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racer chat & reply to Happy Camper

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Posted by: 53kw at Thu Mar 13 19:06:43 2008  [ Report Abuse ] [ Email Message ] [ Show All Posts by 53kw ]  

Apologies for not replying to Happy Camper months ago regarding the question of whether coachwhips seem to understand when keepers mean them no harm. It got me thinking of coachwhip intelligence and reptile intelligence and emotion in general. As coachwhips are some of the most intelligent and emotional of snakes, this is a good forum to talk about the topic.

Coachwhips are documented to have perhaps the most diverse menu of foraging behaviors among North American snakes, although I can’t imagine that Indigos are any less developed. Coachwhips will push their heads into loose sand to search for sleeping lizards, sit and wait or prowl for prey, and they have been seen by field researchers to take note of a woody bush where a bird nest is under construction, but not bother to climb to the nest until the birds are sitting on it. Some individual coachwhips have been seen to feed on bats exiting a mine entrance at dusk—the snakes take station with their bodies hanging in the air over the shaft, striking at bats flying past until they snag one. Even wild coachwhips have problem-solving intelligence.

The preferred body temperature of coachwhips and racers is the highest voluntary temperature of any North American snake, with internal temps around 95 degrees, close to mammal temps. Coachwips and racers are expert at capturing heat from their habitat, and are well aware of the best locations at different times of day to find heat to collect for use throughout the day. Thus, they keep their temps right where they want them, in contrast to a common, albeit mistaken human notion that reptiles are at the mercy of their environment when it comes to body heat. Even on cool days, there is always a spot where a snake can capture enough heat to raise its temperature above that of its habitat if needed.

Coachwhips and racers have metabolisms similar to birds, which are also reptiles, BTW. Like their winged cousins racers and coachwhips pass stools frequently, even daily, and will feed several times a week if warm enough. I find that, while the truck-tire boas are content to lay in one place for days, requiring little ventilation, my racers and coachwhips do best when I fan-vent the cage, exhausting the heated air at the end with the basking light and drawing fresh air in through a passive vent at the far end. This refreshes cage air for such high-metabolism heavy breathers, and prevents heat creep from warming the whole cage. Once my racers and coachwhips have harvested heat, they move about the cage, and frequent the cooler areas until they exhaust their sequestered heat and need to go collect some more. I keep my racers and coachwhips in large cages, the coachwhips in 70" long by 28" deep cages to allow for plenty of space.

Speaking of space, my observations lead me to suspect that racers and coachwhips that are not acclimated to captivity are uncomfortable with prey that is confined in close proximity to the snakes. It seems the snakes are more likely to stalk and attack prey when they feel that they could put some space between themselves and the prey. Thus, dropping a mouse into a quarantine enclosure such as a 15-gallon tank with a 4-foot coachwhip may or may not encourage the snake to eat. The sudden appearance of the mouse in close proximity to the snake’s face may discourage the snake from attacking, and the coachwhip might just as likely become defensive, which is a real appetite killer. For me, acclimating racers and coachwhips feed better when they know they have room to retreat.

In contrast, there is my female Western Coachwhip, Cujo. She was bred by Sighthunter in 2004 from adults collected on Hwy 118 in Texas, both pink animals. She and her brother were from one of his first pairings of pink adults. She and her brother had not turned pink yet as of last summer, and I did not know that it may be necessary to include prey items rich in Beta-Carotene or Canthaxanthin to bring up the pink color. It may be that there are two forms of reddish Western Coachwhip. I have collected animals in Arizona that are quite red but not the suffused pink of the legendary Texas animals. The red ones I have found seem to have simple red pigment. The pink Texas animals seem to be suffused with a blush of pink that is independent of ordinary pattern-producing pigment embedded in their scales. After feeding Cujo some store-bought chicken, which is fed Canthaxanthin to give it its characteristic chicken color, she began to blush with pink within a few weeks. She is more pink now, and I plan to feed her prey rich in Beta-Carotene, and perhaps supplement her diet with Beta-Carotene directly, and maybe Canthaxanthin. Canthaxanthin is used as a sunless tanning pill for people who want to be orange with no sun exposure. Doctors warn that high doses of Canthaxanthin may result in liver damage, although my casual Internet research has not found much hard evidence to support this concern. Nevertheless, people are people, and no doubt someone will find a way to O-D on Canthaxanthin, and perish looking like a Jack-O-Lantern.

About Cujo, she is an example of a fully acclimated captive coachwhip. She is fearless and comes to the front of her cage every time anyone is there, since she is also bottomless. She would look like a Kielbasa by now if I fed her as much as she thinks she needs. She rips defrosted mice from tongs so hard she leaves fur behind—I do not exaggerate. She chews and swallows as if she has grown up fighting for every morsel of food.

Her comparatively mild-mannered brother, Buddy, just delicately scoops up his defrosted mouse, modestly poking his snout out of his bark hiding place. He is much less assertive, and the different individualities of these two animals highlights the nature of racers and coachwhips to express distinct emotional identities. Cujo has learned that people mean food, and I suspect she is certain she can fit my head in her mouth if she ever gets the chance. Comparatively, I had some wild-caught racers a while back that I got from a dealer. They had not been well fed, and were pretty bony when I got them. Could they have been tamed by desperation and hunger? Perhaps, but in any case they quickly learned that I was not a threat and in fact I was the meal truck. Both the wild racers came to the front of their cage to be fed within a week of arriving. Can a racer or coachwhip recognize when a human keeper means no harm? I would not be surprised. They are about as intelligent as crows, and crows can figure these things out. Thing is, we have little or nothing reptiles need, and as a consequence we have no real bargaining chips to compel them to perform in our intelligence tests. I’m satisfied that reptiles have reptile thoughts and reptile emotions, but these are not like mammals thoughts and emotions, and not easy to recognize.

Although Cujo and Buddy are now easy as fanged pie to keep, they were typically nerve-wracking to establish. I received them practically right out of the eggs and it was the usual story of forcing mouse tails, offering everything I could think of—frogs, snakes, crickets, mice, lizards, nestling finches—to no avail. Eventually, Cujo and Buddy decided to self-feed on lizards, which were easy to provide, as I lived in Arizona at the time. It was a turning point, and eventually they fed on live, then defrosted mice. Their brother, who arrived with them, refused all voluntary food and eventually succeeded in wasting away to death. Such is the lot of the coachwhip keeper. My reward for success? The occasional bite, as I do not handle my animals, and they remain wild except for their understanding of the feeding schedule.

Now, perhaps because there is not enough stress in my life, I plan to mate Cujo and Buddy this season when they emerge from brumation. I have hatched coachwhip eggs many times from wild-caught gravid females, and expect no difficulty getting hatchlings if they do breed. Those babies that eat will be raised on a diet rich in Beta-Carotene-fed mice, and we shall see if it really does make a difference. I have no reason to doubt claims that diet plays a role in enabling expression of color potential, and I hope to end up with some home-grown highliter-pink apparitions like the legendary Christmas Mt coachwhips.

I’m sure I could save effort by simply self-flagellating with a nice whip, or perhaps a strand of barbed wire, but I prefer the long road to frustration-induced insanity, so I would also like to try breeding Eastern Coachwhips. I have a young male who is not a reliable feeder, but I hope that will change when he emerges from brumation—sometimes brumating animals does the trick as far as getting them to eat routinely. If I can find him a hot babe, I’ll have a lash at breeding Easterns. There are some glorious Easterns in Kansas, parts of Nebraska and parts of Oklahoma—bronze warriors with satiny black heads and faces like a Velociraptor, defiant and untamed. One of those would be a fine mate for my male. Perhaps not all the offspring will survive, but some will, and from them we may develop a line of captive-bred animals to grace the collections of zoos and bring audiences face to face with this wild spirit in the grass.


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