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2:53 PM   September 02, 2014
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North-American Gems

Native herps can make great pets.
By Petra Spiess

North America boasts some of the easiest—and most interesting—herps to care for in the reptile trade.

Retailers need to be cautious, however, as there are in many cases local laws restricting or regulating native herp sales in order to protect wild populations.

The following five species not only make great pets, but offer significant product sales opportunities for enterprising retailers.

Western Hognose
(Heterodon nasicus)


Credit: Cioli & Hunnicutt/BowTie Studio

The Western hognose is one of the most charming and comical herps in the trade. Adults of this species are stout but their length is on the medium side, ranging from 20 to 36 inches. Base coloration is beige with a checkerboard pattern of dark brown spots. The most distinctive feature of the Western hognose is the unique upturned scale at the end of its snout, giving it a “piggy” appearance and its common name. The Western hognose has another claim to fame: When threatened, it feigns death with a rather dramatic display of rolling over, going limp and sticking its tongue out. Captive specimens rarely do this however, as they easily become acclimated to human interaction.

Captive care for a Western hognose is similar to most other temperate colubrid species. An appropriate cage for one adult should have minimum dimensions of a 10 gallon aquarium (20 by 10 by 12 inches) although lower height and greater floor space works even better. As big-time burrowers, members of this species need suitable substrate to root around in, such as aspen bedding or recycled-wood-pulp bedding. Keepers should provide hiding spots, but if the snake is able to burrow in its bedding, it may rarely use them. Temperature on the warm end should vary from 88 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the cool end can be in the low to mid 70s, and the temperature at night can drop into the 60s. Hognose take domestic mice with relish once a week.

Eastern Garter Snake
(Thamnophis sirtalis sirtalis)

Many reptile enthusiasts get their start or stoke their interest in herps by getting a close look at and/or keeping a garter snake. It ranges in size from 2½ to 4 feet, is generally docile and is easy to keep. If startled or not used to handling however, garters have a tendency to spray their perceived threat with a pungent musk. Eastern garters are primarily very dark brown or black with yellow stripes or checks. Pattern and color varies significantly over its range, and additional morphs have varying degrees of red or orange coloration as well as amelanistics.

An enclosure the size of a 20-gallon aquarium (30 by 12 by 12 inches) works well for one adult garter. Its warm spot should be 85 to 88 degrees Fahrenheit with the cool end in the 70s. Substrates that work well include aspen bedding and recycled-wood-pulp bedding. One very important element keepers should include in any garter enclosure is a large, heavy-bottomed water dish—large enough for the snake to get into completely. Garters will eat feeder fish, such as guppies, as well as worms, crickets and appropriately sized mice.

Corn Snake
(Elaphe guttata guttata)


Credit: Isabelle Francais/BowTie Inc.

Undeniably the rock star of the herp trade, the corn snake, or red rat snake, is also a North-American native. No other snake species in herpetoculture rivals the corn snake for number of different morphs as well as ease of care and breeding. Corn snakes come in both color and pattern morphs as well as combinations of the two. Perfect for beginners, but with fantastical morphs that entice even the advanced hobbyist, the corn snake belongs in a prominent position in every pet store that sells reptiles.

This species ranges in size from 3 to 5 feet and has roughly the circumference of a garden hose. Males can be distinguished from females with accuracy by probing, but males also have a much thicker and longer tail past the vent than females. Docile and easy going, corn snakes tolerate human handling extremely well and rarely bite.

The minimum cage dimensions for an adult are roughly similar to a 20-gallon aquarium. Keepers should provide a warm spot of 88 to 94 degrees Fahrenheit and a cool end in the 70s, with a drop into the high 60s at night. Suitable substrates include aspen bedding, recycled-wood pulp-bedding, paper towels and cypress mulch. Corns can have shedding problems if the humidity is too low, so keepers should provide a moist hiding spot or mist the cage occasionally if they notice problems. Corn snakes eat an appropriately sized mouse once a week.

Gray-Banded Kingsnake
(Lampropeltis alterna)


Credit: Isabelle Francais/BowTie Inc.

As corn snakes are known for their amazing variety of color morphs, gray-banded kingsnakes have a very large number of localities—color and pattern morphs found in small, specific areas in the gray-band’s range.

Adult grays range in size from about 3 to 4 feet, and like other colubrids, gender is best determined by probing. The base coloration of grays is, not surprisingly, gray, but this species has quite a bit of variability otherwise in color and pattern. There are two main color/pattern morphs in gray bands. The first, referred to in the trade as “blairi” or “Blair’s,” has a series of regular saddle-shaped spots of orange or red bordered by black rings and then thin white rings. The second, called “alterna,” has a higher number of bands with reduced (or even absent) orange/red coloration and may have a degree of black speckling.

Gray-bands are mellow snakes, docile and easily handled. Their care is undemanding and very similar to that of corn snakes, although grays don’t generally require as high of humidity. This species is also somewhat secretive and will need several good hiding spots in the enclosure.

California Kingsnake
(Lampropeltis getula californiae)

The Cal king is a hardy, beautiful and interesting species excellent for beginning hobbyists. Interestingly, one of the main food sources for wild Cal kings are other snakes—including venomous snakes, such as Western diamondback rattlesnakes. Due to their taste for other snakes, Cal kings should always be housed individually.

This species ranges in size from 3 to 5 feet. Base coloration is dark brown or black with rings of varying width and number in yellow or white. Several different color and pattern morphs of Cal kings exist, including amelanistic, striped, 50/50 (50-percent black, 50-percent white), and “banana” (high yellow). Captive care for Cal kings is essentially the same as described for corn and gray-banded kingsnakes. <HOME>

Petra Spiess is a freelance writer with a master’s in ecology. She spent several years as the owner of her own reptile-breeding business.


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