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how to keep racers and coachwhips

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Posted by: 53kw at Sat Mar 20 14:42:23 2010  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by 53kw ]  

Racers have the highest voluntary thermal tolerance of any North American snake and will happily maintain body temps in the mid-90s F. I keep mine in large cages with an incandescent light mounted in the ceiling of the cage at one end. I use a 30-watt bulb in a cage about ten inches high, which puts the face of the bulb about six inches above the snake. There is a fan at that end of the cage venting the air out to avoid having the heat from the bulb spread throughout the cage. A vent hole in the far end of the cage allows replacement air to enter and the system creates a robust air flow through the cage. I use fans rated at 55 cubic feet per minute in cages of about 10 cubic feet in volume.

Kept like this, racers and coachwhips can live high-octane lives. Their metabolism is at peak performance and is at near-mammal rates. They may feed more than once a week and if given enough food will become powerful, heavy-bodied beasts such as we see in the wild. Wild racers and coachwhips are not the slender animals we see in collections--true, they are not Gaboon Vipers but they are actually built more like water snakes than many collectors might suspect.

Another element of my technique is full-spectrum light. I give all my snakes full-spectrum light as if they were sun-loving lizards. Racers and coachwhips especially are creatures of open sunny spaces and full-spectrum light seems to keep them behaving more like wild specimens, including keeping a good appetite. I use Lumichrome bulbs which have a Color Rendering Index of 98 and put out UVB in the 290-320 nanometer range, thought by many to be the wavelength most responsible for enabling reptiles to produce vitamin D. Not all authorities agree but a fringe benefit to using a good full-spectrum bulb is that it allows me to see my animals under vivid lighting and enhances my experience at least.

If you don't have large cages with vent fans, you can temporarily house racers and coachwhips in appropriate-sized aquaria with screen lids, a full-spectrum bulb plus a heat bulb at one end. This works for baby racers and coachwhips but in time their best life will be had in a more sophisticated enclosure. I suggest heat bulbs rather than heat pads. Racers capture heat from sunlight rather than from substrate, although a heat pad is better than no heat at all. Take the temperature at the basking site; if using a bulb, get the basking site up to about 100. At any event, take the temperature of the snake and look for surface temps of around 95. Be sure a snake with access to such high temps has access to areas of the cage where temps are much lower, in the 70s. If getting the basking site to 100 is causing the rest of the cage to overheat, lower the wattage on the heat bulb. Snakes can and will sequester heat inside their bodies by selectively routing blood flow to move heat captured at the surface of their bodies to the interior, building up their body temps to desired levels. Even in the wild, snakes can build their body temps to about 20 degrees higher than their surroundings. If your racer has to spend a little more time under the heat lamp to satisfy its thermal requirements, it's better than stressing it with no place to escape high temps.

Baby racers and coachwhips can be challenging to get started eating. Some will eat small mice alive or, rarely, dead, from the start but most insist on live snakes, amphibians, lizards or some other food which would be easy for them to obtain in the wild but difficult for keepers to provide. I've had good luck starting Western Coachwhips on lizards and racers of many kinds on frogs or baby snakes. If you have the chance to see it coming and know you will be starting baby racers or coachwhips, you might consider getting some garter snakes or rat snakes to breed as feeders. Of course, if you do make that investment, the Snake Gods will send you a whole litter of mouse-eating baby racers and you will be stuck with bins full of baby feeder snakes with nothing to use them on.

If all else fails, I've taken the baby racer in one hand and annoyed it until it bit a section of mouse tail held in my other hand. Be sure the mouse tail is facing in the right direction, with the hair pointing away from the snake. That way, if the snake siezes the mouse tail section and starts swallowing it, the mouse tail will slide down smoothly. Total non-feeding baby snakes can be force-fed mouse tail sections but only as a desparate last resort. Force-feeding is very stressful, especially for highly emotional snakes like racers and coachwhips.

Once your babies are feeding voluntarily, put some weight on them and then it's time to begin trying to get them to switch to more convenient food. Let the baby racers feed regularly. They may want food fairly often, so keep watch and offer their favorite meal when ever you think they might eat. With this approach, you let them have whatever food they self-selected when they started eating. Besides putting weight on them, you are creating an expectation of being fed. This expectation is valuable in getting them to switch food items.

After your baby racers have developed an anticipation of food, start making them wait when they are hungry. You can scent the food you want them to eat with the odor of the food they are eating. After a few or perhaps many attempts, most baby racers and coachwhips will begin feeding on convenient food like mice.

Many racers and coachwhips like birds, and strips of raw chicken are sometimes accepted by captive snakes.

Pink Western Coachwhips are a color phase of their species. Some authors describe various color phases as subspecies but I do not concur. In addition to not meeting many of the definitions of a "species", such as being reproductively isolated in Nature, I find that all the known color phases occur in all the populations. Sometimes a particular color will predominate in a particular geographic locale, such as the extra colorful Collared Lizards unique to areas of north Texas and adjacent Oklahoma, and sometimes human perception of relative abundance produces impressions of region-based attributes that may or may not be accurate, such as claims that certain Tiger Beetles in Arizona are predominantly one color when unbiased sampling reveals they are not. At the moment, I suspect that color phases in Western Coachwhips are nothing more than variation among siblings.

That said, the red and pink Western Coachwhips are remarkably colored animals and well worth keeping if it can be done properly. It seems there are two basic types of pink coloration: a "blush" pink reminiscent of the blush of a flamingo's feathers, and a simple red pigment embedded in the scales. The Pink Texas Coachwhips that express the blush quality are the ones which have become celebrities among coachwhip fans, although the red-pigmented ones also occur in the same area, along with black, greenish and tan animals.

The blush phase animals may fade in captivity if they do not get food containing Beta-Carotene. Most store-bought chicken contains Canthaxanthin, which the chickens got as a dietary supplement while being raised for market. Canthaxanthin gives the flesh of the chickens a pinkish color and is thought by distributors to appeal to consumers more than the natural, paler flesh. If your blush pink Texas (or wherever--the blush phase coachwhips occur in many geographic populations) will eat store-bought chicken parts, that will provide Canthaxanthin and hopefully induce your snakes to express their full color potential.

I raise my own mice and feed them mealworms as a treat. Most rodents are big-time insect eaters and lab mice are no exception. My home-raised mealworms are in turn fed enough Beta-Carotene rich foods like Dandelion leaves. With Beta-Carotene in the food chain at my collection, my reptiles express good color.

Another trick for getting Beta-Carotene and/or Canthaxanthin into your blush-red coachwhips is to buy some vitamin-supplement gelcaps from the drugstore and shove one into the body cavity of a food animal such as a defrosted mouse. Supplement-enhanced color in reptiles does not usually require continuous exposure to the supplements, and a few doses a year might be enough to reveal your animals' color potential.

Red-pigmented coachwhips don't really change much when exposed to color enhancers, although Beta-Carotene is a valuable vitamin and it's not a bad idea to ensure that your reptiles have access to it regardless of color enhancement.

For your enjoyment here are some images of a hatchling Eastern Coachwhip, a red-phase Western and a Blue Racer, which demonstrates that herpers who like racers and coachwhips, no matter which color phase they encounter, will likely be seeing red colors sooner or later.


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