Breeding Oreocryptophis porphyraceus Rat Snakes
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus group of rat snakes includes some of the most colorful snakes available today
With an awesome background color of red or orange, and sometimes both, complete with black, white or yellow stripes or bands, the Oreocryptophis porphyraceus group of rat snakes includes some of the most colorful snakes available today. Snake keepers who need something more than just color and pattern to keep them engaged will find that these snakes are a blast to maintain, are an ideal size, and they have a great habit of keeping their keepers on their toes. For the dedicated snake enthusiast, “porphs” are very rewarding snakes.
O. p. coxi, O. p. laticincta, O. p. vaillanti and O. p. pulchra. All are smaller rat snakes (our largest females average a little more than 40 inches in length) that are secretive and fossorial in their habits. Most of their time in the wild is spent under mats of mosses and grasses, as well as beneath logs and rocks where they find cool, moist hiding places. These snakes avoid the hot sun, preferring the cooler temperatures of early morning and late afternoon, when they are most active.
Four Oreocryptophis porphyraceus Beauties
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus coxi, also known as the Thai red mountain rat snake, has been established in captivity the longest. Its natural distribution is northeastern Thailand, mostly in the Loei and Phuluang provinces at elevations between 2,600 and 3,000 feet, where it inhabits the perimeter of moist secondary rain forests. The primary plants in its range are bamboos and tall grasses.
The body color is bright reddish to orange, with two black stripes that run the length of the body. We noticed early on in this breeding project that a few babies hatched with one to three neck bands, and we decided to try producing highly banded coxi through line breeding. Now, several years later, we have some with ten bands. Working with these banded snakes, we’re hoping to eventually produce fully striped and banded coxi.
Another type of hatchling showed up early on, as well. We call it the “vanishing patterned” coxi, in which the body-length stripes are very thin or even absent in the upper third of the snake’s body. The stripes on these coxi almost entirely disappear as the snakes age. We have succeeded in producing snakes that lack the stripes in the upper half of the body and on which the stripes on the lower half are much lighter in color. We now hope to produce coxi that are entirely red with no evidence of stripes at all.
We’re also working on exaggerating the stripes, and have produced snakes with two very thick, bold stripes that we hope to one day merge into one large, thick stripe down the spine of the snake. Over the past two years breeding the “one stripe” line, we have produced snakes in which 50 percent of the background red color between the stripes was replaced with black.
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus vaillanti, or the Chinese bamboo rat snake, was the second subspecies to be established in captivity. It is from southeast China, Laos and northern Vietnam. Its preferred habitat is moist semi-evergreen and deciduous forest at elevations above 2,600 feet. Specimens from China tend to be less boldly patterned than the snakes from Vietnam. Most vaillanti are a soft orange to peach color with brown stripes and bands. As they age, the bands become lighter, often leaving just the outer edge of the bands visible. Vietnamese vaillanti are rare in the hobby and highly prized for their strong banding and crisp contrasts. We find the vaillanti to be the most variable, colorwise, of the four subspecies we breed, as well as the calmest.
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus laticincta, or the broad-banded mountain rat snake, became established in the hobby within the last few years. This beautiful snake is found in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia and on the island of Sumatra. It is most often found in montane rain forest habitat above 3,200 feet. Recently, a number of wild-caught specimens entered the U.S. We don’t recommend wild-caught porphs of any type, due to high mortality rates. Why bother with a snake of unknown age and health when awesome captive-born snakes are readily available?
Of the four porphs we breed, adult laticincta are the reddest, with gravid females being by far the brightest red snakes we have ever seen. The irregular black markings make for a great contrast against the red. The hatchlings are awesome orange- and yellow-banded snakes, with the bands separated by thin black and white rings. They are as pretty as snakes come!
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus pulchra, commonly known as the Yunnan mountain rat snake, is the most recent porph to be established in the U.S. trade. It is the shortest of the subspecies we work with, and also seems to be the slowest growing. Its natural range is central China, in the provinces of Yunnan, Sichuan and Shaanxi. Like the others, pulchra prefer cooler microclimates within forest habitat. Adults are a dark orange with faded black bands that are framed on both sides by small yellow rings. Hatchlings resemble the adults, but with a brighter overall color and solid black bands.
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus Enclosures
We keep hatchling porphs in tubs measuring 18 inches long by 71⁄2 inches wide by 31⁄2 inches tall until they are 9 months to 1 year old, after which they are moved into tubs measuring 20 inches long by 15 inches wide by 51⁄2 inches tall. Large coxi females are kept in tubs measuring 34 inches long by 171⁄2 inches wide and 51⁄2 inches tall. We use Vision rack systems for our snakes, but hobbyists can keep pets in any similarly sized enclosure, including aquariums and Rubbermaid containers. If using plastic tubs or containers with lids, be sure to drill or melt ventilation holes in them, and be aware that these should be very small for hatchling enclosures. If using Vision hatchling tubs, be aware that the pre-drilled holes in the tubs are large enough for hatchlings to escape through. Cover these with foil tape and punch smaller holes in the tape.
Target temperatures should be in the mid- to high-70s Fahrenheit. Temperatures above 84 degrees can cause these snakes distress, and extended exposure to temps in the high 80s will most likely kill them. Heed this warning!
Newly hatched porphs are kept on slightly damp (not wet!) paper towels until their second shed. After that, we keep them on a 1- to 2-inch-thick layer of cypress mulch that allows the snakes to burrow. This mulch provides moisture at the bottom of the substrate and a top that’s dry, providing the snakes with a range of humidity levels to maintain health.
We have used other substrates with our snakes, including coconut coir, peat, aspen and soil. We found that the coir and peat would pack into the corners of the snakes’ mouths when they would burrow. Aspen and similar wood bedding resulted in too dry an environment for our snakes in Colorado, resulting in bad sheds even with a damp sphagnum hide box provided (other keepers in less dry climates have used aspen successfully). Soil worked pretty well, and we never had any bad sheds from snakes kept on it (if your snake has trouble shedding, a one-hour soak in a small amount of water should help). Even so, we now use cypress mulch, as stated previously.
For hides, we provide upside-down clay flower pot saucers covered with a black plastic planter box, with entry holes cut into both. We believe this “double hide” setup provides a greater sense of security.
Water is provided to hatchlings in 8-ounce deli cups, which are rarely tipped over. When the snakes are moved to the larger tubs, we use 16-ounce deli cups for water, nestled inside a 2-inch piece of heavy-gauge PVC. This prevents the snakes from tipping them over.
Weekly Feedings Are Fine
With very few exceptions, porph rat snakes will readily accept both live and frozen/thawed mice. Porphs are very strong feeders that will try to eat food items that are much too large for them, and after a failed feeding attempt it could be weeks before a snake is willing to try again. Play it safe by offering multiple smaller food items, such as mice, rather than one larger item, such as a rat.
Feeding once a week will allow you to raise your porph to a great body weight and size. We offer females two to three prey items per feeding, depending on the snakes’ size. Most males are fine with just one food item weekly. Because they are such enthusiastic feeders, you may be tempted to feed a porph two or three times a week. After raising several generations of these snakes over the years, however, we have determined that increased feedings don’t lead to more eggs (for those of you who may want to breed them) or bigger snakes. Feeding several times a week only leads to having to clean the cage several times a week, and who wants that duty?
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus are Ready Breeders
If you provide porphs with the proper care as described in this article, you will have a hard time stopping them from breeding. Your best chance for breeding success begins the summer of the year before you plan to actually breed your snakes, when you want your snakes feeding strongly prior to heading into the winter cooling period. We stop feeding about two weeks before cooling to give the snakes a chance to pass their last meals, and we begin cooling during the first week of December.
We have experimented with different cooling methods, including the typical colubrid cool-down process of lowering temps to 50 to 55 degrees for three months. We have also housed porphs in a dark room, with a few hours of light during the day and no food for the cooling period, and we have tried keeping them in a room that got down to 45 to 55 degrees at night, with access during the day to 80 to 85 degrees under a small red light left on for four to eight hours a day. Most of the snakes avoided the heat, but of the 20 females kept in this type of setup, three to five would bask under the light. We offered food once every two weeks and most of the snakes ate when it was offered. We saw no digestion problem despite the cold night temps.
Our most recent cooling experiment was done out of necessity. We recently moved into a rental facility that didn’t allow us to cool the porphs below 65 degrees with any real consistency, so we moved the snakes’ racks against a metal rolling door and stopped feeding them in December. Pro Exotics is located just outside of Denver, Colo., so the outside temps that time of year can be quite cold. Gaps around the metal door allowed cold nighttime air in, and it took about two weeks for the snakes to “get” that the cooling cycle had started. Daytime highs got into the low 70s, and nighttime low cage temps in the high 30s resulted in no ill effect on the snakes. We housed them under these conditions until mid March, when we pulled the racks away from the metal door and resumed feeding. After one or two smaller meals we began offering the usual amount of food items.
Our breeding success has been the same regardless of the cooling methods used, but one of the keys to breeding porphs is to understand that they, for the most part, don’t follow a typical colubrid breeding cycle. We’ve examined our records and the information is too variable to provide any strong conclusions. Therefore, knowing that they are tougher to “read” than most colubrids, we begin to pair them up one to two weeks after warming them to their regular temperatures. Copulation occurs quickly, sometimes within minutes! As Chad moves through the racks, pairing up snakes, he can go back to discover that some that have been paired for only a few minutes have already initiated copulation. If we don’t see breeding action within six hours we separate the pair.
Porphs copulate differently than most other colubrids. We never see males biting the females, and the snakes are often as far apart as they can be while still copulating. Often, the cloacas are the only parts of the snakes that are touching. As for egg deposition, here again, porphs don’t follow the rules. Ours have laid eggs a month after shedding, they may lay while “blue,” or they may lay the day after a shed. Or they may follow the typical colubrid schedule, laying eggs five to seven days after a shed.
Most clutches contain two to five eggs, although large females can lay as many as 12. Double clutching is very common, and many will triple clutch. We once had a female lay seven clutches during a season, though we don’t recommend this and have not repeated it since. It was very hard on the female and took a few years for her to recover.
It is imperative that keepers provide great support to laying females, as they will lay a second, third, and maybe a fourth clutch, quickly depleting their reserves. Again, this means they must be provided great temps, great hides, great substrate, great moisture gradients (substrate can be misted lightly to maintain consistency) and great feeding opportunities.
After a female has a post-laying shed about two weeks after laying eggs, we will pair her up again. Such re-pairing doesn’t always appear necessary, as we have had females lay eggs without re-pairing, but it seems to provide the best chance for healthy second and third clutches with fewer slugs.
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus Eggs and Incubation
When we were using soil as a substrate the females would lay their eggs in the very bottom of the cage, under the clay hide, where it was nice and moist. Or they would lay in a box of damp sphagnum moss. Since we switched to a cypress mulch substrate, we stopped providing the sphagnum box, and now we just make sure that the mulch has a slightly moist area when the females are close to laying. They will make a nest in the moist mulch and coil around the eggs as they lay them. We most often find them in the morning, coiled loosely around their eggs, guarding them.
We remove the eggs for incubation at 79 degrees, which in our experience yields a better hatch rate and hatchlings that are larger and stronger than those produced at higher temperatures. We use very slightly damp perlite as an incubation medium. You can determine if your incubation medium is too wet or too dry by the look of the eggs. Within a week, they should be round and full, but not blown up like a balloon. Most eggs hatch after about 55 days.
There is tremendous variability in the size of porph eggs, and females may lay eggs that are twice the size as those from similarly sized snakes. Hatchlings may vary in size, too, but not to the same degree as the eggs.
Raising Hatchling Oreocryptophis porphyraceus
As mentioned, we house hatchlings in tubs in Vision racks, on a thick layer of paper towel substrate until their second shed. We provide a damp (not wet) area by spilling a little water when we fill the water bowl. We also provide a clay hide, which offers both security and a rough spot in the cage that the hatchlings can rub against to initiate their sheds.
We offer babies a pink mouse after their first shed, and this first pinky is always less than 3 days old. After a meal or two of this size, larger pinkies, fuzzies, etc. can be offered as the snakes grow larger. Hatchlings should grow quickly on a weekly meal of a single mouse. When they are 4 to 6 months old, you can give them two mice per weekly feeding.
On this schedule our babies usually double in mass within four months, and by the time they are 1 year old, they have about 75 percent of their adult length (but only about 50 percent of their adult mass).
Porphs don’t want to cuddle with you. While they do have their calm and relaxed moments, they also have their “racer” moments, and we highly recommend wearing gloves when handling these snakes. The key to handling highly excitable snakes is confidence, and gloves provide a great deal of confidence. We use nitrile-coated knit gloves available at Home Depot. They are thin but provide a firm grip and enough protection that you don’t have to worry about being bitten.
Some porphs can be quick to bite, and this is a learned behavior. If a snake learns that you will put it down when it bites, guess what? It will continue to bite. By wearing gloves you can stop this bad behavior before it becomes a problem.
Whether or not you choose to wear gloves, we recommend the hand-to-hand handling method. Let the snake cruise from one hand to the other, slightly restraining it to prevent it from flying out of your hands. Trying to force a porph to stay in your hand by clamping down on it isn’t good idea. Instead, allow the snake to feel free from your grip while letting it pass from hand to hand as you hold it.
Oreocryptophis porphyraceus Intergrades
In recent years we have experimented with cross-breeding our four porph subspecies, and as of this writing, we have hatched coxi x vaillanti, coxi x laticincta, pulchra x coxi, pulchra x laticincta and vaillanti x laticincta. The last cross to make is pulchra x vaillanti.
We know cross-breeding is controversial, but we were curious and decided to give it a try. The babies have been very strong, outgrowing pure porphs of the same age — after a year, most of the crosses are 50-percent larger than snakes from the pure lines. We feed the crosses on the same schedule as our pure snakes, but somehow they grow faster and larger.
Each of the crosses has its own look, which is different from the pure subspecies. In our opinion, there is no mistaking a cross for a purebred. Crosses with laticincta tend to be highly patterned. The pulchra crosses usually exhibit attractive round circles running along the backs of the snakes, and vaillanti crosses display a nice, soft peach color. Crosses of other snake species can be a little disappointing, but not with these guys! Each cross results in a new and unique look that adds something rather than downplaying the beauty of the pure stock. In our opinion, a cross takes the best parts of each subspecies and combines them into one beautiful snake.
Are You Ready for a Pet Porph?
Do you like awesome display snakes? What better than an active, bright-red snake with perhaps the strongest hunting drive you’ll ever see? Are you looking for a fun breeding project? How about one with snakes that can lay three or more clutches a year? Maybe you’ve got a room that’s unusually cool, or you want to keep snakes in the basement — porphs are perfect to house in such areas. And if you want a smallish snake with a big personality, a porph can again fill the bill.
Do you want a snake that will make you a better keeper? Porphs have made us better keepers by forcing us to learn how to “read” them. We have worked with these beautiful snakes for more than a decade and are still learning new things about them. We have sold a number of porphs over the years, and the customer feedback is always the same: “Man, these things are awesome!”