Old World Corn Snakes
Corn snakes may be the gold standard of snakes in the pet trade, but the world of rat snakes has so much more to offer.
I went to my first reptile breeder’s convention in 1985. Looking back, I am breathless at the vast expanse of things I didn’t know, but that first show was an eye-opener.
Like most American hobbyists at that time, my perception of rat snakes was limited to those native to the U.S. My store had Everglades, yellows, blacks, Texas, Great Plains, grays and, of course, the icon of American snakes, the corn snake. But displayed on a breeder’s table at the convention were hatchlings of at least half a dozen rat snakes I had never heard of. They took my breath away with their elegant beauty and cuteness, and I soon learned that the breeder—with whom I had previously corresponded but never met in person before—had been working with the complex of Asian species. I soon learned that Europe was also fertile with rat snakes. A new world opened up to me that day. It turns out there are approximately 40 species of rat snakes not only outside the United States, but outside of the Western Hemisphere altogether.
Taxonomists used to place almost all rat snakes in one genus: Elaphe. As of a dozen years ago, with the advent of mitochondrial DNA analysis, virtually all of them have been separated into several genera. Even our own corn snake is now Pantherophis. There is no doubt that the corn snake remains the gold standard of basic pet snakes. Easy to handle, hardy and beautiful, they are the go-to beginners’ snake. However, the very nature of the pet-snake customer base ensures that the curious and adventurous nature of snake owners will not be satisfied with the most banal choice. They want something different. Many of the European and Asian species will answer that desire, while bringing all the same elements of pet worthiness to the table.
I will start with what is sometimes referred to as the Chinese corn snake. Always remember that common names can be deceiving: I have seen this name used with Elaphe rufodorsata and Coelegnathus helena, but most commonly with E. bimaculata, aka the twin spotted rat snake. This is a small snake that gets no larger than a bit over three feet, and, as the name suggests, it has the disposition of the corn snake, though it is distinctly different if equally pretty in color and pattern. I haven’t seen them on the market in a few years, but at one time they were plentiful and inexpensive, and at some point, they should be so again.
The trinket snake (C. helena) is a good natured and attractive animal, with a bronze background color that is banded from the head to mid-body with splotches of white and black. It is particularly easy to raise and breed, and it is often inexpensive due to most people’s basic unfamiliarity with the species.
The Russian rat (E. schrenckii) is similar to the corn snake in size and temperament. It has a vivid and attractive black background with cream bands, somewhat resembling the U.S.’s Eastern king snake. Despite the name, their range tends to favor North Korea, much as the Russian tortoise is more properly Uzbekestani. These are also reasonably easy to breed.
Less common on the market but absolutely spectacular are the 100 flower rat (Orthiophis moellendorffi) and cave—aka beauty (O. taeinurus)—rat snakes. These are large animals—as much as nine feet—and they tend to prefer cooler climates, often doing well at room temperature. In my experience, their beauty and impressive size coupled with a nice if a little flighty disposition makes them sure sellers despite the relative higher price.
Speaking of cool temps and hot prices, the Mandarin rat (Euprepiophis mandarinus) is one of the top-end snakes that makes customers feverish with their beauty. A small snake, it is typically slate gray with vivid bands of lemon yellow and jet black. Like the cave rat, it does well at room temperature and suffers under high heat. Mandarins are shy, despite their showy colors. In fact, a local breeder in my area had the first U.S. breeding of this snake. When asked how he did it, he replied that he gave them a deep bed of moss, no heat and, aside from throwing in baby rats and changing the water, he “forgot about them.”
Another spectacular Asian rat is the red-tailed green rat (Gonysoma oxycephalum). A shiny, deep-emerald green for most of their length, they surprise you with their tails, which abruptly shift color to a faded-bloodstain red. I still see these on the market with some frequency, but I must warn you that this can be a difficult captive animal. A large snake, the red-tailed green rat can be both flighty and snappy. Wild-caught specimens tend to be parasite laden, and they can sometimes be tricky to get feeding. I have been most successful with them when I have been able to procure captive-bred animals or wild-caught juveniles.
Of course, the popular perception is that, in general, snakes are green, which is of course largely a myth. But a few of the rat snakes truly are vividly green—like the red-tails. One of the prettiest is the rhinoceros rat (Rhynchophis boulengeri). As its name implies, it also possesses an extended snout that camouflages the snake in the wild. A medium-sized arboreal snake, it ranges the subtropical rain forests of Vietnam. Again, this is a pricey snake, but everything about it justifies the price.
We will now jump continents to Europe, and the beautiful Aesculapian rat snake (Zamenis longissimus). This is yet another calm, pleasant, attractive rat snake, like its less common cousin the leopard snake (Z. situla). You have seen the Aesculapian rat before, though you likely didn’t realize it. Does a staff encircled by twin snakes ring a bell? It’s the symbol of Western medicine and healing, and proof that even in our snake-phobic culture, there are outposts of respect and love for our serpentine friends. You’ve got to love a snake that figures so much into our culture.
I have merely scratched the surface regarding these snakes; I mentioned just a quarter of the species out there. It is a big world, folks. Your reptile selection will thrive if you celebrate the planet’s biodiversity.
Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 30 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.