Image Credit : Mickael Leger Photographie
Tiger rat snake is a species of large nonvenomous colubrid snake. The body is relatively slender and somewhat laterally compressed. The head is distinct from the neck. The eye is moderate in size with a round pupil.
Dorsally, they are black with yellow spots which may form crossbands. The tip of the snout is yellow. The head shields may be mostly yellow, or mostly black, or crossbanded with a combination of yellow and black, but the sutures between the shields are always black. Ventrally, it is yellow with irregular black crossbands.
- Scientific name : Spilotes pullatus
- Distribution : Central Mexico on it’s Atlantic coast through to southern Brazil
- Average Size : 2.4 m (8 ft)
- Life Span : 15 years or more
- Difficulty : Intermediate
The below information was provided by Joe Monahan. For more information and photos of Spilotes pullatus care check out his captive care and breeding information HERE.
Newly hatched Spilotes pullatus are about 0.5 meters (1.6 feet) long. A suitable enclosure for the first year or so of their lives are the aquariums sold in the US as “40 gallon breeder” tanks. They are 0.9 x 0.45 x 0.4 meters (3 x 1.5 x 1.5 feet). Any similarly sized enclosure will work, although a taller size is actually preferable if it is available. Because Spilotes are highly arboreal, a tall cage is important. Ideally the snake will be able to perch as high or higher than the keepers line of sight. It is less desirable, but helpful to place cages that lack this height on shelves at least 1.2 meters (4 feet) high. Spilotes pullatus natural refuge is the trees, and so providing them with the option of being elevated off the ground helps them stay much more relaxed. Tall cages tend to have vertical temperature, light, UV and humidity gradients. This is something we can manipulate to the snake’s benefit if we do it carefully.
An adult Spilotes pullatus will reach a length of 2.1 meters (7 feet) easily and quiet likely 2.4 meters (8 feet) or more in time. Because they are active, arboreal, intelligent snakes, they need a large enclosure. A good size for an adult Spilotes pullatus would be 2.1 meters wide, 1.2 meters tall and 0.9 meters deep (7 x 4 x 3 feet). I would place the enclosure on a shelf or platform to get the interior perches at eye level or above. Smaller enclosures really aren’t suited for this species, so better to find a less active species than cramp these active snakes. My enclosures are considerably bigger than this and I often wish they were larger still.
Equally important to height is depth. A too shallow enclosure requires that the snake stay pushed up against the front of the space and at risk from any threat happening by. A deeper enclosure with adequate cover will give the snake the confidence it needs to explore the space. This is an important point. I have heard from a number of people that Spilotes pullatus puff up and even strike the glass fronts of their enclosures. This is the behavior of a terrified snake that is simply not being housed properly! I properly sized cage with adequate cover will calm the snake. The result is more natural behaviors and a more interesting captive.
In my opinion, live plants are an important aspect of Spilotes pullatus care. Plants will provide humidity, provide vital enrichment these intelligent snakes respond well to, and provide a surface from which to drink. Spilotes seem to respond strongly to misting and drinking droplets from the leaves seems to be an activity they undertake with relish! Plants provide important ground cover too, which is something we don’t always think of when designing an appropriate Spilotes pullatus enclosure. But when hungry, the young snakes will tire of waiting patiently in their perch and descend to seek out prey. Plants growing across the ground help conceal them as they search the through the leaf litter. This is another natural behavior that is fascinating to watch and allows the keeper to feel they are doing right by this species in captivity.
An elevated hide appears to be equally important to the well being of this species. Again, we are imitating the species natural refuge in the trees. In the enclosures pictured, both 4 month old Spilotes pullatus placed in them retreated to the elevated hides as soon as they spotted them. The hides provide the natural “perch” these snakes utilize readily in captivity. They will sit for hours with just their heads sticking out of the hide opening, cryptically basking under the heat and UV lights while scanning the “forest floor” below for prey. Their eye sight is very acute as they are able to detect even the smallest movements far below – or across the room. Something that can be frustrating if you are trying to observe them unnoticed.
The hide boxes I often use are long and thin. I often use more than one and place them so that they span the breadth of the temperature gradient in the cage. This allows the snake to choose the exact temperature it needs. They are filled with slightly damp long strand sphagnum that is re-wet once a week or so when the enclosure is being misted. I also keep the openings to hides big and wide. In part because I want to be able to see in – either by eye or with the camera on my phone. But also because I have seen snakes injured when 2 try to squeeze through the same small opening, or even when one snake doubles back on itself within the opening. I also want to encourage the snakes to stay active and exploring. I’ve found that closed up hides can cause the snake to remain hidden too much of the time and therefore never get used to the activity around it. With a semi-open hide they learn that a little movement in their world is not necessarily a threat to them.
For a substrate I recommend a deep soil mix that will serve multiple purposes. First, it will support the root systems of the live plants I feel are important for Spilotes pullatus. Second, it will provide a stable source of humidity, and third it will provide habitat for some species in your clean up crew. Earthworms, for example, will aerate the soil, keep it from packing and help recycle nutrients within your system. I tend to bank the soil layer deeply on one end and along the back of the cage to provide sufficient depth for plant roots.
I use a mixture of potting soil and peat for a base layer substrate. The peat lightens the soil making it less likely to compact. It also acidifies the mix which makes rot less likely. Although adding a “clean up crew” isn’t required, it makes the keepers job much simpler. In fact with an enclosure the size of a 40 gallon aquarium you could easily get by with only occasionally spot cleaning the biggest clumps of feces, leaving the rest of the work to the custodians.
On top of the soil mix I spread a thin layer of cypress mulch. The mulch helps conserve the soil moisture and makes it less likely to dry out and pack. The cypress also provides a huge amount of surface area for the various recycling organisms to live and work. Finally, it provides for a surface drainage layer that dries quickly after misting, keeping the snake from having to crawl over a wet soil substrate. It also facilitates spot cleaning.
Lighting – Heating
The temperature gradient I feel is best suited to this species is a broad one. I feel that a basking area in the 30 °C (87-89 °F) is important, but I don’t believe you want to keep Spilotes pullatus in a “hot” environment. They should always have the option for descending to the cooler, lower regions of the enclosure. I have found that a couple of my CB (captive bred) snakes will seek out the wettest and coolest areas of the cage (under the water bowl in this case) prior to shedding. The temps there are in around 20 °C (68 °F).
With a large domed basking light at one end of the enclosures I’ve found that the snakes often locate themselves well away from it while in their hides. Ambient temperatures in the enclosure stays near 24-25 °C (75-78 °F). More often than not the snakes avoid the 31-32 °C (88-90 °F) heat near the heat lamps and almost never spend more than a few seconds directly under the lamps in the 35 °C (95 °F) temperatures. Gravid females are a different story however. One of mine stays almost continually under a ceramic heat emitter at about 34 °C (93 °F ).
Spilotes pullatus are completely diurnal creatures. They respond to lots of bright light early in the morning, emerging to bask or just stare down at the forest floor searching for signs of food. They are most active through the morning and early afternoon, retiring for the day surprisingly early – rarely later than 4:00 or so in the afternoon. I set their lights with a timer that turns them on sequentially in the morning and off sequentially at night. The UV light is on for five hours a day, from 10AM to 3PM. On the yearling’s 40 gallon enclosures I use a very bright 4 foot LED shop light, a basking / heat light in a ceramic based reflector dome, and an 0.45 meters (1.5 feet) UV light. For the larger 1.2 x 1.2 x 0.6 meters (4 x 4 x 2 feet) communal enclosure I replaced the 18 inch UV light with a four foot high output T8, added a high output 40W LED plant light and a CHE that remains on day and night. These, in addition to the 1.2 meters (4 feet) LED shop light produce a big gradient of light from top to the bottom of the enclosure, much as you would find in a sun lit forest.
Water is crucial to tiger rat snakes. Although their natural habitat ranges from wet tropics to semi-arid uplands, they are never found far from water. I mentioned earlier that Spilotes pullatus seem to relish drinking water droplets from the leaves of plants. I would go further and suggest that without these misting it may be difficult for at least some Spilotes pullatus – especially young and recently imported adults – to get the water they need. I have used an aquarium aerator to bubble the water in their enclosure’s water bowl. The bubbles bring the snake’s attention to the water and make it more likely they will descend to drink. It also increases the humidity in the cage. Another option would be to place a water filled jar with a tiny drip hole above the water bowl and let the occasional drops plopping into the water serve a similar function.
As mentioned above my methodology of keeping the appropriate humidity level is based on various reasons. I use an aquarium aerator to bubble the water in their enclosure’s water bowl, live plants also aid in raising humidity levels as well as using a deep soil mix as substrate which provides a stable source of humidity. The humidity rises to 80-90% overnight, but decreases to around 60% during the day.
The rule of thumb when feeding Spilotes pullatus is simple: Feed them small prey items, not too often. By small I suggest a diameter not much larger than the snakes head. Smaller food items seem less intimidating and more readily accepted. For hatchlings that means pink mice. Even adult (6-8 ft) Spilotes pullatus are never fed anything larger than rat pups or adult mice. If they can’t wolf it down it 30 seconds or less, it’s too big. Spilotes have been known to die from over feeding as well as feeding too large prey items. More than one person has discovered the hard way that you can’t power feed this species. The instinct to feed new babies more often to get their strength up is understandable, but once established, let them get a little hungry between feedings. Let them come out and explore their world for a couple days before they are offered more food.
Starting newly hatched Spilotes pullatus is not usually difficult. However they are sight hunters that sometimes will hold out for live prey. This is rarely a problem if planned for. Make sure you have a reliable source for live pinks and (eventually) live fuzzies before securing the animal. It shouldn’t take more than a few months to convert the young to thawed pinks and fuzzies at most, and some will feed on thawed soon after their first shed. I feed the young in “feeding bowls” – i.e. empty cat food cans lined with paper towels – for a number of reasons. Watching this species over time it has become apparent that their modus operandi is to scan the forest floor from an elevated perch, searching for prey. The bowls, with their white paper towel lining, display the prey clearly, even with just the slightest movements. And, as I’ve learned, the snakes rather quickly come to associate the bowls with food. Even when no prey is present the hungry young will descend from their perch to sniff around the bowls. I was able to get a number of young to accept thawed pinks by placing them in the bowls, first with live pinks, but eventually alone.
I don’t believe any snake enjoys being handled. I think some snakes get used to it or tolerate it. But Spilotes pullatus don’t seem to easily reach that point. When picked up, they want down. Which is fine by me. I’ve never understood the desire to hold snakes anymore than I would understand the desire to hold a goldfish. It’s too obviously all about the person doing the holding and not about the animal.
As far as temperament goes, Spilotes pullatus sometimes get an undeserved reputation as an aggressive or defensive snake. In fact, both captive born babies and wild caught adults will inflate their throat and necks and striking when they feel cornered and threatened. But their strikes are often more of a warning than an attempt to cause damage. They even “head butt” at times with their mouths remaining closed, or lunge forward in a feigned strike without ever actually coming close to their target. And if they do bite, (which wild caught adults often do initially, and captive born babies are much less likely to), the bite is often just a glancing blow, a quick tag to scare, rather than damage. And often, immediately after the strike they turn and flee if any escape route is available. Their sharp teeth will produce a scratch significantly less severe than the typical kitten.
I clean and sanitize water bowls often as they tend to use them as their toilets. But at least every few days they get washed and sanitized, more often if dirty. Substrate does not get changed ever. The biggest feces are spot cleaned out. Since the cages have misting systems no odor ever develops and the waste is quickly recycled.
Shedding in Spilotes pullatus and the frequency of sheds can be as often as every few weeks to as much as every few months. Growth rate of the animal influences frequency of shed, as well as meal sizes.
Nothing special is required to facilitate the shedding process, however it’s recommended to provide a hide with slightly damp sphagnum once the eye caps become became cloudy. Proper husbandry, like appropriate heat and humidity should allow your snake to shed without any change in environmental factors.
Potential Health Problems
Spilotes pullatus are not particularly prone to any health defects or illnesses. Common problems such as snake mites, or communicable diseases can still affect them however, so proper quarantine and handling procedures are still very important. They are easy to over feed, and this overfeeding will kill them. Overfeeding can mean feeding them too large of prey items, or too many prey items.
The information contained in this care sheet reflect the opinions and methods of the mentioned breeder, based on their expertise and long-established experience.