By Urban Jungles
There has been a noticeable growing recognition for the beauty and display potential of these polymorphic Neotropical gems and more and more herp enthusiasts are realizing the value of the Amazon Tree Boa. Amazon Tree Boas had a bad reputation due to volatile attitudes which often never wane, even after long periods of time in captivity, and their sometimes finicky appetites. But this reputation is changing as these boas are becoming increasingly popular to keep.
Recent taxonomic reviews have split the hortulanus complex into 4 species: Corallus hortulanus, C. ruschenbergerii, C. cooki, and finally C. grenadensis (Henderson, 1997). C. hortulanus, or the Amazon Tree Boa, is the most common species encountered by hobbyists in the pet trade. For many years now, the coloured variety of the Amazon Tree Boa is often erroneously referred to as the Cook’s Tree Boa (C. h. cooki), or “Coloured Cook’s”. The truth of the matter is that the smaller Cook’s Tree Boa is not imported into the United States since it basically occurs over a limited range on the island of St Vincent (Henderson, 1997) which no longer engages in the export of herpofauna for commercial purposes. It’s easy to see where the confusion could have arisen, since prior to Dr Robert Henderson’s breakdown there were basically only two recognized species, the Amazon and Cook’s Tree Boas (Stafford & Henderson, 1996). Both of these species are similar in overall appearance but vary slightly in scalation, with hortulanus having over 50 dorsal scales and the smaller cooki numbering anywhere from 39-48 (Stafford & Henderson, 1996).
The Amazon Tree Boa complex ranges from parts of Central America down to the northern portions of South America, with several insular populations occurring throughout the West Indies (Henderson, 1997). They often share their habitats with other members of the Corallus family such as the similar Annulated Tree Boa (Corallus annulatus) of Central and South America and the enigmatic and incredibly beautiful Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus) of South America, which has been known to interbreed with the Amazon Tree Boa and produce some incredibly coloured hybrids. Few if any species of polymorphic snakes exhibit such a huge abundance in variation of colour and markings as Amazon Tree Boas. The unicolour red, orange, and yellow animals with little or no darker markings are those that are most sought after by breeders and collectors, often fetching a hefty price. But the value of colour stops at the individual because there is no bona fide colour determination in the offspring of this species. Two coloured parents would not necessary dictate that they will produce all coloured babies, although the propensity to do so is higher. The same goes for the darker or “garden phase” variety which has the ability to produce coloured individuals but is more likely to have similar, garden phase young. What it basically comes down to is that it is very difficult to predict the phenotype or physical appearance of a neonate Amazon Tree Boa by parental colouration. There are hundreds of possible colour and pattern variations, many of which are incredibly striking which makes this such an appealing species to work with. Recently, a small number of individuals from Trinidad (C. h. ruschenbergerii) have been imported in limited numbers which are characterized by a rich, coppery-gold colour with distinctly black tails, adding yet more possibilities to the palate of known colours. Few species of snakes allow for several completely different coloured individuals to share a cage and interbreed as the Amazon Tree Boa. This, in combination with the roosting behaviour displayed in this species, makes it a wonderful vivarium subject.
To date, there have been very few morphs, which are so popular in today’s herpetoculture such as albinism, present in this species. At present, we have produced a genetically striped morph known as the tiger Amazon which is the first known inheritable trait in this species and hopefully some new and stunning morphs will soon be in development. We are also currently working with hypomelanistic and calico specimens in hopes of producing some very exotic-looking animals.
Care for Amazon Tree Boas is fairly easy and straight forward; it is probably the easiest species in the genus Corallus to keep. Amazon Tree Boas have shown that they are a bit more forgiving than the delicate Emerald Tree Boa as far as maintenance goes, but by no means is this a species for the beginner. Their reputations for aggressive behaviour are well deserved and although tame individuals are not unheard of, they are the exception to the rule. This is a species that commands respect and dedication, lacking in either of these will undoubtedly yield unfavourable results. Although they are closely related to the Emerald Tree Boa, it should be noted that this species is not as arboreal in nature as the Emeralds are and will spend a considerable amount of time on the floor. This should be taken into consideration when purchasing or designing an enclosure for tree boas. Amazon Tree Boas will spend about 60% of the time curled up on the floor or on a wide platform in the cage and they will also make ready use of elevated or terrestrial hide boxes. At our facility a slab of corkbark or large hide box is often employed and readily used by the snakes. This behaviour could prove frustrating in a highly planted vivarium so if you want to see your snake I don’t suggest heavy foliage in the cage. It is best to design the cage with shelf-like platforms or multi-branched perches that will be readily utilized by the tree boas. When organizing branches in an Amazon’s cage, it’s important that you utilize many perpendicular branches instead of one or two parallel branches that would better suit an Emerald Tree Boa. As a whole, Amazons prefer to drape themselves over a wider area and prefer to utilize what I like to call “3 points of contact” when it comes to perching. It seems that they are more at ease when at least 3 parts of their coils are in contact with a branch or other solid structure. Although they are not as arboreal it is best to use a cage that offers considerable vertical height as they do enjoy climbing quite often. Exercise is an important component of a tree boa’s life, it ensures proper digestion which is vital for the prevention of complications such as prolapsing and regurgitation.
I prefer to keep this species at an ambient daytime high temperature of about 28°C with a slight nightly dip to about 25°C. During the breeding season nightly temperature drops to about 20°C are recommended along with heavy misting to stimulate breeding activity. I keep neonates and juveniles at a steady 27°C for the first two years of growth in order to ensure a steady metabolism and growth rate. Excessively high temperatures will yield regurgitation problems and possibly death, inversely, snakes that are kept too cool will soon succumb to respiratory infections and will need veterinary help immediately. A basking site may be supplied in order to allow the snake to thermoregulate on its own, however care must be taken to offer the snake a cool retreat as this is not a heat loving species. Basking spots should not exceed 32°C. Another consideration when using a basking site is to make sure that the heating element cannot burn the snake through direct exposure. Amazon Tree Boas are known for their “feisty” attitudes and a disturbed or annoyed tree boa will readily strike at a heat source in defence. This can result in severe damage to your snake if it has access to an exposed light bulb or ceramic heating element. If you choose to use an incandescent light or ceramic heating element, be sure to properly cover it with a small-diameter mesh such as those that are readily available at most hardware stores. Whenever possible, try to house the heating element outside of the cage in order to prevent any accidents. For several years now I have been using Pro-Products radiant heat panels with absolutely no problems – this is the heat source that I most recommend to tree boa owners as it eliminates the threat of thermal burns.
Almost as important as the environmental temperature are the ambient humidity levels. If improper humidity levels are kept, regurgitation and/or shedding problems will most likely occur. Ambient humidity should never dip below 70% in the Amazon’s cage. Humidity levels of 80-90% are recommended during the shedding cycle as well as when trying to stimulate breeding activity. These levels can be achieved by regulating airflow as well as misting your tree boa’s cage regularly. Aside from helping to maintain the necessary humidity levels, a daily misting with a spray bottle or misting system is vital for the long term health benefits of your snake. Although tree boas will often drink from water bowls when encountered, they eagerly lap up droplets that collect on their coils in the typical Corallus fashion. Spraying is essential in order to keep your animals properly hydrated. Care should be taken, though, to not keep your tree boas in saturated conditions, they should be allowed to dry off for several hours each day or bacterial skin blisters could easily develop that can lead to terminal complications. In any case, be sure to provide a large water bowl in the cage. I’ve found that with a large water bowl the snakes are more likely to come into contact with the water source on their nightly prowls and will readily learn to drink or soak in these bowls, but spraying is still necessary.
As far as cages go, today there are a wide array of choices ranging from the staple glass aquariums to sophisticated and custom enclosures made from high impact plastics and resins. Amazon Tree Boas fare well for the most part in most roomy enclosures, however, due to the aggressive nature of these snakes, it is recommended that a glass aquarium should not be situated in a high traffic area until the snake is well adapted to its new environment. If you do choose a transparent enclosure be sure to provide a hide box or some other cover in the form of foliage to allow for a secure retreat. Having the tree boa strike at glass all day will not only prove incredibly stressful to the snake (and the keeper) but rostral damage or mouthrot will be sure to occur. The commercial plastic cages such as those from Neodesha and Vision are best for this species, in my opinion. These cages not only come in a variety of sizes but they also are great for holding in humidity and the proper temps. Since the only glass/transparent area in these cages is the front opening it makes for a great enclosure that provides both security and safety for the snake. Cage furnishings are all a matter of personal taste but you must be sure to provide the proper perching areas for these animals. Live plants may be used in the enclosure to provide both an aesthetically pleasing and functional environment as they will help with overall air quality and humidity. However, be sure to closely monitor your pets while feeding in order to prevent accidental ingestion of any plant material which could prove to be fatal.
In most cases, feeding Amazon Tree Boas should not pose a problem. Most adult individuals whether captive born or wild caught will eagerly take live or pre-killed rodents with an eagerness that actually demands a bit of caution. Usually upon first scent of a rodent in the cage, the snake will immediately switch into a frenzied state, striking at anything that moves. Care must be taken when feeding larger animals and also when feeding near heat sources in order to prevent any injuries. Large 60cm tweezers and a snake hook prove to be invaluable tools when dealing with large specimens. Although not as large as an Emerald Tree Boa, these snakes, true to the Corallus family, are armed with an arsenal of long recurved teeth which can make quite an impression, literally at times.
Coupled with the tree boa’s notorious short temper and thermosensory pits, a bite to the face (the snake’s favourite target) could cause serious injury and possible loss of an eye, so care should always be exercised. Neonates will usually readily take day old pinky mice as a first meal but as with most Corallus there are always going to be a few stubborn individuals. I’ve found that older, darker coloured rodents may be taken more readily by stubborn feeders. It seems that the visual stimuli of the dark, contrasting colours coupled with the fumbling movement of a crawler mouse usually prove irresistible. Although these animals rely heavily on thermosensory reception to capture prey, some individuals will readily accept ectothermic prey such as small anole lizards or green tree frogs, but these should be used as a last resort in my opinion because of the possible vectors for parasites that these animals can become. I prefer to assist-feed stubborn babies; this is a process where a small pre-killed rodent is gently forced into the mouth of a neonate tree boa. If you can put the mouse pink back far enough where the tree boas can’t easily dislodge it, the boas will usually opt to swallow the source of frustration instead of repeatedly trying to eject it. After a few of these “kickstarter” meals most neonates will soon opt to eat on their own. Babies and juveniles should be fed an appropriately sized meal once every 7-10 days and adults every 10-14.
Care must be taken that defecation occurs at least once every 3-4 meals in order to prevent a cloacal prolapse or other gastro-intestinal complication. If the snake does not defecate in this time period then soaking the animal in warm water may be necessary. If this is the case then care must be taken that the proper humidity regimen is being met within the enclosure as Amazon Tree Boas have a relatively fast metabolism when compared to other members of the genus Corallus. Carefully monitor the animals when feeding if there is more than one to an enclosure as they are very adept at “stealing” food from one another, which could easily lead to injuries through accidental swallowing or constriction.
Care should also be taken when housing multiple males as aggression has been noted on several occasions, sometimes resulting in death. We had one occurrence of cannibalism in neonates that were housed communally at our facility so care should be taken when housing several smaller animals together as well. Be sure to provide plenty of space as well as cover and be especially watchful when feeding. Once you get past the “nippyness” of this species it proves to be a hardy and interesting captive specimen. One of the nicest aspects of these snakes is that they come in such a huge variety or colours and patterns and are relatively inexpensive, often being called “the poor man’s tree boa”, and they make ideal vivarium specimens. This is also a great “prerequisite” species for those that are considering the purchase of an Emerald Tree Boa but are still unsure of husbandry techniques. Captive propagation of this species is becoming more and more commonplace and tame specimens are not unheard of, especially in multi-generational breedings. Who knows, perhaps like the tiger reticulated pythons we will one day be able to breed a placid colourful arboreal boid, perhaps the perfect pet.
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