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Discussion Starter · #1 · (Edited)
So after four years I've decide to get back into snakes. I've spend the last year looking around, researching and convincing the misses that snakes are not wicked murder machines plotting her death. I was looking for a snake that was calm, curious and I'm able to keep outside. I was hesitating between several Thamnophis species and Elaphe schrenckii. Eventually snagged up a pair of Russian ratsnakes.



They just settled in and I honestly can't believe this gem isn't more popular. The Russian ratsnake is also known as Amur ratsnake, Siberian rat snake, Manchurian watersnake, Schrenck's rat snake and a few more names. It's definitely a species you should refer to by its scientific name when purchasing. Besides the many common names, several other snakes inhabit it range. So sellers sometimes sell other species as 'Russian ratsnakes' as well.

The reason I've become so smitten by this species is it's personality. They observe you and even youngsters that had been placed into totally new surroundings casually came to inspect the giant pink monster that was rearranging their new home. Always visible and cruising around, lounging on branches or smelling the leaflitter.



Just like it's American 'cousin' (the cornsnake) they are incredible calm, eat like a madman and very easy to care of. Adult animals are robust, a bit more bulky then a corn and can grow between 1,5 to 2,1 meter. The species is also known for its variable appearance, young animals for example are a dark brown with darker and lighter bands across it's body. Adult's however are black, with bright yellow, silver or brown bands (and mix of them). A few morphs exist (anery/melanistic), but no designer morphs with ridiculous names.



I'e currently setup them up quite simply. The enclosure is 120x60x60cm (4x2x2 feet) with a few branches for climbing, some (outdoor) leaflitter for enrichment and some bark and a (real) fern as shelters. They do fine on room temperature with a hotter part of about 28-32 degree Celsius. The bulb in the cold end is a 2 watt LED, the one on the other side is a UV-bulb.




I know a lot of keepers claim snakes do not benefit from UV light, but this is not true. Snake do take in D3 from their prey, but research on cornsnakes however has proven that these animals also produce D3 themselves(as opposed to other carnivores like cats). A link to the paper: https://www.researchgate.net/public..._concentrations_in_corn_snakes_Elaphe_guttata) I'm not saying these animals drop dead without UV or become horribly ill. But research has shown that blood levels are significantly different when exposed to UV light. I do not know what the practical benefits are, but I prefer that the body is able to self-regulate, so I offer UV lighting. In any case, the animals will hopefully move to an outdoor enclosure as soon as possible.



Unfortunately the one of the reasons I picked this species is also its biggest downside; it does really well outside. In fact, a small population already exist in the wild near me. In the previous century someone released some of these snakes in the Netherlands. Those few snake managed to survive and reproduce and form a small population. It's debatable how much of a threat these animals pose.

Forgive me if this sounds a bit much like an commercial. But they simply are a really cool species.
 

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Discussion Starter · #4 ·
Today I picked up the final animal that will complete the breeding group (for now). With this little lady I now have a trio that will hopefully will colour up to a nice deep yellow. The seller showed me an hold back animal a few years old (a sister) and the colour of the animal was simply amazing. Very clear and defined yellow (almost orange) markings on a pitch black animal. I'm hoping my animals will grow up just like that.



The little noodle I pick up might not have been that striking to look at yet, she certainly has a lot of personality. After a bumpy two hour drive I wanted to see how easy going this species really is. So I left the animal in its transport container and defrosted a large pinkie mouse. The moment the little bugger (less than a month old) noticed the mouse in the tongs, it struck the mouse out of the tongs and proceeded to chase and strike at my fingers holding the lid.

I've never had a species that was so absolutely comfortable in such a radical new environment. Mind you, this is a hatchling raised in small tub in a rack. It's able to fully stretch in every direction for the first time in its life and smell 'the outdoors'. Yet it was curious calm and ate like a pig.



I honestly don't get why ball pythons more frequently advised as a beginner animal rather than this species. Watching a tiny snake putting his head in every hole too find out if there is more food might be a better introduction to our hobby then opening a drawer and seeing that the animal is still laying in the same exact corner.

Don't get me wrong. While it’s not my cup of tea, I've got nothing against rack keeping or royals. But my passion for the hobby stems from watching animals express their (wild) behaviour and enjoying their individual personalities. And I only wish to encourage keepers to build large (indoor and outdoor) enclosures and breed some of weird and uncommon species out there. There are so many interesting, easy and beautiful species that shine really well in natural setups that are getting lost into oblivion in favour of mass rack keeping and morphs.
 

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An amazing species, moreso as it closely resembles the Eastern/chain kingsnake, a totally unrelated species from a completely different continent & environment!
 

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An amazing species, moreso as it closely resembles the Eastern/chain kingsnake, a totally unrelated species from a completely different continent & environment!
My theory is that the young of E. schrenckii and E. anomala - and also E. davidi, another species that lives in the same general area - mimic the local venomous Gloydius species; if you compare them they look extremely similar, right down to facial markings. The babies will even flatten their heads to triangles and act very viper-like when threatened.
 

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My theory is that the young of E. schrenckii and E. anomala - and also E. davidi, another species that lives in the same general area - mimic the local venomous Gloydius species; if you compare them they look extremely similar, right down to facial markings. The babies will even flatten their heads to triangles and act very viper-like when threatened.
Yes, the young do. But as adults they look amazingly like Lampropeltus getula getula. I remember mentioning this to Steve F on the CB forum who also keeps them, & he agreed that for whatever reason, they have a very similar pattern. Strange that they look like snakes that aren't related to them & live on a different continent!
 

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Discussion Starter · #8 ·
For comparison:

Elaphe schrenckii:


Lampropeltis getula getula:


Boiga dendrophila:


Convergent evolution is quite interesting. I'm guessing the broken bands serve to confuse an predator when fleeing and the dark coloration helps with heating up quickly.

Also quite curious, the small Dutch population has quite a variety in appearance. Besides the yellow banded animals there brown or silver banded individuals, but also animal without any bands at all and a even brown/cream colour.

A few examples; these are all wild adult animals:





 

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Dorsal dichromatic (or trichromatic) banding on snakes is so common because it is an anti predator strategy that may serve two purposes - disrupting the outline of the animal to make it harder to spot and, when sighted by a predator, achieving an effect called "flicker fusion."

This effect is when banded colours confuse predators when a snake moves because the bands blur together to form a different colour. To produce this motion blur, a moving snake's bands must transition faster than the critical flicker-fusion rate at which a predator's photoreceptors can refresh.

I believe this is quite common throughout the snake kingdom and achieved not just with traditional banded species but also by those that have large blotches along the dorms such as Horseshoe Whip Snakes (Hemorrhois hippocrepis) - in fact I filmed a series of videos in 2014 demonstrating this effect in that species.

Number and intervals of banding is believed to be associated with escape speed of the snake.
 

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Discussion Starter · #11 ·
Beautiful snakes. Would be very interested to hear more about the proposed outdoor enclosure - what will this be and how will it be set up? Will they be outdoors all year round?
Keeping reptiles outside is with a good margin my favorite way of husbandry. If allows me to provide more room to my animals and you'll see a far greater range of interesting behavior. I've summarized some of my prep work and thought processes below.

Structure
I'd recommend reading the site of Steven Bol if you want a good example how garter snakes can be kept outside year round. It's also a good example of an 'open top setup'. The enclosure is made from big glass panels with an oblique piece of glass pointing inwards to prevent escapes. It looks really nice, but works best with smaller snakes. I measure the length of my youngsters by looking how high they are able to climb straight up the glass. My smallest animal can reach half a meter up, while 'standing' on only 2 cm of tail. Since a (very) large E. schrenckii can reach up to 2 meters, I'd need a glass wall as high as my door.

Since this isn't really practical and really expansive, I will go for an 'aviary' design. I'm still unsure about the dimensions, but it will probably be about a meter deep, 1,5 meter wide and two meter high. This species is known the climb up to six meters, so height will not go to waste. All the walls will be covered with a rigid metal mesh, with a wooden skeleton. This has the benefit as being cheap(er), light and allows the full light spectrum. A partially mesh and closed top allows shelter from the elements.

The bottom part of the enclosure will be a problem however. It’s the part I'm still considering what will be most suitable because it's the part rodents can enter the cage. An adult E. schrenckii isn't a snake rodents are very likely to mess with, but an burrow can be an escape hazard. Normally you'd also close of the bottom of cage with mesh, but the snake must be able to burrow as well to hibernate. Usually keepers construct a burrow themselves (about a meter deep), but most keepers claim these burrows are rarely used. Animals need 'room' to find hibernate spots. But at the same time I want to make sure it's secure. I'm currently considering if I simply should bury the enclosure a meter underground, but will definitely wear down the wooden frame of the enclosure faster.

Location
Besides the obvious parts about not being able to escape, probably the most important part is picking a suitable location with optimal sun. The south facing side has the most sun, but south-east is also favorable for some early sun. West facing is less favorable since the average temp is already high late afternoon, while the mornings tend to be cooler. Also something to keep in mind is the height of the groundwater. A hibernating animal in a burrow can drown if groundwater levels raise during the winter. Luckily I live in an area where the groundwater is about 15 meters deep, so I don't have to worry about that.

Enclosure
How I'm going the structure the inside of the enclosure will highly depend at what time the sun will be where. In any case, large branches attached to the wooden frame will allow the animals to climb. I'll probably plant a some ivy against a back wall for cover and to make it climbable. Some dark rocks at the sunny area's far basking and some ferns and a hollow log as cover. A large stone leaf will function as a large water bowl and swimming area. Another common name is Manchurian black water snake so I'm interesting how they deal with water. I'll probably see what they do inside their current enclosure, I’ll get some aquatic prey and see how they do. Perhaps a bit weird; but a corner will be (small) compost heap. Females use these heap as incubators and it will also be a spot for the snake to heat up on a cold day.

Seasons
Something that absolutely baffles me is the strong seasonal behavior of these snakes. One keepers kept his breeding pair a rack, without any access to natural light, at a constant temperature and without a day/night cycle. The animals would however, like clockwork and without fail, go into hibernation at the same time each year. Hibernating outside might seem dangerous risky, but I’m not worried about a very cold winter. A very cold and though winter is rarely a problem for any hibernating species. A very mild winter with temperatures around 10 degrees Celsius during the day and weak frost at night is far more dangerous. Some animals have the tendency to 'wake up' only to be surprised by a nightly cold snap. Early spring and it's unpredictable weather is a similar problem. Wild animals do seems to survive our winter just fine though and if an adult animal will still go to hibernation mode as 30 degrees Celsius, I doubt a warmer winter will be a problem.
 

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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
So it’s finally happened: the bottomless pits have reach their bottom. All the E. Schrenckii have stopped eating, but like stated before this is perfectly normal. While the days continue to reach just above 20 degrees Celsius. The nights however, drop down below 10 degrees Celsius now.
I know some people don’t brumate animals the first year or don’t brumate at all. The general consensus seems to be that it’s up to the keeper to decided. Generally the discussion boils down to two general points: one side claiming it’s closer to the wild and the other pointing out the risk and claiming they have not had any problems for years.
Russian ratsnakes are no exception to this discussion. Some keepers claim hibernations is vital for breeding, while other breeders had fine results without. In any case, I do hibernate all my animals every year. For the same reason I think it’s vital that snakes have excess to a day-night cycle. There is an entire region in the brain dedicated to process and react to these kind of cycles. It’s so important that genes have evolved in several different kingdoms to regulate these cycles. Since we as humans tend to react rather badly to disrupting these systems (in its most innoxious form you might have experienced it as jetlag) I always provide hibernation conditions except if the animals life is in danger.
This week I’ll offer some small prey if one the urge to eat suddenly appears again. After this week I’ll start to decrease the amount of light over the course of two weeks. After those two weeks I’ll shut down the heating completely, only providing light. Depending on the weather outside, the snakes will likely find a spot to hibernate by themselves in their enclosure. After another two weeks the final light will also go out. Depending on the winter the animals will either remain in the enclosure. If the winter becomes very harsh I’ll move the snakes to the refrigerator. Mostly because the animals can’t really retreat as deep down in the ground as they would in nature.

Brumation will last for however long its necessary, this species is known the hibernate for six months in the wild. If the animals are able to hibernate in the enclosure I’ll eventually start with some light without any heat. If I have to put them in the refrigerator I’ll reintroduce them to the enclosure when night-time temperature reach above 7/8 degrees Celsius.
 

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Discussion Starter · #14 ·
The warm weather lately (it reach 24 degrees Celsius in my garden) enticed some more activity from the animals. Not enough for them to start feeding, but enough to get them out and snap some decent pictures.









On a side note: most animals that I've hibernate bunkered down somewhere. These snake continue to lounge around their enclosure, even though temperatures have dipped regularly below 10 degrees.
 

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You dont need to sell them to me as a species. My first ever snake was a Russian Ratsnake and he was an awesome beast. Everything you describe was him, he died of old age and we are talking twenty odd years ago but he is still very much missed.

Trying to find breeders in the Buckinghamshire and surrounding counties is near on impossible though ... can someone prove me wrong? :notworthy:
 

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Discussion Starter · #16 ·
It's a new season and therefore an new chance to campaign for this wonderful species.

Spring is finally setting in and even though the wild populations are still brumating for a couple of weeks, I decided to end the brumation of my animals 'early' after four months. Not because the animals showed any worrying signs (extreme weight loss, loud breathing, discharge from vents etc.), but I needed to move and it was more practical to get the enclosure up and running.



Brumating is rather easy, even with animals born in the same year. My youngest animal was born two months before hibernation began (I think). Due to the weird temperature drops/rises (from 12 degrees to -2 Celsius in the same week), they were all fridge hibernated. Each animal was put in a separate container (an old take out container) with an 'hibernating substrate'. Which consists of a mix of leaves, soil and sphagnum moss. I add a bit of water so the substrate is damp and added some air holes. It's important that is substrate is a bit damp and humidity is stable so the animals don't dehydrate. For the past months maintenance was pretty much opening the fridge every few days and occasional weighing with an visual check.



In any case, they are starting to more than make up for the months they didn't feed. Now the temperatures have rising their metabolism have really kicked it up a notch. When I feed a large prey item in the morning, I can find a very active and hungry snake the following evening. Next to a poop. Very entertaining and I'll see I if I can get some of this on tape.



On another note, I've began making an blueprint for their outdoor enclosure. But that's something for another time, I've rambled on enough for a single post tonight.
 

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Discussion Starter · #17 ·
I haven't quite finished the blueprint for my outdoor enclosure yet, but I'm hoping to finish it this weekend. I'm very much open to experiences or ideas from other keepers. I'm used to keeping tortoises outdoors, but I'm new to snakes.

I did manged to capture my animals on video. For some reason it won't embedd though, so here's the link:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qQxusyImHuw
 

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outdoor enclosure

This maybe a shot in the dark, and something you have already considered, but what about using a pond liner, either rigid or sheet to line the cage area to stop escapees and predators. Hope this helps, brilliant pictures, and best wishes, Julian.
 

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For comparison:

Elaphe schrenckii:
image

Lampropeltis getula getula:
image

Boiga dendrophila:
image

Convergent evolution is quite interesting. I'm guessing the broken bands serve to confuse an predator when fleeing and the dark coloration helps with heating up quickly.

Also quite curious, the small Dutch population has quite a variety in appearance. Besides the yellow banded animals there brown or silver banded individuals, but also animal without any bands at all and a even brown/cream colour.

A few examples; these are all wild adult animals:

image

image

image
I strongly suspect that this is the result of cross breeding. The colours and patterns are so far removed from the true schrenkii that it would have taken thousands of years of natural selection to get there. They look nothing like true Russians.
I also cannot see any divergent evolution betweenen Boiga dendrophila and Elaphe schrenkii. They have yellow lips. It's like a like comparing mangroves and Russian rats with boelens python.
 

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Discussion Starter · #20 ·
I strongly suspect that this is the result of cross breeding. The colours and patterns are so far removed from the true schrenkii that it would have taken thousands of years of natural selection to get there. They look nothing like true Russians.
By the looks of them I would think a cross between E. anomala and E. schrenckii. Which I find quite interesting since it challenges the species concept of the two. Especially in a species that has overlapping ranges and used be classified a subspecies. There is a paper that describes why both should be considered different species based on chromosomes, hemipenes structures and habitats. Unfortunately it's in Chinese (I think?) and isn't freely available for the public as far as I'm aware.

But the fact that there is (natural) geneflow between the two species (correct me if I'm wrong), that even resulted in a viable population challenges the standard 'biological species concept' that states that a species cannot interbreed with another species in its range. Probably also the reason they previously where considered the same species, but different subspecies. I'm not that knowledgeable on E. dione, but I think a similar discussion is happening with Chinese and Euro/Asian populations. The Chinese populations are so different that they could be considered a different species but gene flow does occur between populations (correct me if I'm wrong Francis?). I do know that Testudo hermanni face a similar problem with it's own subspecies.

The population in the Netherlands is also interesting because it is a separated population from the 'main populations'. Since no gene flow can occur with other natural populations you might even suggest this population is an entirely new species. Again, depending on your definition of a species. Hybridisation has led to a new species in a new location before, the big bird lineage on the Galapagos is an example of that: https://www.sciencealert.com/darwin...pecies-in-real-time-two-generations-galapagos

In any case, scientists classify the pictures as E. schrenckii and while I feel this isn't completely correct it's what they are referred as here. I do want to be clear that I'm not for crossing species in captivity, the genetic stock of captive populations should always be carefully manged. Especially between E. anomala and E. schrenckii.

I also cannot see any divergent evolution betweenen Boiga dendrophila and Elaphe schrenkii. They have yellow lips. It's like a like comparing mangroves and Russian rats with boelens python.
I agree, this is not a form of divergent evolution. But I'm not stating this is a form of divergent evolution. That would suggest both species share a (recent) common ancestor which isn't true (well, depending on your definition of recent anyway).

It is however, a form of convergent evolution in my opinion. Multiple lineages have developed the similar trait for a black animal with yellow lips and a banded body. You could argue it's parallel evolution but I don't think the common ancestor would be recent enough to argue that properly.
 
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