Hidden Gems

For customers looking to venture off the beaten track in snake ownership, sand and rosy boas can provide an intriguing alternative.




I would guess that 90 percent of your customers who come in looking for a snake are going to be perfectly content with the staples of the hobby: corn snakes and ball pythons. Both snakes are excellent choices, as they are of moderate size, are consistently hardy, come in an array of colors and patterns, and are extremely amenable to handling. Nothing wrong there.


But there are also those in the hobby whose tastes have become more refined and, I dare say, erudite. None of that common rabble for them. They want something a little more off the beaten path. When I encounter one of these wonderful humans, I like to ask “Would you like to see something….fossorial?” Fossorial? What’s that? Sounds intriguing!


Unfortunately, “fossorial” does not mean “ancient” or “dinosaurian” or anything quite that cool. It means “hidden.” Still, you’ve got your client hooked, and after a brief explanation, most people are still on board with you. Fossorial snakes like to remain buried, or wedged between things, but once you uncover them, they can be some of the most charming and fascinating little things in your shop.


Both sand (Eryx spp.) and rosy (Lichanura spp.) boas are indeed small snakes; most species range between two and three feet. They tend to be uncomplicated, hardy and docile pets, with pretty colors and patterns, and lovely little faces. I have conflated them for the purposes of this article, though in fact they are not directly related at all.


Sand boas range through the northeastern quadrant of the African continent and into the Middle East. The two most common species in captivity are the Kenyan (E. colubrinus) and rough- scaled (E. conicus). The Kenyan, sometimes called the Halloween boa for its orange longitudinal stripe and deep brown coloring, is the more docile of the two (baby rough-scales will nip but do grow out of that behavior). Rough-scales have a strongly delineated brown to black zigzag stripe running the length of their body, set off against a slate background.


When I want to introduce someone to the sand boas, I like to pull a shoebox off our baby snake rack, set it on the counter, open it up with a flourish, and say “See? Isn’t it beautiful?” They stare down into what appears to be a box bereft of, well, anything, except a thin layer of shavings or sand. After a moment of their bewilderment, I fish my fingers through the substrate and pull out a delicate little wriggling snake. You see, sand boas earn their name: they live entirely submerged in sand, with perhaps only the tiniest hint of a nose poking out. This is actually a sales technique. What I have just done is something the new owners can pull time and again with friends.


By contrast, rosy boas do not typically bury themselves. In the wild they can be found in rocky crevices, where they sit in wait to ambush passing rodents. Thus, even more than other snakes, they want a hide space into which they themselves can barely fit.


There are two species of rosy boa, Lichanura trivergatta and L. orcutti, but those species are subdivided into a number of subspecies. Some of them are very distinct; a quick tutorial with sample snakes in front of you will have you on your feet in a few minutes. Unfortunately, there are intergrades and cross-breeds that will confuse the issue.


California species are legal to breed and sell if one obtains permits from the state, but non-permitted or wild-caught specimens are strictly forbidden. Make sure when purchasing these snakes that you have a copy of the breeder’s permit on file, even if you are not within state limits. Better safe than sorry.


The standard Mexican rosy has distinct dark chocolate stripes against a pale tan background. My favorite, the mid-Baja rosy, has burnt umber stripes over a slate background. California rosy boas have such a myriad of pattern and color variations that some breeders become obsessive in their pursuit of identification and locale data. It’s a world that is fun to part the curtains and peek into, but don’t get enticed in—you might never come back.


Both genera have a few eccentricities with regards to husbandry. The first issue is water. As they both range in arid terrains, exposure to high humidity and damp substrate can easily result in water blisters. I do not keep water dishes in with them; instead, once a week, I put a water dish in their cage for about a half an hour. They will readily slake their thirst for the week, supplemented with the watery contents of the mice they consume.


Speaking of consuming mice, both genera are notorious for having relatively tiny stomachs. Thus, this is not a snake you can “power feed.” Once a week is plenty, and scale the size of the mouse down a notch at that. Measure your snake against a similarly sized rat snake. If the rat snake can eat a medium sized adult mouse, feed your boa a hopper. If the rat snake can eat a hopper, feed the boa a fuzzy. As with all snakes, regurgitation is a damaging and traumatic event for these boas and should never be taken lightly.


Rosy boas, like most snakes, are easy-to-please feeders. Live or dead, on the floor of the cage or off tongs, they are here to eat. By contrast, sand boas’ strategy is to hide buried on the sand and ambush passing prey. They rely on movement and scent, and sight does not factor into the equation. They are overwhelmingly more likely to eat a live mouse strolling across the sand than something thawed out, which will have a slightly different scent, and dangled from tongs over the snake.


Otherwise, the care for these snakes is really not unlike care for most commonly kept pet snakes. Keep the sand boas at 80 to 90 degrees and the rosy boas at 75 to 90. Keep rosy boas on pine or aspen shavings; sand boas can also do perfectly well on that substrate, though they are one of the few snakes for whom actual sand is an option.


For most full-line stores who even deign to carry live animals, having the ball python, the corn snake, the bearded dragon, the leopard gecko and the red-eared slider is quite enough of a foray into the world of live reptiles, thank you very much. If your goal is to be a ho-hum, no-frills, satisfy-the-masses store, so be it. But, that’s not you, is it? Don’t you want to be exciting? Don’t you want to go…fossorial? PB


Owen Maercks has enjoyed being immersed in the world of professional herpetoculture for nearly 40 years. His store, the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, Calif., is one of the oldest and largest herptile specialty stores in the U.S.


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