Tim Spuckler's Pine Snake Talk   PROGRAM SUMMARY - MARCH 2002

The featured speaker at the March 13th NOAH meeting was Tim Spuckler, editor of Notes from NOAH.
Tim spoke on "The Natural History, Care and Breeding of Pine Snakes."

Natural History

The last 25 years have seen a tremendous growth in the number of publications and TV shows which are of particular interest to people who keep reptiles and amphibians. Many books and TV shows are even devoted to specific animals, such as cobras, anacondas, alligators and others. The Internet also provides a tremendous resource which was not available to Tim when he first became interested in reptiles. In the early years of Tim's interest, there was little or nothing written about pine snakes, just an occasional picture. Now, there is a great deal of information available about their natural history, captive requirements and breeding characteristics.

Pine snakes are colubrids, like kingsnakes, water snakes or garter snakes. They are nonvenomous constrictors, egg-layers, and large (6-7 feet) heavy-bodied snakes. Despite their size, however, their heads are relatively small and pointed, although their necks are very muscular. These features are adaptations for their underground lifestyle - they spend about 85% of their time burrowing. To support this, Tim related the contents of an article that appeared in The Vivarium magazine, which showed photos of a pine snake in the Pine Barrens digging a long tunnel with a chamber at the end in which to lay its eggs. One adaptation that pine snakes have for this activity is a scale at the front of their snout which serves as a shield and helps protect the nose as it burrows.

Recently it was discovered that the preferred food of pine snakes is pocket gophers. There is a very strong connection between the number of pocket gophers in an area and the population of pine snakes sharing that habitat. Pine snakes often enter the burrows of pocket gophers in search of food. Since the burrows are very narrow, the snakes are unable to coil their bodies in their usual fashion. So they dispatch their prey by pressing the rodents' bodies against the side of the tunnel. If other pocket gophers in that burrow sense danger, they try and run out through the tunnel. But the snake can kill them by the same means, and several of the pocket gophers can be killed simultaneously by a single snake. For this reason, pine snakes and their relatives may be responsible for killing more rodents in the wild in America than any other snake.

The scientific genus of the pine snake is Pituophis and this is literally the same as the common name. In Latin, "pity" means "pine" and "ophis" means "snake." Somehow the "y" in pity got turned into a "u."

Pine snakes live in the eastern United States. They have several relatives in other parts of the country. In the central one-third of the U.S. and into Canada, bullsnakes are very common. They look very similar to pine snakes, being fairly long and muscular, having the same kind of head and snout, and having a blotched pattern. But some of their behaviors are very different. Instead of being secretive, like pines, bullsnakes are very conspicuous, spending a lot of time above ground. Also, they do not seem to have a preferred food as do pines; bullsnakes will eat any kind of mammal, bird or egg. And while pine snakes are listed as endangered or threatened wherever they are found, bullsnakes are probably the most common large snake in the U.S.

Another relative, the gopher snake, is found in the western part of the USA and in Mexico. Gopher snakes are not as long as pines, averaging about four feet. Their noses are more round and their neck is not as thick as a pine's.

All three types of snakes do have one things in common, however. They all have a cartilage structure in the throat just in front of the windpipe. When they exhale, they make a hissing sound which can be extremely loud. They can also puff up their body, raise the front part of their body off the ground and "rattle" their tail. All of these actions, presumably, are designed to scare off a predator.

Types of Pine Snakes

There are four types of pine snakes: Northern Pine, Southern (Florida) Pine, Black Pine, and Louisiana Pine.

The Northern Pine Snake, as the name implies, is the northern-most ranging type of pine snake. It is a white-and-black blotched snake, with the blotches being less distinct in the front part of the body than in the hind part. The snakes in the northern part of their range have much more contrast than those in the southern part, where they might be brown and off-white rather than black and white.

Though found throughout the east-central portion of the USA, their distribution is very spotty within their range. This has to do with their diet and a number of other factors. Pine snakes eat primarily pocket gophers. Pocket gophers live where there is mature, hardwood forest. This type of forest has a heavy canopy which blocks sunlight from hitting the forest floor. As a result, certain kinds of herbaceous plants grow in this type of a forest, plants which provide nutrients that pocket gophers need in order to survive. When the forests within the range of the Northern Pine Snake were wiped out, these herbaceous plants disappeared, because there no longer was a canopy. The pocket gophers, the primary diet of the pine snakes, also disappeared.

In addition, pine snakes lay their eggs in open, sandy areas. This kind of habitat is supported by forest fires. Until recently, however, forest fires were not allowed to burn, but were put out. And so many areas which formerly supported a pine snake population no longer have the correct soil type for nest building required by the females.

The abundance of white-tailed deer has also taken its toll on the pine snakes. The deer destroy the understory that supplies food to the pocket gophers, contributing to their disappearance.

And since Northern Pine Snakes are large and may hiss when confronted, people intentionally kill them. Many are also killed by cars on the road.

The second kind of pine snake is the Southern Pine Snake, also known as the Florida Pine. The color is more muted than the Northern Pine, though there is a lot of variability. The range of the Southern Pine overlaps that of the Northern Pine in South Carolina and Georgia, producing intergrades. Some Southern Pines lack any pattern at all; though rare in the wild, this and other color variations are commonly bred.

The Southern Pine Snake has the same requirements and faces the same dangers as does the Northern Pine. In addition, it requires a lot of space - females have a home range of 130 acres and males have a home range of 246 acres. Only the Eastern indigo snake has a larger home range. Since the major portion of the Southern Pine's range is in Florida, it faces the added dangers that go along with the construction of new homes, shopping centers and roads.

The Black Pine Snake is one of the rarest snakes in the United States. Averaging about 5-1/2', the Black Pine probably never had a large range to begin with, being found only in southeastern Mississippi, southwestern Alabama, and just into the Florida panhandle, with perhaps a small number left in southeastern Louisiana. Very few of these snakes are left in the wild; in fact, there may be more Black Pines being held in captivity by breeders than there are left in the wild.

The last of the pine snakes is the Louisiana Pine, which is also very rare. It is found in western Louisiana and eastern Texas. In 1987, only 46 specimens were known to science. In the past three years, additional populations have been discovered, but the Louisiana Pine is still very rare.

The Louisiana Pine snake looks somewhat like a bullsnake, but bullsnakes have 40+ blotches, while pines have less than 40, usually around 33-34. Recently, this snake has been elevated from a subspecies (Pituophis melanoleucus ruthveni) to species status (Pituophis ruthveni).

Recently, a Mexican Pine Snake has appeared in the trade, but this is not a true pine snake. Actually, it looks something like a fox snake, although is highly variable. It is easy to identify it, however, since it has only two prefrontal scales; true pine snakes have four prefrontals. These snakes come from mountaine regions and prefer relatively cool temperatures.

Keeping and Breeding Pine Snakes

Pine snakes are not the best snakes for a beginner. They get quite large, and so require a lot of room. Tim's rule is the length of the cage should be 2/3 the length of the snake (4' for a 6' snake) and the depth should be 1/3 of the snake's length (2' for a 6' snake). Pines are also very active snakes, and need a lot of food. They are sometimes quirky in their behavior - going off feed for no particular reason, hissing and striking and even biting during certain times of the year.

To maintain baby pines, Tim uses shoeboxes in a rack setup with a thermal gradient produced by heat tape. Babies tend to get nervous in large containers. The shoeboxes have a newspaper substrate with a rock and water bowl.

Tim recommends providing food items that are only as wide as the widest point of the snake's body. Although pines can and will eat very large food items, they will sometimes later regurgitate these items. Some people have said that this regurgitation damages the throat cartilage of the snake and will cause it to stop feeding, resulting in the snake's death. Tim does not have any evidence of this, but suggests that relatively small food items be provided to prevent any problems.

As the baby pines get larger, Tim moves them into bigger enclosures. For the largest snakes he used 3' or 4' Neodesha cages. The floor of these large cages is covered with aspen shavings. These active snakes spend a lot of time burrowing in the aspen, and Tim feels it is healthy for them to be active and busy.

Pine snake are not difficult to breed. They should be about 4-1/2' long before breeding is attempted and they should be healthy and have good body weight.

Around the first weekend in November, Tim stops feeding his snakes. Then on Thanksgiving weekend he brings them down to his basement to cool down. He doesn't do anything special to maintain the temperature in his basement, which has a winter temperature range of 50-60° F.

In mid-February, the snakes are brought back to warmer temperatures. The females usually will eat quickly and heavily, but the males, being more interested in breeding than in food, may not eat for a while. One Mexican pine snake was cooled down in November, brought out of hibernation, but didn't eat until the following June, having nothing to eat for over six months. This is why it's so important for the snakes to have good body weight before being cooled for the winter.

About 4-6 weeks after coming out of the cooling period, both the male and female snake will shed their skin. This indicates that they are ready to breed, although some pine snakes will breed before the shed and some will breed a couple of weeks after the shed. After shedding, the male and female snakes are put together and left together for 3-4 weeks; they are kept on the accelerated feeding program during this time.

When a female starts developing eggs, she will often stop feeding. Around this time, the hind end of the her body appears swollen, as the eggs grow. Her spine also appears to stand out more along the back. At this point the male is removed from the cage.

Many snakes will shed their skin a predictable period of time before they lay their eggs. Tim's pine snakes generally do so ten days prior to egg laying. He prepares a nesting area by half-filling a plastic shoebox with saturated and rung-out sphagnum moss. Rather than cut a hole in the lid, which makes the shoebox useless for anything else, he just leaves the lid offset so the snake can crawl in and out.

Pine snake eggs are very large, up to 4" in length. Tim incubates his eggs in dampened perlite, which is a good medium because if you add too much water, the excess water just sinks to the bottom. If the incubation medium is kept too wet, the embryos inside the eggs will drown. For egg incubation, Tim just puts the eggs in a shoebox with perlite, and puts the shoebox on a shelf in his house. Since the eggs incubate during July and August, this is warm enough for them to develop normally.

When the eggs are approaching hatching time, Tim puts the open shoebox, with the eggs in it, inside a larger translucent container which is covered with the lid. That way, the hatchlings can escape from the shoebox where the eggs are located, into the larger box, which has newspaper as a substrate. Tim can tell what's happening just by looking through the walls of the larger container.

Tim ended his talk by relating a story about a 4-1/2' male Northern Pine Snake that was given to him by the Cleveland Police Department. The snake had been confiscated during a drug bust. It was so thin and weak that it couldn't control its body movements; when picked up, it hung like a rope. Rather than feeding it heavily, which is almost instinctive, Tim started feeding it small, infrequent meals. Feeding it heavily when the snake was in that condition would result in regurgitation, which is very dangerous. After a year, the snake was taking bigger mice, and now it's taking half-grown rats. The message is: Never give up on an animal.

Program Summary by Martin J. Rosenberg

Tim's Webpage