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Corn snake (Elaphe guttata)

United States

The United States is the source of the most beautiful and popular of the snakes kept as pets. Of these, the corn snake holds the title as the supreme pet snake and the species bred in the largest numbers and in the greatest range of colors and patterns. It is an ideal beginner’s snake, being attractive, moderately sized, docile, and easy to keep. Their popularity has led hobbyists to establish over 20 morphs (color and pattern variants) developed through selective breeding. For this reason, corn snakes have also been called the goldfish (a species bred in many colors and forms) of the snake world.

Size

Maximum size on record is 6 feet (72 inches) but adults are typically 4-5 feet.

Sexing

Juveniles can be sexed by experienced hobbyists using the method of manually everting (popping) the hemipenes. Subadults can also be sexed through probing of openings to the sides of the vent, using a sexing probe. In males these opening are deeper/longer than in females because they lead to the inverted hemipenes. Adults can readily be visually sexed. The males have longer, thicker tails than females with less taper past the vent.

Longevity

Typically around 20 years. The record is 32 years.

Housing and Care

Enclosures

All snakes need to be kept in secure enclosures, ideally with a locking system. The most readily available are all glass tanks with a sliding screen top and pin type lock. Another popular type is made of molded plastic with sliding glass doors. We recommend an enclosure with a perimeter at least twice the length of a snake, ideally three to four times the length of a snake. Juveniles initially do best when kept in minimum size enclosures (perimeter= approximately twice the length of snake).

Vivarium Design I: Bare Bones Method

This is also known as the laboratory or breeder method which consists of a system that allows maintaining animals in a space and labor saving environment that meets the minimum requirements of a species. As with laboratory rodents the substrate is typically wood shaving or chips. A shelter and a water dish are added. A heat gradient is provided by a subtank heat pad or heat tape, usually regulated by a thermostat so that the warm side of the enclosure is 85-90°F. Maintenance consists of weekly spot removal of fecal material and biweekly or monthly replacement of substrate. Snakes will live long and healthy lives in such systems but keepers will not benefit from the enjoyment of observing a wide range of behaviors or from having an attractive display in one’s home.

Vivarium Design 2: Naturalistic EE* method

Owners are often surprised at how much more enjoyable snakes are to keep when provided with larger more complex vivariums designed with EE (environmental enrichment) features. When kept under such conditions, species that may have been considered dull pets prove interesting and a pleasure to own. This is true of corn snakes which end up spending much more time active and basking in the open rather than concealed in their shelters.

Substrates

A key component of naturalistic systems is to use a 2-3 inch layer of soil-less substrate, such as coir, peat moss, or special mixed formulas that are kept moist, with the upper layer allowed to dry as in nature. Maintenance consists of scooping out fecal material weekly, then stirring the upper layer of substrate such that any trace of waste matter or urates are driven into the moist sublayer. In time this moist sublayer will become bioactive and develop a bacterial flora that will break down waste matter. To keep the system active the substrate should be lightly watered or misted once or twice weekly to maintain a moist sublayer. The substrate should never be allowed to become soggy, which will kill beneficial bacteria and cause it to smell bad. This approach will require little to no additional maintenance other than addition or partial replacement of substrate every 6-12 months. A healthy bioactive substrate will remain odorless for years except for a rich fresh earth smell. Another benefit of a moist bioactive substrate in contrast to dry wood shavings or chips is that they can be kept moist when snakes are in shed to provide the humidity required for problem-free shedding. When kept on a moist substrate it is common for snakes in shed to burrow in the substrate until a shed is completed.

Landscaping

The key factor to designing a vivarium that enriches the life of reptiles and provides an attractive display is landscaping. At the onset you should realize that this requires a careful balance of open space and landscape components. A common error is to fill available space with decorative items such as wood or plants as if one was decorating a plant terrarium. This may be visually appealing but will not meet the needs of a corn snake. For snakes, at least 2/3 of the floor area should be open ground, allowing them space to move freely on the surface.

For corn snakes essential landscaping will be to include some form of shelter. Curled cork bark is attractive, lightweight, natural looking and ideal for this purpose. The other landscape components should be rest and basking areas. When provided with raised areas of wood, cork bark or bent tree branches, corn snakes will often spend a great deal of time curled above ground and under basking lights. The best plants for providing these raised areas are cultivars of Ficus benjamina (readily available in most stores that sell houseplants) with branches bent horizontally and held in position by plastic covered wire. In addition to this tree one or two other plants, such as star of India, dracaena or others, can be buried in their pots in the substrate to add to the natural appearance of the vivarium.

Heat and light

Offering daytime overhead basking light rather than subtank heat will encourage basking in the open. A common pattern of snakes is to bask in the morning or end of the day and after eating a meal. With naturalistic vivariums an overhead incandescent bulb is the primary heat source and a subtank heat pad a secondary heat source when required at night (e.g. under conditions of cool room temperature).

Water and Feeding

Water

Clean water in should be available at all times. Water should be replaced at least twice weekly and whenever fouled. Containers should be washed with a dish detergent when fouled and thoroughly rinsed before refilling.

Feeding

Corn snakes should be offered one or two prekilled mice of the appropriate size (girth of mouse about equal to the widest midbody girth of the snake) biweekly for juveniles and weekly for adults. Adult snakes should be allowed to fast for 2-3 months when brumating (resting) during the cool weather months.