The Elaphe group of snakes consists of a large and diverse number of popular colubrids. The most widespread is the common corn snake or red rat snake. There are two or three subspecies, but the nominate Elaphe g. guttata is a grey to tan colored animal with a series of large red saddles with black edges along its back. The underneath is checkered black and white, although there is a great deal of regional variation, and degrees of orange to red may also be seen. The first marking on the back extends as a point on top of the head and an orange to red line extends from above the snout to below the angle of the jaw, through the eye.
Coloration varies dramatically with geographical location and there has also been a great deal of selective breeding, which has produced diverse forms including amelanistic (no black pigment), anerythristic (no red pigment) and snow corns to name but a few.
Corn snakes are medium sized snakes found naturally throughout much of Southern North America and into Mexico. They are active snakes and many are accomplished climbers inhabiting forest, scrub and grasslands. Typically the diet consists of small rodents.
This snake rarely exceeds four feet and large adults seldom exceed 2 pounds in weight. These snakes can be long lived and attain teenage years. Longevity may be greater but there are few definitive records available.
Corn snakes are commonly kept in captivity and probably represent one of the best choices for a serpentine pet. Breeding success is commonplace and has resulted in self-sustaining captive populations throughout North America and Europe. Frequent breeding has driven down prices, except for the more highly prized color variants. Breeding is possible from the second year, but slower maturation and breeding from the third year is more natural and results in fewer complications.
Corn snakes rightly deserve to be the most popular captive snake and they are an excellent first choice reptile pet all around. They are medium sized, generally placid and easy to care for with no real specialized requirements. They adapt well to captivity and feeding on defrosted frozen mice and are generally healthy if provided with good basic care. In fact, the most hostile reaction that may be elicited from this species that seldom bites is defecation on a rough or careless handler. All snakes can excrete Salmonella and therefore routine personal hygiene and the supervision of all child-snake interactions are important.
Corn snakes are active, bold and generally placid. They do require periods of seclusion in hide-out, especially after feeding. They appear completely indifferent to handling although this should be avoided for two to three days after feeding to prevent regurgitation. This snake generally accepts food at any time of day or night and can be quickly adjusted to the owner’s individual routine. They are strong, able climbers and accomplished escape artists, so vivaria must be secure. Neonates can even squeeze between sliding glass doors, so beware.
Corn snakes readily accept defrosted-frozen prey from birth, and in general prey diameter should not exceed the snake’s girth. Frozen-thawed mice are preferred; anorexia is rare and should be considered a sign of illness, unless hibernating or breeding.
These snakes adjust so well to captivity that many non-breeding adults restricted to the vivarium and fed weekly become obese. Therefore, feeding intervals of 4 to 5 days for neonates, 5 to 7 days for juveniles and 7 to 14 days for non-breeding adults are recommended. Breeding adults, especially females, may need to be fed every week to reclaim lost body condition after hibernation and breeding.
Fresh water should always be available in a large, heavy bowl that is sufficient for bathing and yet cannot be overturned.
Confirmation of gender requires probing, a skilled technique using a blunt, well lubricated probe to identify the male hemipenes or female cloacal sacs. The probe is gently inserted under the caudal rim of the cloaca; in males the probe will enter to a level or 6 to 12 subcaudal scales, in females the probe will enter only to a depth of 2 to 4 subcaudal scales.
Breeding has been reported from one year of age but it is better to wait until the second or third years. Successful reproduction often requires a period of cooling or hibernation depending upon the geographical origin. Generally, maintenance at 50 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit for 8 to 12 weeks without food is sufficient to induce mating behavior upon a return to the normal temperature range. Maintaining multiple male and female groups apart during much of the year, but bringing them together for breeding, improves breeding success, but single male-female pairs are often productive.
Females usually lay 8 to 26 leathery eggs between March and June, and second clutches in late summer are not uncommon. Artificial incubation at 82 F and 60 percent humidity results in 80 to 100 percent hatch rate after 55 to 73 days (average 62 days).
The young measure 8 to 11 inches in length and will usually accept pink mice after their first shed, usually within 3 to 7 days of hatching. Care of the neonates is essentially the same as for adults, except that great care must be taken to avoid escapes and feeding requires the more frequent offering of smaller items starting with pinkies, then fluffs, sub-adult and finally adult mice.
An adult corn snake should be maintained in a vivarium at least 5 feet by 1.5 feet by 1.5 feet with sliding glass doors for good access and ventilation grills to facilitate air flow. It is completely inappropriate to reduce ventilation in an effort to artificially maintain temperature and humidity.
Heating can be provided by an under tank heat mat or an overhead ceramic or infrared heater. All heaters must be controlled by a thermostat and screened to prevent snake-heater contact that invariably results in horrendous burns.
Artificial turf or paper towels should be used to cover the floor and several hide-outs or retreats such as bark or small cardboard boxes are essential to provide retreats.
A stout, well secured clean branch can add to the attractiveness of the set-up and provide climbing exercise.
It is important to prevent excessive humidity and moisture as skin infections are likely in such situations. A warm, dry and well ventilated vivarium is preferred.
Corn snakes, like most snakes, do not have any special lighting requirements. Maintenance of a 12 hour photoperiod using small fluorescent strip lights or external room lights is adequate. During hibernation periods, these snakes are often not illuminated at all, or are subject to the natural photoperiod of the room.
A daytime temperature gradient of 75 to 85 F with a basking area of 85 to 90 F, should be lowered to 70 to 75 F at night.