabolism so it's wise to remove all the faeces immediately and replace the entire substrate once a month.
Of course, there must be a water bowl with clean water at all times, which will be replaced daily. Pantherophis regularly takes a bath if they get the opportunity, especially if they are (to) warm. The average humidity may be 50% to 70%, depending on the season. Spraying is often not necessary but is a good way to increase the humidity and stimulates the activity. One can also fill a box or shelter with damp moss. This will be used regularly during the shedding cycle and may also serve as a possible place to lay eggs during the reproductive season.
Through one or more heat spotlamps you can increase the air temperature and create hotspots so that the snakes can thermoregulate. Often the lightfixtures in standard manufactured terrariums are placed in the middle. This makes it difficult in smaller terrariums to create a warmer and cooler zone so that an animal cannot escape the heat if temperatures rise too high. Therefore it is wise to move a fitting more to one side, about one quarter of the total length. This results in a greater difference between the hot and the cool zone and the snake can easily move between these zones to thermoregulate. Immediately under the heat spot which is at least 25cm from the animal must measure 31/32C. The overall temperature on the warm side must be 25-27C and 22-24C on the cool side. At night, temperatures may fall to 15-19C (room temperature) and additional heating is often not necessary. If this is necessary then one can use a heat mat or ceramic radiator. These heat sources are very efficient in raising the air temperature without affecting the residents day/night rhythm. Although UV lighting for many types of snakes is not absolutely necessarily this certainly has a positive impact on their activity, health and natural behaviour. If you want to offer this to your Pantherophis make use of full spectrum daylight TL lights or compact lights including low to medium UV (A + B) output. Illuminate 10 to 13 hours a day depending on the season.
Diet: In spite of the general term 'ratsnake', the "lion's share" of the diet will consist of smaller rodents such as mice. Where day old mice are a suitable item for newly hatched Pantherophis guttatus, adult animals can be fed with adult mice, medium-sized softfur mice or small rats (> 60 / 70gr) for really big individuals. Feed your Pantherophis with items not thicker than 1.2x the thickest part of the snake itself. It has been found that a regular diet with medium-sized prey produces better growth and development than that of a diet in which the ratsnake is fed less frequently but with relatively large prey.
Feed young snakes up to 18 months once every 5 to 7 days. After this you can feed the snake once every 7 to 10 days. Many snakes will still eat if they are in shed, though it is often less enthusiastic and more cautious because the snake feels more vulnerable and the sight is reduced. This shedding period is however a great way to introduce a short break. If you think that a single prey is insufficient for the size of the snake it is possible to offer multiple items.
Hibernation: By nature the Pantherophis guttatus holds a winter rest or hibernation. This depends on the area where they occur and the conditions during the winter season. If temperatures remain cool but moderate they will keep a winter rest. During this winter, the snake will be less active but still sometimes move and when possible use the sun to warm up. They often do not feed during this period. When temperatures fall below 12C in winter the snake goes into hibernation. This hibernation is kept on average at 7/8C. During this hibernation the snakes are completely inactive and hide in a burrow with even temperatures. Their heart rate decreases, metabolism stops almost completely and many organs function work moderately or stand still. During this period, the snakes will not move or sunbathe.
Reproduction: The Pantherophis guttatus is a snake that reproduces very easily in captivity. Males can already be sexually mature at 18-month under the right conditions and with a rich diet and females after just 24 months. The question is of course whether this fast development and breeding with very young snakes is good for your snake in the long term. Especially for female breeding at a to young age can have serious consequences. Consider the physical impact that the development of the eggs have on the mother, if she is to young she can get eggbound, or lose too much weight during the development. Therefore it is wise to breed with females when they are 3 years old so that they are well developed and can build up some reserves. Additionally the excessive feeding to get the animals ready as soon as possible can cause fattening of the kidneys, liver and other organs, which greatly shorten the life of your snake.
There is little need to stimulate propagation with Pantherophis guttatus. The snakes mate after winter when temperatures rise again in February to May. During this period the males are actively looking for a female. When they find them, they will lay on and along her body and shake and twitch violently with their body along hers. When the females is ready to mate the male try to push the females tail up and gain access to her cloaca.
An average of 60 days after a successful mating egg can be expected. At the beginning of the 2nd half of pregnancy, the female often starts a shedding cycle. This often seems to take longer than an ordinary sheddingperiod. On average 21 days after the shed the female will lay her eggs. Clutches consist on average of 10 to 25 eggs. This is often dependent on the condition and size of the female. In the incubator at 28/30C the eggs will hatch after 70-55 days.
If you have both sexes in one terrarium it is strongly recommended to place a nestingbox filled with moist moss or sawdust at all times. It is not uncommon that the caregiver was suddenly be surprised by an unexpected clutch. Pairs will mate several times and even a single successful mating can be used to fertilize multiple clutches in a season. Therefore take good care of the condition of the female and if necessary separate her from the male to rest and gain weight.