PINE/BULL/GOPHER SNAKE
Pine Snake
Bull Snake
Gopher Snake
(Pituophis Melanoleucus)
(Pituophis Sayi)
(Pituophis Catenifer)

The snakes of the genus Pituophis, which consists of the pine, bull and gopher snakes, are among the largest North American colubrids. Pine snakes (pictured) inhabit mainly the southeastern part of the U.S., although they also occur in the pine barrens of New Jersey. There are several subspecies, including the northern pine (probably the most common), the black pine, the Florida pine, and the Louisiana pine. Bull snakes can be found in the central part of the U.S., ranging as far north as Canada and as far south as Mexico. Gopher snakes are native to the western U.S., ranging from Canada down through Baja California and part of Mexico. There are numerous subspecies of gopher snakes. All three species are large bodied snakes that average six feet in length, with some reaching as much as eight feet. The markings on all three species are similar, although there is some differentiation with the background colors.

Choosing your snake - First, it should be emphasized that in all cases you should attempt to acquire a captive bred specimen. There are several reasons for this - first, captive bred animals are almost always healthier than their wild collected counterparts, being generally far less likely to have been exposed to such maladies as internal and external parasites and other diseases. Also, captive bred animals usually adapt more readily to being kept as pets. Finally, the plentiful availability of captive bred snakes reduces the necessity to collect wild specimens for the pet trade, thus relieving the pressure on the natural population. It is better to leave these reptiles in the wild, particularly since in some states collecting snakes out of the wild is prohibited - for example, it is illegal to collect pine snakes in New Jersey.

Your next choice will be whether to purchase an adult or hatchling snake. Although there are arguments to be made on both sides, it is generally better to start off with a hatchling for several reasons. First, there will be a wider variety to choose from. You will also know its age and, if buying directly from a breeder, its genetic background, which will be important if you intend to breed the animal in the future. You will be virtually assured that it has been captive bred, since very few hatchlings are wild collected. Finally, you will have the satisfaction of watching your snake grow and mature into its adult size.

In captivity, the Pituophis species have a somewhat tainted reputation with respect to their behavior, as some specimens are prone to loud displays of hissing, vibrating their tails and opening their mouths to strike. Although they usually calm down once you manage to pick them up, handling an angry large snake is not a task for the faint of heart. Our experience with these animals has shown that each one has its own personality - some are docile, some are sporadically temperamental, while a small minority will never tame down. It is therefore important when purchasing one of these snakes to try to gauge which category it fits into, which admittedly can be easier said than done. If purchasing an adult, simply see how it responds to handling. Hatchlings present a different choice - our experience has been that a good percentage of these newborns will demonstrate one or another form of antisocial behavior. Generally, if you acclimatize these individuals to captivity by handling them often, they will eventually calm down and become good pets. If you go this route, hopefully you won't pick the one that will be in a bad mood for the rest of its life. We mention these behavior issues not to discourage anyone from owning one of these reptiles, but simply as a warning - these may not be the ideal snakes for the novice owner.

Whether you are buying a hatchling or an adult, there are several items you should check to attempt to determine the animal's health. Check that it appears alert and responsive as you handle it, making sure that it flicks its tongue in and out to check out its environment. Also check its body weight and muscle tone - it should not appear emaciated or have its ribs protruding, and should not have visible scars or "kinks" in its spine. Ask if it has been feeding regularly. Check its vent, called the cloaca, to make sure that it appears dry and closes properly. Try to listen to its breathing - if it appears to be wheezing or if mucous is present around the mouth, this may be a sign of respiratory infection. The mouth should close tightly and not display any scars or lesions. Finally, check the animal for the presence of any external parasites such as mites or ticks.

Housing - The most important point to emphasize is that snakes are amazing escape artists, and if there is even the slightest opportunity to escape, they will certainly find it. Make sure the lid is tightly fitting and well fastened. The other key point to keep in mind is that these animals will grow rather quickly and ultimately mature at roughly six feet long, so the caging size should be appropriately large. Adult Pituophis should be maintained in at least a 30-gallon tank, or equivalently sized cage. In addition to the standard fish tanks with screen covers, there are a variety of cages built specifically for snakes on the market. Whatever caging you choose, how you set up your enclosure depends on whether you are maintaining multiple cages for several snakes and trying to maximize efficiency, or whether you desire to make the habitat more esthetically pleasing from a human perspective, but each should have the following minimum requirements:

  • Substrate - Avoid cedar (toxic to reptiles) and sand or gravel (not absorbent, thus promoting bacterial growth). You could use something as simple as newspaper or paper towels, especially if you are looking to maximize efficiency of cleaning, or aspen or pine shavings.
  • Water - Clean water must be available at all times in a bowl that is heavy enough that the snake will not constantly tip it over.
  • Heating - Probably the most important aspect to keeping your pet healthy. Enclosures should have an area with the temperature ranging between 75 to 85 F. This can be accomplished by installing heating under the tank, either by a heat pad or heat tape. Be careful not to let the heat source get too hot - usually it is best to attach it to a dimmer switch so that you can control the accuracy of the temperature. The heat source should cover only about 1/3 of the surface area of the cage bottom. Thus, the snake has a choice between the heated side and the portion that is at room temperature. Having this heating gradient will allow your pet to thermoregulate its own temperature, which is what they would do naturally in the wild. (Note: to avoid excessive humidity, place the water bowl on the unheated side.)
  • Lighting - Although Pituophis are naturally diurnal, no special lighting setup is necessary.
  • Hiding - All snakes need a hiding spot to feel secure, which also replicates their natural behavior in the wild. A hiding spot can be fashioned from almost anything - plastic or rock caves purchased commercially, or small boxes with a hole cut out for access; however, remember that these snakes will attain a large size and thus require an appropriately sized hiding spot. The hiding place should be just large enough to allow the snake to fit in - remember, snakes are never claustrophobic, in fact they like being wedged into small snug places. Ideally, your cage would have two hide spots, one on the heated portion and one on the unheated side. This way, the snake does not have to choose between their natural inclination to hide and the need to thermoregulate. Also, since in nature these animals are burrowers, some keepers fashion hiding places with the hole cut in the top of the box, so that the animal feels it is descending into a burrow.

Feeding Pituophis, like all snakes, are 100% carnivorous. Although there are several different food choices, there is no reason to feed captive snakes anything but rodents. For the most part, these snakes will accept frozen rodents that have been completely thawed out. Although there is some discussion among hobbyists that feeding dead prey robs the snake of the opportunity to exercise by constricting the rodent, as they would in the wild, it is generally agreed that the advantages of feeding thawed food items outweigh the exercise foregone. Since hatchling Pituophis are relatively large, they can be started off by feeding large pinkie mice, or even fuzzies. The best method for feeding hatchlings is to place the snake and the thawed mouse in a small deli cup, which forces the snake to concentrate on the food item. It should be noted that a small minority of hatchlings will insist on live prey initially, but even these can usually be switched over to pre-killed. As your snake matures, it will graduate to larger food items, which can include at various stages of growth crawler, small and large mice, or equivalent sized rats. Ultimately, when your Pituophis attains adult size, you will more than likely have to feed it rats, since even large mice will probably be too small (unless you feed several of them to the snake). A general rule of thumb is to select a food item that does not exceed one and a half times the girth at the snake's mid-body section. When feeding hatchlings in particular, exercise caution with respect to the size of the food item. Never feed a snake a prey item that is too large, because a hungry snake will often consume the animal only to subsequently regurgitate it. It is better to err on the side of caution - if you are not sure, feed two smaller items rather than one that may be too large. Once the snake has eaten, it will usually crawl off to the heated side of the cage and remain there for several days digesting the meal. Try not to handle the snake for 24 - 48 hours after they feed. Feeding schedules differ with respect to hatchlings and adults. For hatchlings, you can feed them as often as twice a week to as little as once every ten days. With adults, once every 7 to 14 days would be sufficient. If you are breeding your snakes, you probably want to feed the female more often in the weeks before breeding commences to prepare her for the rigors of laying eggs.

Breeding Pituophis breed readily in captivity, and if you choose this aspect of the hobby you can potentially accrue greater satisfaction from keeping your animals. A word of caution - before contemplating this step, make sure you are prepared and equipped to take care of the hatchlings that could result. Breeding snakes is an extensive subject not undertaken by the novice, and for more information we recommend reading as much as possible on the subject.

This care sheet is by no means intended as a comprehensive guide to Pituophis. For further information, read as much as can about these beautiful reptiles. We recommend the following comprehensive yet inexpensive book as a good starting point.

Pine Snakes, a Complete Guide by W. P. Mara, 1994. T. F. H. Publications, Inc.
(Note: Although the title references pine snakes, the book covers all three species.)

Amelanistic (Albino) Pine Snake
Pine snake (Normal) with eggs

Copyright LIHS 2003

 

If you have additional questions about pine, bull or gopher snakes try to attend one of the LIHS monthly meetings. You can e-mail us at info@lihs.org or write or call the LIHS at the address/phone number at the top of this sheet.