You’re looking for a first (or even second or third) snake but you know you want something that is different from the corn snakes, ball pythons, and other hobby staples. With social media we get bombarded with incredible species every time we open our phones! The paradox of choice can be very real when we see so many species that catch our eye. Sadly, not all of these species make great options for those who are looking for the next addition to their collection. If you are looking for a colubrid that’s a little different from the norm, then these next 5 species (in no particular order) are great options to look into! All of these species have been picked based on ease of care, looks, and temperament.
#1 - Grey-Banded Kingsnake - Lampropeltis alterna
Grey bands or alterna, as they’re commonly called, are a great option for a species that’s a little more unique than your standard Florida king. This species is native to the dry and hot region of west Texas. Personally, I love this species because they aren’t nearly as food crazy as other kings. I’ve found it to be very rare that they become defensive or bitey and instead they are a timid, but curious species.
They come in a handful of color variations ranging from dark greys with bright orange bands or lighter greys with thin black bands. Both are very striking but I’m a sucker for the nice wide orange banding. With their awesome colors comes the perk of them being a modest adult size of around 3 feet. This makes alterna a fantastic option if you don’t have the space to commit to a larger colubrid.
As for care, this species is a breeze. For adults, an XA3-BIO18 is plenty of space for a single animal and would last the entirety of its lifespan. A radiant heat panel and LED light is plenty to keep this species content. You could add UV if you wanted to but being that this species is more active just after lights out, it’s not absolutely necessary. For hatchlings and juveniles, a 6 quart shoe box or something of an equivalent size works well, just make sure the lid is snug! If you’re looking into housing multiple animals, then the XR-16 rack is the best option and offers the convenient option of being modular to V15, V18, and V35 tubs. This will let you upgrade hatchlings to bigger tubs using the same rack! Since the XR-16 comes with back or belly heat, you can set the thermostat to around 86F to keep them comfortable.
If you are starting with a hatchling or juvenile alterna, make sure it is established and eating mice regularly. As neonates this species is notoriously difficult to get established on mice so double check with the breeder/seller that they are and have been eating mice without issue for the past several weeks!
#2 - Baird’s Rat Snake - Pantherophis bairdi
Full disclosure, I’m extremely biased towards this species! They are easily one of the most underrated and under appreciated rat snakes in the U.S. I think a large part of this is due to them looking fairly standard for a rat snake as babies. People see them on tables at shows or online and just pass over them thinking they’re a grey or black rat snake which is entirely possible because they look very similar in pattern and color.
Baird’s rats are another West Texas native that shares a range with alterna. As babies they are grey with brown or black bands or saddles going down the body. Over time these saddles fade and are replaced by some faint striping with incredible metallic scales. Some even have bright orange in between these scales that gives these snakes the appearance of being made of metal with a lava like orange underneath! Some will be a lighter hay yellow to even a burnt orange. Regardless, watching the ontogenetic color change is one small thing that makes growing these rat snakes from hatchlings to adults enjoyable.
Caring for these rat snakes is fairly standard compared to other Pantherophis. An XRV70 rack houses adults comfortably but if given a XT-3 (or XT-4 for large adults) they would use the space. These guys, like alterna, are often found just after dark and therefore would need an RHP and LED as a baseline. Baird’s rats may get more use out of a UV set up as they are more out and about during daylight hours. Care must be taken with UVB to make sure the animal has plenty of hiding options so they don’t risk overexposure. Neonates hatch out large compared to other U.S. rat snakes so the V18s and V35s in the XR-16 rack will serve them well.
Heat set to the low to mid 80’s for both youngsters and adults works fine. The one thing I believe this species needs a little more attention given to is ventilation. They come from a very dry area of the country so stagnant, muggy air in a rack or cage will only lead to problems. Keep them on aspen or some sort of particulate bedding. In my experience, if left on paper towel or newspaper they end up flipping their water bowl and trashing the enclosure, when I give them bedding that behavior stops entirely. P. bairdi take to mice readily and some adults will even eat quail eggs!
#3 - Rhino Rat Snakes - Gonyosoma boulengeri
The Rhino Rat Snake was, at one point, very scarce in herpetoculture. In fact, it wasn’t until within the last 12 or so years that they’ve managed to find their way into more snake rooms than ever before! While they still aren’t bred in the same numbers as a species like corn snakes, they still make this list because they’re just too cool not to recommend.
In my humble opinion, these snakes are easily one of the most enjoyable species I’ve ever kept! Rhinos have a lot of personality and curiosity to match. They are famous for being calm during handling as well as being very inquisitive. This coupled with their very unique look and gorgeous green color make them a great candidate for that next addition!
Care is unbelievably easy for such a unique species. These animals are native to northern Vietnam into southern China where they occupy a semi-tropical to montane niche. Due to their natural proclivity to cooler climates, these snakes do fine at room temperature. It is not uncommon for keepers to have their rhinos kept at the ambient room temperature and the animals function and operate without issue. This species also enjoys spending a large amount of time in their water bowls. Behavior like this would normally be alarming to keepers since it’s usually associated with mites being present but for rhinos, they just like spending time in their bowl.
Mine are kept on cypress mulch with plenty of climbing space (which they also love), a hide, and a slightly oversized water bowl. Since they like to spend so much time “swimming”, regular water changes are recommended to keep it fresh and the animal healthy. For hatchlings, the XR-16 rack that has been mentioned for other species would work well for multiple animals. In the case of individual animals, an XA12 would be ok for a small hatchling. However this species does seem to grow fairly quickly so the XA-BIOG would have plenty of room until they approach adult size at which point an XC24 cube would fit one (or even a pair) comfortably. Cypress mulch with some manzanita branches and even something as simple as a pothos all under an LED light would be a great and simple set up for this species! Unless you live in a consistently colder climate, an RHP or other heat source shouldn’t be necessary.
The main downside to these awesome snakes is that, like alterna, getting neonates established and eating mice can be tricky. Given their pseudo-aquatic nature, neonates typically start out eating small fish or tadpoles and eventually transition to mice and/or birds. With that in mind starting out with an established rhino is the best route to go that will save you tons of frustration and headaches!
#4 - African House Snakes - Lamprophis/Boaedon
African House Snakes are small colubrids that have come a long way in herpetoculture in the last few years. They’ve made it to this list because I feel they’re overlooked a lot in the realm of simple but different Colubrids. Several people I know that have kept them say they are almost more like little pythons rather than Colubrids! They are a great option with their ease of care, handsome appearance, and calm attitudes.
Similar to the west texas species mentioned previously, this species hails from drier climates and therefore should be kept to match. Aspen bedding seems to be the popular choice for these snakes and a nice thick layer of it at that. Not only are Lamprophis/Boaedon climbers but if given the option they will also burrow into the substrate. Adults could be comfortably housed in an XT3 or XA3-BIO24 where a heat panel or a lamp holder pro with a cage should be added for heat. Offering a temperature gradient up to the mid to upper 80’s for a hot spot works well for these snakes. High humidity is not required for this species though they may make use of a humid hide.
Main issues with this species are going to be imported animals. House snakes are still field collected and brought into U.S. herpetoculture in large numbers annually. To make sure you have a headache free experience, go with captive bred Houses! Yes, the imports are usually very cheap but when you take into account the likely vet bills needed for getting rid of any internal parasites or other ailments, you could have spent the money on a well established captive bred animal with a clean bill of health from the start.
#5 - Gopher, Bull, and Pine Snakes - Pituophis species
For those of you who want to go bigger with your Colubrids then the Pituophis group is for you! There is no shortage of options in size and color when it comes to the gopher, bull and pine snakes. Out of the genus, San Diego Gopher Snakes are known to be the easiest going and typically stay a little smaller. Moodiness aside, the Pituophis group offers some incredible morphs but also a lot of natural forms that are beautiful as is!
Enclosures for Pituophis can vary depending on the adult size of the species in particular. Some Pine snakes get 6 feet or more which means they need a large amount of space so an XT-3, XT-4, XT-5, or even an XT-6 would be the best option to go with for adult pits. For heat, either the lamp holder pro (with bulb cage) or a heat panel would serve these snakes well. Some Pituophis do come from cooler habitats so check the care for the specific species you’re interested in to have a better idea of how much heat you’re needing to offer. Even the hatchlings come out huge, often eating fuzzies as first meals! Younger pits can be kept in V-35 to V-70 tubs or our XR55 model rack. Substrates can be aspen or paper bedding like Care Fresh since Pits like to burrow.
Deal Breakers for this group of snakes will likely be size and/or attitude outside of the San Diego Gophers. While most species in the genus are handleable for the most part, some are more temperamental. Also it is very important that you check your local laws to make sure that Pituophis are legal to keep in your state. Some species (even native wildlife in general) may be protected in your state and illegal to keep!
We all know the bread and butter of the hobby are enjoyable species to keep but if you want something “off the beaten path” then the species mentioned above are highly recommended! I think their faults are outweighed by the ease of care, colors, and personalities. Of course there are other options that I didn’t mention (maybe that means a part 2 is in order?) but these listed are a good starting point. There are a lot of really cool species in herpetoculture that don’t get nearly as much attention as they should. We just have to let people know about them!