Questions About Ribbon Snakes in Captivity

Ribbon snakes are supposed to be less than satisfactory captives, but an encounter with some Northern Ribbon Snakes made me rethink that view.


When I first had the idea to write a short article about keeping ribbon snakes in captivity, my plan was to explain why ribbon snakes were a poor “beginner” snake in spite of their low price at pet stores. I would have based that argument on the herpetocultural literature on ribbon snakes and on our own experience with our single Western Ribbon Snake, which to date has made for a less than satisfactory captive. But things have gotten a bit more complicated since then, and now I’m left with more questions about ribbon snakes than answers. Which is probably a good thing.

There are two species of ribbon snake: the Eastern Ribbon Snake (Thamnophis sauritus), with four subspecies, one of which, the Northern Ribbon (T. s. septentrionalis), is native to our area; and the Western (Thamnophis proximus), with six subspecies, ranging from Wisconsin to Costa Rica. Biochemically they seem less closely related to other garter snakes than do some water snakes, and they are certainly each other’s closest relative: speciation has occurred quite recently, and they were only recognized as separate species in 1962 when they were discovered to occur in the same area without interbreeding.

Telling the difference between an Eastern and a Western Ribbon Snake is quite easy: Western Ribbon Snakes have two sometimes fused white spots on the top of their heads; Eastern Ribbon Snakes do not. Ribbon snakes can be differentiated from garter snakes by their overall shape: they’re very elongate; their side stripes are higher up on the body (on the third and fourth scale rows — most garters’ stripes are on the second and third rows); and there is no black between their labial (lip) scales.

While those of us who spend time in the field are likely to be quite well acquainted with the Eastern (Northern) Ribbon Snake, it’s the Western Ribbon Snake that is commonly found in pet stores. It, along with the Rough Green Snake (Opheodrys aestivus), is one of the few North American snakes still heavily collected for the pet trade. Ribbon snakes found in pet stores are almost certainly wild snakes; captive breeding, if it occurs, is only taking place on an incidental basis. Their low price — between $20 and $40 in local pet stores — may lead some to think that a ribbon snake might make a good starter pet.

Of course, as is the case with those $40 baby Green Iguanas (Iguana iguana), this is simply not the case: just because an animal is inexpensive does not mean that it is good for beginners. Fortunately, ribbon snakes are not extremely difficult to keep per se, but their diet and their behaviour make them hard to recommend for beginners.

Their diet is limited to anurans and fish in the wild, which means a diet of fish in captivity, since frogs and toads ought not to be used as feeder animals unless all else fails. A fish diet is manageable (provided you can handle the smell), but there are a few potential wrinkles: live fish can be difficult to obtain sometimes (and there are parasite risks); fish fillet isn’t nutritionally complete; and certain kinds of fish contain an enzyme that destroys Vitamin B1, leading to vitamin deficiencies that can kill the snake. A friend has managed to get both Northern and Western Ribbons to eat scented pinky mice; occasional mice certainly would help. An important note: unlike garter snakes, ribbon snakes will not normally eat earthworms.

As for their behaviour, ribbon snakes are active and inquisitive, and as a result can make very good display snakes. But they can be quite nervous, and apparently do not like to be handled — another significant drawback for beginning keepers.

All of the above seemed quite apparent with the Western Ribbon Snake we bought from a pet store last January. From the outset he has seemed a textbook case of everything I had read about ribbon snakes. He’s been nervous. He has bolted when we approached its cage; if he is active or curious, he’s doing it when we’re not around. He absolutely hates being handled: he has musked and bitten and has even gone into crocodile-style death rolls. And he has been a difficult feeder: he has only eaten live, whole fish. He has refused fish fillet and is too nervous to take food from tongs, which so far has ruled out trying pinky mice. All in all, something of a disappointment, since he’s a relatively small snake and I had hoped that a young ribbon would adapt better, somehow. Out of our entire collection, he’s probably the snake we enjoy the least.

So things stood when I first thought about writing this article. Then something happened that forced me to revise my thinking somewhat.

Sometime in July we received a phone call. A third party had caught a gravid female Northern Ribbon Snake, and the caller was looking for a home for her. After some discussion amongst ourselves we accepted her. For a gravid, wild-caught ribbon snake — three good reasons for a snake to be defensive right there — she was surprisingly placid. She even ate a few fish. Then, on August 4, she gave birth to nine perfect baby ribbon snakes.

(Compared with garter snakes, ribbon snakes have smaller litters of larger babies. These babies were easily as long as our Red-sided Garter Snake babies, which were then over two months old, and came from a litter of 26 live and one stillborn.)

Mother and babies forced me to reconsider what I had learned about ribbon snakes. All were reasonably calm. The mother permitted handling. Tempermentally, the babies were almost as good as the baby Red-sided Garters (and were much calmer than the baby corn snakes!). We gave the mother and six of the babies to friends who would put them to use in educational programs (you can see some of them at Little Ray’s Reptile Zoo) and kept three for ourselves.

The remaining three babies have proven to be wonderful captives. They do not fear our presence and do not automatically bolt when we’re near. They are quite handleable. And they’re calm enough to take food from our hands — not tweezers, not tongs, our hands. (They’ve also quickly learned to recognize the hands that feed them and have eagerly nibbled on fingertips in their enthusiasm.) Two have even accepted pieces of fish fillet. (Meanwhile, my friend reports that their mother is doing well and is even accepting scented mice!) These are ribbon snakes?

So what’s going on here? Why are these snakes so radically different from what is generally accepted to be the norm for ribbon snakes, and so different from our nervous Western Ribbon? I don’t know yet, but I have a few guesses.

One possibility is that the babies’ calm nature is because they were born in captivity. This seems to matter with other snakes that have a reputation for a nervous temperament and that are seldom bred. Yet the mother is equally calm, and has adapted to captivity extremely well after only a short time. Another possibility is that there may be a difference between the two species, although as far as I am aware there is no record of Eastern Ribbon Snakes being calmer than their western counterparts; one authority even believes that Western Ribbons are calmer than Easterns! A third possibility is that we’re merely dealing with individual quirks: that some ribbon snakes are very nervous, but some are calmer, and we just happened across a couple of extreme cases: one that is extremely nervous, and one of the calmer ones and her offspring. This is the most likely explanation; the other possibilities cannot be proven without a larger sample.

I’m very much grasping in the dark here and it may not be to any great purpose, but if nothing else my curiosity has been stoked. One project for the future that I’d like to try is to begin breeding Western Ribbon Snakes, partly to see if captive-bred offspring are any tamer or easier to keep than their wild-caught brethren, partly to try to counter, if only symbolically, the hordes of ribbon snakes caught for the pet trade.

First published in Chorus 18, no. 8 (Oct. 2001). Since then, the Western Ribbon Snake is still alive and thriving under Florence’s care, despite the occasional appearance of subcutaneous worms. All the Northern Ribbon Snakes, however, died suddenly and mysteriously, at separate times — mother and offspring alike. Those of us who kept them were baffled at the time; I now suspect that they may have succumbed to parasites from their fish-based diet.

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