Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Site Visits and The End Of The World As We Know It

I have to show you this, it is a chart, from SiteMeter, showing my blog's unique visits from folks over the last week (click it to big it). Last week, I blogged a lot about doom, gloom, Judgement Day and TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it). That was mostly all with a preparedness undertone. People sure seemed to like it but of course I had all the hype, about May 21, 2011 having been predicted to be Judgement Day, helping me along. Now though, I am back in my old boring self and back in the groove of having about 80 or so unique site visits a day. Oh well, another day in Paradise as opposed to fighting zombies and demons.
With that said, allow me to also say thanks to those of you who remain loyal readers and welcome to any new ones.
All the best,
Glenn B

A Living Jewel - The Corn Snake

A Corn Snake entwined hand, in my eyes, is more beautiful than a jewel laden hand any day. I, like most other folks, am enamored by the beauty of gemstones and of finely crafted jewelry but I think none of it can compare to the splendor to be found in a fine specimen of Corn Snake. In this current instance, I may be a bit more biased than usual, toward the mindset just expressed, in as much as pictured corn snake is mine - as is the hand (thank goodness my fingernails were clean). Click the pic to enlarge.

I got this snake, sold to me as a variety known as an Okeetee Corn Snake, a week and a half or so ago. She, yes it is a female, was accompanied by her suitor who was of quite the amorous nature when I bought them at the most recent monthly meeting of the Long Island Herpetological Society (LIHS). He is quite the different color variety being an albino or amelanistic color morph. That simply means he lacks melanin or black pigmentation seen in this female. It gives him a different look indeed but he is the same species of snake as is the female. The male reportedly is not just a regular albino corn snake but supposedly a Reverse Okeetee. Reverse Okeetees have wide contrasting white rings around the darker blotches. Regardless of the color differences though both are the same species. The variety of color morphs among corn snakes are due either to natural selection due to geographical separation thus making them color morphs and or sub-species or due to selective breeding this making them different color morphs. The species scientific classification is: Elaphe guttata guttata, sometimes also know by a newer classification as: Pantherophis guttatus.

Regardless of color variety, Corn Snakes make excellent pets (and great schoolroom studies) for those inclined to keep or study snakes/reptiles or for parents who were talked into buying one on impulse by their child(ren). Mind you, in the latter case, chances are that once the child is bored, the responsible parent will wind up taking care of the snakes (any parent getting a snake for a child needs to expect either to be the main care giver or to take a good part in the care of it). That is okay if at the same time, the parents instill a sense of responsibility about pet care to their child(ren) and thus quite possibly reignite that ember of interest within the child. I can tell you, for most parents in that situation - at least for most responsible parents - once they have been tempted by the allure of these beautiful serpents it is hard to lose all interest in them. What often happens is the parent takes up the interest where the child left off. If you are among the lucky parents who has researched the topic first and involved your child(ren) in the research in a fun way, then the chances are much greater that your kid(s) will become budding young herpetologists or at least life long pet keepers and as I said,
Corn Snakes make great pets (click on the link for a care sheet). Believe me, if you like them, your children probably will grow into them in one way or another by the time they are married with kids.

So what makes them such a great pet. Well, first of all, compared to a dog or cat, they do not require daily handling or petting. In fact, daily handling is something, if not frowned upon, that should be kept to a minimum although corn snakes adapt fairly well to handling. Most of them will probably tolerate being gently handled once or twice a day for about 15 to 30 minutes each session. By handling I mean allowing them to crawl from hand to hand as you repeatedly move one hand in front of the other as the snake attempts to crawl away through your hands.

They are, in general as a species goes, a docile snake. While all snakes have recurved teeth and all can bite, corn snakes rarely bite in captivity with babies being more likely to defensively bite than adults. Since they usually quickly adapt to being handled, defensive biting usually is a rare occurrence once they become accustomed to handling. Bites when a snake anticipates feeding can be another thing so it is wise to place food animals into their enclosures using tongs. Since snakes use their sense of smell as a primary method to locate prey items, if they repeatedly smell both a hand and prey item at the same time they begin to associate the smell of the hand with their next meal and thus may bite the hand that feeds them. A bite from a corn snake can draw blood but is usually a minimal injury, and is less injurious if you just let it bite until it lets go or until you can remove it from you. What you do not want to do when a smaller sized non-venomous snake bites, and probably likewise with a big one but I would rather not be bitten by a giant python because that would be a major wound, is you do not want to jerk the bitten appendage, such as your hand, away from the snake. You may get your hand free but usually with several of those recurved teeth imbedded in the skin. As I said though, a bite from a corn snake, if you do not try to jerk away from it or out of its grip, is usually minimal. Corn Snakes, unlike many Kingsnakes, do not usually chew repeatedly when they bite and usually soon let go if they bite you instead of a mouse. Such a bite may amount to slightly broken skin to two rows of shallow pin pricks that draw a few to several beads of blood. It is almost always more a thing that people are afraid of than something that hurts a lot. Bear in mind - a dog, cat, rabbit, hamster, ferret, parrot, turtle, tortoise, brother or sister could give a bite of much more dire consequences. Well that is most of the fear factor having been taken care of but there is one more thing.

Corn Snakes are carnivores. They eat animals, usually whole animals as do all snakes in nature. Corn Snakes are, by nature, opportunistic feeders to a great extent. In the wilds they will eat: rodents, birds, bird’s eggs, lizards, frogs and possibly other snakes. Their preferred diet as adults seems to be rodents and thus one of the possible and probable origins of their name. Since they have an affinity for rodents, they are oft times found near agricultural areas and especially at places where small rodents are drawn in great numbers. One such place are corn cribs and silos. Some believe they got their name due to this attraction to places where mice and other small rodents often are found in good numbers. Of course, if you paid attention to the pic of the female corn snake, well - you may have guessed the other possible origin of the name Corn Snake. There bellies, in natural occurring varieties of Corn Snake resemble a certain type of corn - Indian Corn. Regardless of the origin of their name, they do eat rodents and therein lies the second fear factor in owning a pet Corn Snake. Some moms and dads just cannot tolerate live rodents or see little furry animals being killed by the snake before they are eaten. Even then these snakes make good pets since almost every corn snake I have ever owned readily took to eating dead mice. When I kept a large number of rodent eating snakes, I often bought frozen mice for them and thawed them out as needed for meals. (Yes, my wife is a saint to allow rodents in our freezer.) I can tell you, if I keep these two Corn Snakes, I will be buying frozen mice for them again since I can get them as low as .40 cents apiece by a 50 pack and single mice in pet shops now go for as much or more than 2.99 apiece (plus tax)!

Lest you think it very expensive to feed a corn snake, especially if you buy mice at the pet shop, you should know this: Corn Snakes can be fed on average of one mouse once per week (maybe 2 mice per feeding for a large one. Feeding them only once per week means a few good things for the keeper. First of all, even if you fed them every week during the year it would only amount to 52 feedings. If a mouse cost $3.00 then food for one corn snake for the year may only cost you $156.00. In temperate climates they will sometimes need to brumate (hibernate) for a few months and therefore not eat during that period thus saving you money. Compare that feeding bill to a dog’s or cat’s feeding bill and you will see it is much less expensive a proposition.

Another big plus of them eating only once per week is that you usually only need to do a complete enclosure clean-up once per week. You understand don't you? Yep, they eat once a week and usually only poop once a week. Since urine passes as a white chalky substance along with their stool, it is usually a single clean-up per meal. No daily walking or litter box cleanings necessary.

What they do need on a daily basis is fresh water. Supply water in a small bowl that is unlikely to be tipped over. Available clean water is a must, 24/7, even when they brumate. During brumation they are not asleep as some animals in hibernation but go through sleep and waking periods and are much less active than normal but do still require water in their enclosures.

Since snakes can be kept in a relatively small enclosure, the largest corn snake not really needing an enclosure larger than a 20 gallon long fish tank (although larger is certainly fine and maybe better) you can see they can be a good choice for small apartment dwellers. The tank or other enclosure must be escape proof. If snakes are good at something it is at squeezing through small holes or through narrow cracks and crevices. So make sure it is secure. Any lid or door must be securable, don't just place lid atop a tank and not expect the snake to push it off or at least to loosen it enough for the snake to escape. To the enclosure, you will need to add a suitable substrate. I prefer cypress mulch or shavings. Note, I did not say cedar shavings or cedar mulch. Cedar is toxic to reptiles and amphibians. I always use something absorbent to help absorb any spilled water or any poop. Snakes poops are relatively solid but sometimes can be a bit wet to runny. This can be a once in a while thing in a healthy snake but if persistent is a sign of illness. Other than that, all that needs to be added to the inside of a Corn Snake enclosure is a hide box and maybe a climbing branch.

Snakes are ectotherms, or animals that require outside temperatures to regulate their bodily functions. This means they will almost always require a heat source for their enclosures. A heat pad, made specifically for snake tanks or enclosures, can be attached to the bottom of a glass tank. These are very low wattage and quality ones are great heat sources for snakes. Other choices are heat tape (very similar to the heat pads) heat lamps, or ceramic heat emitters that screw into lighting fixtures. In general, the basking end of the tank should reach about 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit for a Corn Snake. The other end of the enclosure should be about normal room temperatures of about 72-76 degrees Fahrenheit. Nighttime temps can drop into the upper 60s with no ill effects. I keep the heating pad on 24/7 so the snake always has a choice of warmer or cooler areas. I never place a heat emitting device, like a hot bulb or ceramic emitter, over an area also warmed by a heat pad - this is asking for trouble in the way of a fire hazard or an overheated snake. If a snake is spending virtually all of its time at one end the temps are wrong. It means the temps is too high if it stays at the cool end almost all of the time or it means the temps are too low if it stays at the warm end almost all of the time. Being ectothermal, they move back and forth from warmer to cooler temperatures as needed for functions such as digestion. They also like to hide a lot so make sure they have at least one hide box at the cooler end of the enclosure. I sometimes have one at each end.

By now, maybe you have realized another plus to keeping corn snakes. The expense, overall, is not that great. The highest costs come when you first buy the snake and the enclosure and accessories. After that there is a bit of a charge for electricity, the cost of weekly feedings and the cost of substrate. By the way, I recommend changing the substrate completely about once per week or every two weeks. Don't go beyond that even if you think you scooped out all fecal matter during weekly tank clean-ups as little bits can cause bacteria to grow. Another reason I prefer Cypress is that it retards bacterial growth from what I can tell.

There are yet a few other aspects of snake biology that make them fascinating as pets. One is how they move about. With no legs, no feet, no arms and no hands it is a trick indeed but they get around exceptionally well. In fact, Corn Snakes are great climbers as well as being able to crawl round on the ground or swim in bodies of water. They are often found in trees probably in search of birds and also are often found in the rafters of barns.

A second fascinating set of aspects about snakes, in addition to the handicap of being limbless, is their ability to sense, track, capture, overpower and eat prey animals. Imagine for a moment that your life depended upon your hunting ability and that you were extremely near sighted had no hands to catch an animal, or to hold a knife and fork to help you eat the animal once you bagged it and had no legs on which to chase it. How well would you do? A snake does just fine in that regard. How does the snake do it? First of all, they locate and follow prey using a highly developed sense of smell, or they lie in ambush after locating a likely spot with the same sense. They smell by catching air particles on their forked tongues and transferring them to the Jacobson’s Organ in the roof of their mouths. This is such a good system they can actually determine direction of travel of a prey item by it and can also detect such things as mates and water sources with it. Once they find the scent of a prey animal, they track it using the same organ or lie in wait. They use either serpentine or rectilinear motion (mostly) to move along in their pursuit of a meal. When they encounter a meal (either by tracking it down or by waiting in ambush) they strike at it and grasp it with those recurved teeth I mentioned earlier. A corn snake is a constrictor and kills its prey by wrapping coils of its body around the animal and squeezing harder each time the animal exhales. In a brief time the animal suffocates. They snake will then seemingly sniff around it before eating it - then will usually eat it head first. It has jaws that can work independently of one another, one side holding the prey in place as the other side - both being able to expand greatly - moves forward and grabs more of the animal. Each side alternates until the prey item is well into the throat or esophagus when muscle contraction takes over and moves the prey item in to the stomach. They not only successfully find, catch, dispatch and eat prey but they can eat animals wider in girth than they are themselves. After eating, they usually go into a suitable place to hide for at least several days to weeks before going on the prowl again.

As they eat, they grow; in fact snakes grow throughout their lifetimes, just slower as adults. As they grow, their outer layer of skin does not grow, at least not much. So, when they grow in girth and length, the outer skin must be replaced from time to time. Snakes, therefore, go through another amazing biological process, that of ecdysis or shedding. As they grow and the old outer layer of skin becomes too small, they begin to produce a new layer of skin under the old. In order for this new layer to become the actual new outer layer, they must shed the old outer layer. As they prepare to shed most snakes will appear to become dull, their skin looks milky or cloudy somewhat and often has a slightly subdued hazy bluish hue. Even their once very clear eye scales become cloudy. During this phase they tend to stay in hiding; captive snakes should not be handled when in this stage. After a couple to a few weeks, they again look clear and regain pretty much their usual appearance. A few to several days after this, they usually begin to shed the old layer of outer skin starting at the tip of the snout. It often comes off, like a sock being pulled of inside out, all in one piece. What emerges is a snake with a new shinier outer skin that looks absolutely stunning especially in the case of a snake like the Corn Snake. After this, they often go on the prowl for prey almost immediately.

There is a lot more to learn about them. They are interesting creatures but I will leave it to you to find out some more things on your own - that is if you have an interest in them now that I have told you something about them.

If you want to keep them as pets, there are many places to find more information about them. Many books have been published ion the subject and many websites dedicated to their care in captivity. If you decide to get one, I recommend captive bred and born specimens. Some populations of wild Corn Snakes are endangered. They are literally bred by the tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, in captivity each year. So, buying captive bred Corn Snakes puts no strain on wild populations. Among the best places to acquire them are from dealers at reptile expos, from breeders, from reputable online dealers or from reptile specialty shops. I do not recommend, in fact I recommend against, getting them as general pet shops, especially large chain pet shops where animal care seemingly is often not up to par.

All in all they make a great easy to care for pet, and are among the most beautiful of all snakes.

All the best,
Glenn B

Print References:

Keeping and Breeding Corn Snakes by Michael J. McEachern, 1992. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc.

A Color Guide to Corn Snakes by Michael J. McEachern, 1991. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc.

Corn Snakes and Other Rat Snakes: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual by Richard Bartlett and Patricia Bartlett, 1996. Barrons.

The Corn Snake Manual by Bill and Cathy Love, 2000. Advanced Vivarium Systems, Inc.

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