Rare Beauties: The Diminutive Wood Boa Constrictor
When most of us think of boa constrictors, we think of large robust colorful snakes from the tropics in Central and South America. In the West Indies and South America, you will find a diminutive type of boa, sometimes referred to as a wood boa, of the genus Tropidophis. Currently, there are around 20 recognized species of Tropidophis found in the West Indies and a few species in South America. Cuba, by far, has the largest number of known species.
These diminutive boas are very small in size. They range from about 12 inches long for the Caicos Bank dwarf boa (Tropidophis greenwayi), to the large Cuban dwarf boa (Tropidophis melanurus), which may reach 3 feet long. Because of their small size and fossorial habits, they are seldom encountered even by the native people who live in areas where they may be found. Even now in the 21st century, new Tropidophis are occasionally discovered, particularly in Cuba. Cuba has more Tropidophis species than all the rest of the Caribbean Islands and South America (only three species are found in South America) collectively.
Tropidophis, or wood snakes, for the most part, are not very colorful. The majority of them have a brown to an olive-green ground color with greenish blotches. In Cuba, there are three to four species that are quite beautiful, with bands or blotches that somewhat resemble attractive, banded California kingsnakes. Tropidophis feicki, T. semicinctus, and T. wrighti are examples of some of the more colorful forms. Tropidophis melanurus, which is the largest species, reaching about 3 feet in length, may be a light-brown color with greenish spots or rarely will be solid orange or red in color with a bright-yellow tail. Most Tropidophis, including adult specimens, have brightly colored tails that are used for caudal luring. Certain species are also capable of changing color during the day.
The majority of wood boas feed on ectothermic prey their entire lives. These ambush predators lie in wait, depending on their cryptic coloration for protection and to avoid detection by prey items, such as lizards and frogs. As I said earlier, they have colorful, yellow tails, which they wiggle to attract a would-be predator. When the lizard or frog approaches, they then grab it and constrict it, just as larger constrictors do with larger prey items. One very unusual behavior is the ability to auto-hemorrhage or bleed from the mouth and eyes when frightened. In 1971, I collected a Tropidophis canus curtis on Bimini that auto-hemorrhaged, and at first I thought it was injured by a rock falling on it judging by the amount of blood discharged.
The husbandry of wood boas is very simple, and they make very hardy long-lived captives, as long as you can provide lizards or frogs as a prey item. Most will not eat mice, with the exception of Tropidophis melanurus, which is also the largest species reaching 3 feet in length. Most live well in small shoe boxes using a variety of substrates, including aspen, cypress mulch or paper towels. Boas are fossorial, and they must be provided with a means to hide. Tropidophis are nocturnal and remain hidden in the day.
These tropical-to-subtropical boas should be kept at the same temperatures you would keep a regular boa constrictor or ball python. Additionally, a water bowl should be provided all the time. Remember, because these snakes are small, the water needs to be in a shallow container, or it needs to be buried so that these little boas can find it easily.
Wood boas need to be fed about once a week, just as most other snakes. Over time, most will accept frozen/thawed lizards and frogs, which makes them a little less demanding for the average collector. Tropidophis breed in the spring time, from March through May, and young are produced in the fall. The number of neonates is rather small (two to six), and the babies are large. Cuban Tropidophis melanurus may have 15 to 20 babies, but that is an exception and not the rule when it comes to Tropidophis.
Very few herpetoculturists today work with these beautiful and interesting diminutive boas. In fact, many do not even know they exist. I've kept and bred Tropidophis for many years and find them highly rewarding and interesting to keep. It is my hope that others will read this and develop an interest in these highly unusual, diminutive boas.
The Bahamian dwarf boa (Tropidophis canus) is the sole species of wood boa found in the Bahamas. Tropidophis canus is distributed across much of the islands of the Bahamas, and like many wood boas, it is small in stature, measuring approximately 15 inches long. This boa is fairly drab in color, with a dorsal color consisting of various shades of brown, on which are found darker brown blotches.
The Cayman Islands are home to a species of endemic wood boa. The nominate form is Tropidophis caymanensis caymanensis, which occurs on Grand Cayman, and T. c. parkeri, which may be found on Little Cayman. Cayman Brac has its own subspecies, T. c. schwartzi.
The Turks and Caicos dwarf boa (T. greenwayi) is found in the Caicos Islands and possesses a series of dark-brown blotches on a light-brown background. The tip of the tail is yellow colored, which may serve as a lure to prey.
The Haitian dwarf boa (T. haetianus) is slightly larger than most other species, with a maximum length of approximately 30 inches. The background color is light to dark brown, on which lies a series of bright-green to brown blotches. As well as being found on Haiti and the Dominican Republic, T. haetianus is also present on Jamaica and Cuba.
Cuba is home to an array of wood boas, with nine species thus far described existing only on the island. Feick's dwarf boa (T. feicki), Wright's dwarf boa (T. wrighti) and T. semicinctus all reach around 16 inches in length and are patterned with brown-black blotches on a lighter-tan or yellow background. The remaining wood boas found in Cuba (T. fuscus, T. melanurus, T. nigriventris, T. pardalis and T. pilsbryi) are more drably colored and in various shades of tan to brown. The Cuban dwarf boa is an exception to this rule, in that in can exist in a naturally occurring bright-orange color morph. This boa is also the largest species of wood boa, growing to more than 3 feet in length.