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Captive care of Tiger Rat snakes

Guildenstern, Adult Male Spilotes pullatus mexicanus

Also known as:  Mexican Rat snake (ssp mexicanus), Tiger Rat snake, Tropical Rat snake, Tropical Chicken snake and our favorite, Thunder and Lightning snake

Spilotes pullatus ssp range from Mexico through Central America and all the way to Northern Argentina.  Their color, scalation and shape varies depending on where they are from.  Ones from northern Mexico are mostly yellow-orange and white with some black banding and a bright white belly.  Those from southern Mexico and into Central America have a touch more black in their patterning, and further south they are mostly black with yellow bands sometimes across their faces and down most of their body.  The yellow can be a darkish orange, bright lemon or a pale pastel, almost white color.  There are even striped and speckled varieties of these amazing snakes.

Being fairly swift snakes, they seem to fly through the branches or leaf litter (with their markings and speed, the name Lightning makes sense).  They also have a rather impressive defensive display.  They will rattle their tails loudly (hence the Thunder) and vertically flare their necks.  From the side they look twice their size and from the front they look as if they have swallowed an egg.  Some will twitch their heads side to side in order to triangulate their target for striking.  As they assess danger they use a very slow tongue flick.  When hunting or searching the flick is fast. 

They are one of the longest snakes of the Americas, the record reaching 14 feet in length.  Generally, males get around 10 feet while females get about 8 feet maximum.   There are always exceptions to the rule.

Being semi-arboreal, juveniles and adults need a rather tall and roomy cage with plenty of climbing branches as well as quite a bit of floor space.  Hatchlings do better in a smaller space, like a shoebox with a climbing branch.  Being diurnal, you will often see them climbing about.  Putting them in a nice display enclosure is a great way to show them in your collection.  We like to wrap our branches with many lengths of silk vine allowing a few of the loops and ends trail on the ground.  Heating is provided from above with covered lamps.  We keep ours on newspaper for easy cleaning.  An adult breeding pair can live comfortably in a 4x2x3 enclosure (although bigger is always better).  If the branches and vines are placed well enough, they will provide the only hide spot the snake(s) will need. 

Humidity should be about 60-65% and temps should be 88-90 during the day with a night time drop to about 75Good air circulation is also a must.  They will drink from water bowls but also like to drink the droplets that run off their heads when sprayed.  Water that accumulates in the cupped leaves from the vines on the ground will provide water sources as well.  Spraying daily also helps to maintain the humidity.

We keep ours on a 12-14 hour light cycle.  UVB and vitamin supplements are not necessary as they get all the nutrients they need from their whole prey items.  Spilotes will eat mammals, birds and other reptiles in the wild.  In captivity they take rats readily.  In the wild they seem to prefer multiple small items as opposed to 1 or 2 larger ones.  They will do well on 2 or 3 smaller items every 7-10 days as adults.  Every 5-7 days as hatchlings/juvies.  These have been known to be the fastest swallowing snake.  Watching them eat is nothing short of incredible.  All of our hatchlings as well as our adult female are taking prey items that are equal to their girth.  The adult male, which is long term captive, won't take anything bigger than a small rat although he could easily take a large one.  When in blue, many will refuse to eat.  Just leave the snake be and offer again on the next scheduled feeding day after the snake sheds.

Spot clean the cage as necessary as these snakes defecate quite often.  Clean the entire cage every couple of months, wipe it down, wash the substrate (if loose substrate is used) and clean any cage furniture.  Constant cleaning will also keep the smell down since their feces is quite odiferous!

HANDLING:

As a very territorial snake, care must be taken whenever reaching into their enclosure.  It is recommended to use a hook to remove them from the enclosure and they usually calm down once in your hands.  Keep in mind they are flighty and fast moving, so keep your attention on the snake.  Keep from making any fast moves in front of the face since it may induce a strike.  Ours will head butt more often than actually bite.  Use an underhand motion when handling as it is very effective.  As with most snakes, they panic when grabbed by the tail, so try not to do this as it may cause spinal damage as they flail about trying to escape.

BREEDING:

Many people that have had no success breeding them just don't have patience, or so I believe.  You can't just put them together and separate them like king snakes or other species.  They must be able to get comfortable in their environment, establish their territory, before they will breed.  I think that is why it's most successful when they are kept together year round. That's my theory anyway.

A breeding pair can be kept together their whole lives once they are adults.  It is not necessary to cycle them or separate them.  The female should be about 7 feet long and of a good body weight before breeding.  The male should be about 8-9.  Do not place the pair together until they are ready to breed.  I have heard of incidents where the female will latch onto the male or vice-versa.  They MUST be adults before being placed together.  During all observed courting practices the male has never bitten the female.  So if this is noticed the pair should be separated for a while longer.

Courting and mating seems to take place between January and June from my observations.  Placing them together in fall will allow them a few months to get used to each other.

The male will court the female by lining his body up with hers and following her around when she explores.  When at rest, he will drape his tail over hers, either encircle her if she is coiled or lay straight out on top of her if she is stretched out and undulate his body slightly until he builds up to a violent shake.  She will sometimes buck in response or try to move away.  He will follow her, pin her down again and repeat the process, sometimes quite often.  Mating may or may not take place immediately.  I have observed copulation with them in the branches, one facing left and up, the other right and down.  Their tails were inverted to each other.  This mating practice brings up some interesting questions!  

Another interesting behavior I have recently witnessed:  The male will slowly slither through the cage with his cloaca wide open, dripping what seems to be musk or possibly semen.  The last half of his body was inverted as he did this.  

Ovulation should be observable 10-12 days after mating.  Oviposition should occur 30-40 days after mating. 

Her pre-lay shed will occur 10-14 days before oviposition (our female's have occurred between 12-14 days).  Provide her with a dark hide that has plenty of damp sphagnum moss or cypress for her to burrow in.  This is where she will usually lay the eggs.  As she gets closer to the time to oviposition she will pace the enclosure incessantly.  I have been advised it best to remove the water bowl at this time to prevent her from laying eggs in the water, thus possibly killing them.  You may want to remove the male as well so he does not occupy the laybox or distract the female.  I spray our female to distract her as I place or remove objects as needed.  This extra liquid she gets is also good for the developing eggs.  Mist her until she stops drinking. 

She will lay anywhere from 5 to 14 large eggs, average is 10.  This can sometimes takes a few hours.  She will enter a trance during oviposition and eggs can be removed as she lays them, just try to be careful not to touch her if at all possible as it may cause her to be too distracted from her purpose.  If undisturbed, the eggs will set very quickly into the mass and can be extremely difficult to seperate.

For incubation we use a 4:1 ratio of vermiculite to water.  You want it to be the consistency of damp sand but not wet.  Incubate at 79-81 and at 40-50% humidity.  We have been using a Hovabator lid with a fish box bottom.  I cover the eggs with a damp paper towel to prevent the eggs from drying out and replace it about once a week to prevent mildew from forming.

Watch the temps carefully, any higher could produce spinal deformities.  Hatching should occur, on average, around 75 days.  Our hatchings occurred between 73 and 76 days.  It is important to manually pip any eggs that were not by the babies 24 hours after the last one pipped.  It is a common occurrence to find fully formed, dead babies in the eggs.  I believe this is due to the eggshells being too thick sometimes and they are unable to break through, therefore drowning. 

Feeding the hatchlings may require using live prey.  All but one of our hatchlings started out on frozen/thawed peach fuzzy mice right away.  Although we never had an issue with this, some may refuse frozen/thawed prey for quite some time.  We have been told that unlike the adults that will usually just swallow their prey almost immediately; the hatchlings will often constrict it.  I witnessed the one hatchling that would only take live swallow fuzzy mice right away.  I never saw any of them constrict.  A yearling we cared for would practice cervical dislocation by getting the mouse's head into his mouth, pinning the body with his own and jerking hard on the head.  Rather interesting to observe although we would still prefer to feed frozen/thawed prey.

If anyone would like specific information on breedings and hatchlings, please e-mail ldydrgn@primareptilia.net


*I would like to thank Dean Alessandrini, Dick Bartlett, John White and Kara Glasgow for tidbits of information given to make our experiences successful*

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