by Tim Spuckler
While black pine is the only melanistic pine snake, they don't always live up to their name. They range in coloration from an overall black and brown banded snake to a nearly jet-black animal. The browner ones retain some of their juvenile pattern on their tails and are darker anteriorly. The other extreme of the color range is a nearly solid black animal with only a trace of pattern on the tail. Most individuals are much lighter around the chin area, with the underside of the chin often being white. Many also retain a bit of white running down each side of the ventral surface paralleling the edges of the ventrals. The young can range from appearing indistinguishable from a dark northern pine snake hatchling to being almost solid black. Although there seems to be a trend of darker the hatchlings growing into blacker adults, this isn't always the case. The head seems dispropotionally small and is pointed. The is an adaptation to the snake's burrowing lifestyle. The average size of adult black pines is 5-6 feet. Larger animals are occasionally reported, but documented examples are few and far between.
The natural range of black pine snakes is from southwestern Alabama through southeastern Mississippi (up to Lauderdale County) and into Washington Parish in extreme eastern Louisiana. The present day range has been greatly reduced. They probably no longer occur in Louisiana. Their numbers have been reduced in both Mississippi and Alabama to the point that they are protected in both states. Black pines have been considered to be put on the Endangered Species List. Most wild black pines reside in De Soto National Forest where they are completely protected. This is their last stronghold as a wild population. Black pines have been known to intergrade with southern pine snakes (Pituophis melanoleucos mugitus) in the extreme southeastern part of their range.
These snakes favor open longleaf pine forests with loose sandy soil for burrowing. One of the most important features of suitable habitat is a tract of forest with sandy soil and less than 20% aerial covering. This type of habitat makes for successful nest construction and egg laying sites. Due to commercial tree harvesting and replanting with faster growing loblolly pine and the cessation of natural summer forest fires, black pine snake habitat is quickly diminishing.
As with any species, a snake cage should be of adequate size, easy to clean, well ventilated, and escape-proof. I keep an adult trio of black pines in a wooden cage 3' x 2' x 2'. The cage has a ventilation screen on either side and hinged glass doors in the front. Pine snakes are fairly active snakes, so I give mine a climbing branch along with some large rocks and hideboxes for them to explore and utilize.
Juveniles can be kept in a standard plastic shoebox for the first few months. Yearlings can be maintained in a sweater box-sized enclosure. Some type of hiding spot should be placed in the cage; it is necessary for keeping these snakes healthy and happy. Hiding spots should vary according to the size of the snake. A hide box that is too large will not fully serve its intended function. Snug-fitting hide boxes seem to be used more frequently than larger ones. Remember to have a hiding spot on the warm end and cool end of the enclosure to allow the snake to thermoregulate while hidden. This is important because snakes are known to occasionally prefer hiding rather than controlling their body temperature correctly.
If you house them together, only do so with equal sized animals and always feed them separately. My animals never seem to show aggression towards each other and I watch them carefully for signs of stress. So far the arrangement has worked out nicely. When I feed the snakes, I put each one in a plastic sweater box with a food item. Many other snake owners keep their Pituophis together, but with caution, as problems may occur at any time regardless of previous behaviors. Housing any and all species of snake individually is recommended as a general rule.
It is important to keep the cage clean. An unclean cage can lead to numerous health problems. For substrate I use 2-3 inches of pine shavings. These snakes seem to enjoy borrowing underneath the shavings and cleaning is easy, because the soiled shavings can be removed without disturbing the cage occupants. Other common substrates that can be used include newspaper, aspen bedding, and commercial products sold as reptile bedding. As with other Pituophis, black pines are far more smelly than kingsnakes or rat snakes.
Snakes that are maintained at constant temperatures are known to suffer from stress. Use of a thermal gradient is the best way to maintain most reptiles. For pines, it is advisable to keep the ambient air temperature approximately 75-85 F with a drop of 5-15 F at night. A hot spot should always be available. A heating pad placed under 1/3 of the snake's cage and left on continuously is a good idea. Since the linoleum-lined wood for my snake cage is so thick, I use a red lightbulb inside the enclosure to provide a warm spot. The bulb is left on continuously and gives me the opportunity to observe the animals at night when they are most active. Special lights, such as UV lamps, are not required. Light bulbs should be located where the snakes can't physically reach them.
A good rule of thumb is to feed a snake a prey item no wider than the widest part of its body. Increase the prey size as your animal grows. It is better for your snake to eat two small prey items at a time instead of one large prey item. It is also good to remember that one mouse per week is better than two mice (or one jumbo mouse) twice a month. Feeding too much at once or too large of a food item may lead to regurgitation. As your snake increases in size, it should be switched to rats instead of mice. An adult snake should be fed at least one small adult rat every 5-7 days. A juvenile should be fed 1-2 correctly sized prey items every 3-4 days. Black pine snakes should be firm-bodied.
If your snake is too skinny, increase feeding. It is safer, cheaper, healthier, and more convenient to feed your snakes thawed food items if it will eat them. I have noticed that hatchlings are much easier to get started on live hopper mice or pinky rats than prekilled food items. Once a feeding pattern has been established, pine snakes become notoriously voracious feeders that can easily be switched over to frozen-thawed food. Pine snakes seem to have a slightly higher metabolism than many other commonly kept colubrids and therefore require a correspondingly larger and more frequent food supply.
Snakes shed their skin several times per year. Frequency of skin shedding depends on the feeding schedule, growth rate, age and time of the year. Prior to shedding, a snake's skin will get dull and its eyes will cloud over and become opaque. Black pine snakes "in shed" often have a bluish cast to them. About two days after being blue, the snake will brighten (or in this case, blacken) up again. After the eyes clear, daily misting with water will aid the shedding process. Four to six days after being in the blue, the snake will shed. Make sure that all of the skin has come off - especially over the eyes and the tip of the tail. Gently remove any leftover skin. If the unshed area is large, you can give the snake a lukewarm bath in a small container. Use only about one inch of water. Another method to help with dysecdysis (shedding problems) is to place the snake in a wet pillowcase, tie it closed, and leave it for an hour or so. The moisture will help with shedding and the friction of the bag often gets the skin completely off. Snakes normally won't feed while in the process of shedding, so don't waste your time trying. Snakes are relatively blind while "blue," so be careful that they don't strike at you, as they may not realize who you are.
Pine snakes and bullsnakes usually wrap their bodies into an S-shape and strike at you. They hiss very loudly in hopes of scaring you - and it usually works! They are well known for rattling their tails when aggravated. However, pine snakes quickly calm down and stop striking in captivity after a relatively short period of handling. Some pine snakes and bullsnakes actually seem to enjoy being handled after they become used to it. Snakes shouldn't be handled when they are sick; they don't need the additional stress. After a meal, snakes shouldn't be handled for a couple days because it may cause them to regurgitate.
This species is relatively easy to bred in captivity. First, make sure that the adults are at least 4-1/2 feet long to insure the least chance of problems. Adults should be brumated for a full 3 months at as close to 50 F as possible. Be careful not to drop too much below that temperature, though. Breeding should occur after the first shed following brumation.
Eggs are deposited in the usual manner about 6 weeks after breeding. I provide my animals with an appropriately sized plastic storage box with a couple inches of sphagnum moss to be used as an egg laying medium. This egglaying box was utilized by both my female pines. A pre-egg laying shed occurred 10 days before each egg clutch deposition. One snake had a clutch of four eggs and the other had five. It was the first breeding attempt for the trio. The eggs were by far the biggest colubrid eggs I've ever seen, measuring nearly 4 inches in length. Care for the eggs was the standard 82 F incubation temperature with moist vermiculite as the egg substrate. When the neonates hatched out, they were surprisingly fat. After a couple weeks and their post egg hatching shed, much of this body fat had become absorbed. All the hatchlings accepted live fuzzy rats within two weeks of hatching and were then switched over to pre-killed food.
The black pine, sometimes referred to as "the poor man's indigo snake," makes an interesting and hearty captive. They are impressive display animals. The care and breeding of black pine snakes is straightforward, making them a great prospect for reptile hobbyists.
Rarities of the Longleaf: The Black & Lousiana Pine Snakes
Terry L. Vandeventer and Robert A. Young
The Vivarium - Volume 1 Number 4
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A Field Guide to Reptiles and Amphibians: Eastern and Central North America, 3rd ed.
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