When you first see a Mandarin Rat Snake it is hard to believe that it is real. Its colourings and markings are so unique and different from any other rat snake or even any other snake. They have a grey background colour with horizontal diamond markings along their backs, with black borders and highlights of luminous yellow in the middle of the diamond marking. Some specimens have a red streak in the middle of each grey scale! There are quite a few different colour and marking variations, mostly due to their different natural localities, but even within the different localities there is a lot of variation in colour and patterning. These variations are always a great thing as breeders have started selectively breeding for these different and favourable traits.
The Mandarin Rat Snake occurs naturally in south-eastern Asia from upper Burma through southern China to northern Vietnam, inhabiting mountain forests and rocky slopes covered with bushes. Originally thought to be a montane species, they are now known to live at elevations below 500 meters in some parts of its range. Most commonly found at elevations of 2000-2500 meters, they have also been recorded at as high as 3000 meters in Tibet.
It seems that when dealing with captive bred specimens, Mandarin Rat Snakes are easier to keep then previously believed. Correct temperatures are one of the most important factors when dealing with this species and if they are kept too warm they can become sick very easily
For a long time, and I am sure still today, many Mandarins that were available were wild caught. This is slowly changing as more and more Mandarin Rat Snakes are being bred in captivity. Wild caught animals struggle to adapt to a captive environment, and most of the time are heavily infected with parasites. They also usually arrive much stressed and in poor condition due to prolonged transport. It has been known that only a very small percentage of wild caught Mandarin Rat Snakes survive in captivity. Due to all these factors everything should be done to purchase captive bred animals rather than wild caught. Moscow Zoo reported treating their wild caught snakes as follows: “As a routine, we treat all newly arrived snakes with Metronidasol (Flagyl) 250mg/kg. repeated after 10 days; 2,59c Albendasol ( Val-basen) 0,20,4 ml/kg, repeated twice every 7 days if symptoms persist; Prasiquantel (Baytril) 5mg/kg every 24 hours for 3-5 days, depending on clinical signs.”
A common husbandry mistake that is made with Mandarin Rat Snakes is keeping them too warm. Overheating these snakes will cause health problems, so keep in mind that temperatures for these snakes will need to maintained at 22 – 26°C and night time temperatures at 16 -18°C. Humidity must be maintained at a rather high level, and this can be achieved by spraying the enclosure every couple of days.
Adults reach sizes of around 100 – 120cm, and can be kept in the same kind of enclosure that we would keep a Milk Snake, Kingsnake or Corn Snake. Almost any type of typical snake housing will do. I keep mine in Rubbermaid bins in a rack system. A glass aquarium, PVC enclosure, or even a homemade wooden terrarium will do. Size appropriate, of course, with areas to hide.
Mandarin Rat Snakes enjoy burrowing, so aspen bedding or dust free sawdust is best used. A thick layer of 10cm or so covering the bottom of the enclosure is ideal. I am sure other substrates could be as well. It provides a great hiding area for them that is often used as they burrow under and through it. Paper is not a suitable substrate for these snakes. Make sure to also provide a humid hide half filled with damp sphagnum moss, which will be enjoyed for hours at a time on a daily basis.
It is important to note that as these snakes come from a cooler environment, and the fact that we keep them at cooler temperatures, means that they digest at a slower rate and therefore need to be fed smaller meals. Mandarin Rat Snakes will readily accept mice, which can be offered once a week. They seem to prefer meals on the small side, so rather feed items that are too small than too large.
With babies a good way to stimulate them to eat is to loosely wrap a pinkie in paper towel and then bury it into the sawdust, and leave it there over night. When the snake discovers this during its nocturnal forage it stimulates a natural feeding behaviour quite nicely, as a newborn rodent in an underground burrow.
When it comes to breeding Mandarin Rat Snakes they will need to be put through a hibernation period similar to that of Corn Snakes and Kingsnakes. About 3 weeks before hibernation all feeding stops and temperatures are slowly reduced until you reach 11 -14°C. This temperature is then maintained for 3 months after which temperatures are slowly brought back to normal over two weeks. During the brumation period do not offer food and do not disturb them. Just make sure they have fresh water at all times and check on them about once a week, just to make sure that they are looking healthy. After the brumation period and once temperatures have been returned to normal you can then start offering food once again. When feeding at this time, feed a bit more than usual, up to twice a week. About 3 weeks after hibernation you can start introducing the female into the male’s enclosure, after which you should start seeing signs of copulation, with the male often biting the neck of the female. After successful copulation the snakes can be separated again. This process can be repeated up to 5 times. After about 2 months of successful copulation 2 – 9 eggs are laid. Eggs can be incubated the same as we incubate other colubrid eggs. Vermiculite is a good medium to use for incubation and water will need to be added to it at a 1:1 water to vermiculite weight ratio. Eggs must be incubated at 25-28°C and will hatch at around 45 – 60 days. Babies will take 7-10 days to have their first shed, after which they will then be ready to feed. Feeding is usually never a problem with Mandarin Rat Snake hatchlings and they will happily eat pinkie mice and grow fast.
As we mentioned, certain international breeders are now working with varieties of Mandarin Rat Snakes from different localities. These localities are Vietnam, Sichuan, and Hunan, along with a few mutations such as the recessive anerythristic and the high yellow and high red line bred varieties, which are exciting to see! There apparently was a Hypomelansitc mutation at one time, which is no longer around. In 1998 a US trader offered $10 000 for a female Albino Mandarin Rat Snake, and this was the only known specimen at the time and no others have been seen since. I am sure as more breeders start to work with captive bred animals and start breeding these snakes on a larger scale we will start to see some more exciting mutations popping up.
It seems that when dealing with captive bred specimens, Mandarin Rat Snakes are easier to keep then previously believed. Correct temperatures are one of the most important factors when dealing with this species and if they are kept too warm they can become sick very easily. Another thing to keep in mind is that they are very shy snakes, and therefore it is important that they have lots of places to hide in their enclosure, which will allow them to feel secure.
The Mandarin Rat Snake is very popular and highly sought after for so many reasons like their vibrant colours, incredible pattern, lack of special heating or lighting requirements, and manageable size. Currently Mandarin Rat Snakes are very rare in South Africa with only a handful of breeders keeping them. I hope that in the years to come we will see more and more of these snakes in captivity and being bred in South Africa. They are easy to care for and with their small meals they are inexpensive to keep, so all round they are awesome snakes that will become the “crown jewel” of any collection!
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