Colubridae seems to be the room 101 of snake genera. They are sent here when classification into the other more established groups of Boas & Pythons, Vipers, Pit Vipers and Elapids is not possible. Science and taxonomists are still busily trying to work out where each the genera fits in relation to the other genera. Subsequent work over generations has led to animals flip flopping from one group to another.
With the development of DNA analysis hopefully we are beginning to reach a point where the flip flopping can stop. Animals once associated as being closely related are now known to be more distant. Examples of this exist in the species covered within this section. Previously nearly all the snakes with the common moniker ‘Rat Snake’ belonged to genus Elaphe. By looking closely at DNA and other variables it was discovered that a new number of genera existed within this huge group of snakes. Newly named genus such as Zamenis, Orthriophis, Oreocryptophis, Pantherophis and Coelognathus amongst others were added to the established genus Elaphe. The Elaphe snakes remained in the Far East Covering Japan, China and Korea. Pantherophis pretty much exclusively occurred in the United States of America and Northern Mexico. The others were split throughout much of Asia and Indonesia. Although long termed Rat Snakes, the American species were found to be more closely related to the King Snakes (Lampropeltis) and Pine Snakes (Pituophis) also of North America and Mexico.
Research is also taking place to establish the relations between species and subspecies within a genus. Burbink has undertaken DNA research of the North American Rat Snakes of species Pantherophis obsoletus with a view to working out distinct races of animals. Long held subspecies recognized within the hobby either no longer exist or seemingly have rolled into other subspecies. As a hobbyist and not a scientist it can be hard to swallow after nigh three decades of reptile care that snakes and blood lines established in the hobby are meaningless to science. Take for example the Everglades Rat Snake, this no longer exists and has been rolled into the newly coined Eastern Rat Snake (Pantherophis alleghensis) along with the Yellow Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus quadrivittatus), Florida Keys Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus deckerti) and Gulf Hammock Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus williamsi). I have decided to list these subspecies as the hobby knows them giving mention to their current status as recognized or renamed. The hobby runs behind science some way and it seemed less likely to cause confusion to list them otherwise. This is a hobby guide not a scientific text.
I do worry in another decade however, further research could lead science to switch them again or revert back to our previously established delineations of subspecies to have only had the hobby hybridizing animals for the last 10 years.
The lion’s share of species covered within this book occur within the Colubrid Snakes. They are highly variable and have evolved to specialize in their own way to their region of origin. The variance of colours, patterns, textures, facial structures and personalities is breath taking. Colubrids represent both the largest and the smallest species listed here.
The species that originally helped to popularize it all is within this section, The Corn Snake (Pantherophis guttatus) way back into the 1960’s and 1970’s has helped people to see just how rewarding and compliant snakes can become. As much as their later popularity caused issues with species diversity it cannot be denied just how much of a trailblazer and advert for this hobby this wonderful little snake from the Eastern United States was.
As with the Boas & Pythons there were species that were left out and really probably only just missed out on inclusion but on balance this was down to the sheer variability on temperament or territoriality or in certain cases the realistic availability moving forward within the hobby.
Some examples of these would be:
King Rat Snake or Stinking Goddess Elaphe carinata
• Stinkers as they are affectionately known and loved by their keepers are a large heavily built King Cobra mimic from India and China. They go through a fabulous ontogenetic colour change from a straw, gold and tan with saddles to a dark green to black with a highly contrasting yellow dot on ever scale. Simply exquisite looking as an adult. The less than flattering common name some people use belies the problems with this species. They are armed with a particularly productive musk gland that they are only too willing to dispatch should a handler get on their wrong side. If the handler persists then biting will usually ensue. Tame examples exist and are not unheard of. Equally either are those of savage disposition. It is this difficulty in accurately rating temperament and territoriality that caused problems along with their adult size that can approach 8ft in length.
Diadem Snake Spalerosophis diadema
• Loosely grouped with Rat Snakes and may be listed as Diadem Rat Snakes on occasion. This is a mid size snake approaching 5-6ft in length. Other species may also be encountered including atriceps, cliffordi and leightoni. Certain examples of Diadem Rat Snakes can be perfectly placid and easily worked with, others however can be ferocious. Availability as captive bred stock is haphazard at best. Wild caught specimens rarely do well and require experienced hands to acclimatize them properly.
Rough Green Snakes – Opheodryas aestivus
• A species imported relatively commonly up to around 2005-2010. Invariably wild caught and short lived in captivity they were often marketed to beginners as an alternative to other species of snake as they were insectivorous. These snakes usually died relatively quickly. The farm raised crickets used to feed the snakes were nigh totally devoid of vitamin D3 and resultant deficiencies ensued. Because this species does not eat vertebrate prey that store vitamin D3 in the renal system it needed to acquire it through other means. Keepers used Ultraviolet lighting to help the snakes process their own D3 stores but never the less these were not long lived snakes.
Their price point (ridiculously cheap in the UK hobby) gave them an almost throw away status and the correct investment in infrastructure to meet their needs was rarely met. Adored by keepers who have persevered with the species but in truth no regularity to captive breeding success is known and demand is not high as a result. A shame as this is a great little snake. Had it been discovered and imported nowadays with what we understand about husbandry I am sure it would have gone on to great success.
Species and subspecies within this section are listed in genus order. It may seem strange to not have all the Rat Snakes together for example but as previously mentioned common names can be misleading as to a snakes true relation from one species to the next. An appreciation of snakes true names will be developed here by using it as the means by which to navigate the text.
Predominantly the mode of dispatching prey is constriction the same as the Boas and Pythons. Certain species may pin prey rather than wrap. A few species have specialized saliva glands called the Duvorney’s gland. These invariably are amphibian eaters including Garter Snakes (Thamnophis) and Hognose Snakes (Heterodon). There is a chance that a keeper could react badly if bitten by these snakes, usually as a result of having some sort of anaphylactic sensitivity to the saliva. Localised swelling and bruising may result. For many people, it is no different to being bitten by any other snake species. A few spots of blood and that’s it.
Boas and Pythons have always had their size, reputation and overt beauty to rely on. For the most part their popularity has remained unchanged with many species offering aspirational future purchase material. The Colubrids however have been over shadowed by the rampant success of the Royal Python and Corn Snake. There are many species here worthy of consideration by the beginner. They may not be as easily sourced but use the opportunity to look into different species and dare to be left field in your choices.