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Boa Natural History and Care

Few snakes are as recognizable as the boa constrictor. Its large size and easy going demeanor make this one of the most popular snakes in the hobby. For those snake keepers looking for something more substantial than a typical colubrid but not yet ready to take on the larger python species, the boa is an idea pet.

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Natural History

Boa constrictors are large, thickly-built snakes that can be found throughout Central and South America from northern Mexico down into the Amazon. Numerous subspecies have been described, almost most found in the pet trade are labeled “red-tailed boas” after the distinctive reddish-brown saddles on their tails. They belong to the Boidae family, which includes sand boas and anacondas. Unlike their python cousins, boas give birth to live young and are distributed primarily in the New World (with the exception of a few species). The term “boa constrictor” is both the snake’s common and scientific name (Boa is the genus, constrictor the species epithet) and the only other animal to share such a distinction is Tyrannosaurus rex. Like most large constrictors, boas are sexually dimorphic with females being significantly longer and heavier than males. Male boas are usually less than 6 feet long and under 10 pounds, while females can average 7.5 to over 8 feet and around 20 pounds. They are capable of reaching greater sizes, however. The largest boa on record was over 14 feet, but it is uncommon to see specimens over 10. They are also long-lived serpents, often living into their late 20’s or even 30’s. Boas are most commonly founds in rainforests, where they camouflage themselves amongst the vegetation to ambush prey. Younger snakes are semi-arboreal, spending time in low-lying trees, but as they age and gain mass they become more terrestrial. It is not uncommon to find them in mammal burrows, articulacy during a shed cycle. Boas are also adept swimmers and can frequently be found near water. Their slit pupils are well-adapted for seeing in low light levels and hunting at night, and boas can also detect heat via pit receptors on their upper lips. Being generalist predators, boas will consume just about any creature they can kill and overpower. The diet includes a variety of rodents and small birds, and some will take on prey as large as adult iguanas and even the occasional ocelot. Boas rely on their powerful coils to constrict their prey to death. Contrary to popular belief, prey is not typically killed by asphyxiation. As the snake squeezes tighter, it puts more and more pressure on the circulatory system. This makes it harder for the heart to beat and cuts off the blood supply to vital organs. Death is caused by a combination of cardiac/circulatory arrest and multi-system organ failure.

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Housing, Temperature, and Lighting

As a larger snake, boas need suitable sized enclosures. A young boa can easily be housed in a 30-gallon terrarium, but as the snake grows housing upgrades will be necessary. Adult boas are typically housed in tanks measuring 6 to 8 feet in length. The perimeter of the tank should be at least one-and-a-half to two times the snake’s total length, Height is not essential, as older snakes are less prone to climbing. Snakes do not require UV lighting as lizards do so a basic full-spectrum bulb, such as the Zoo Med Nature Sun, will work nicely. Aspen shavings are ideal for substrate, although coconut mulch works also. It is extremely important to set up a temperature gradient within the terrarium so the snake can thermoregulate properly. The overall tank temperature should be around

85 degrees, with the cool side around 75 and a basking spot of 90 to 95. Use either basking bulbs or heat tape but make sure to avoid commercial hot rocks; these generate heat that is much too concentrated and can potential cause sever burns. Placing a large paving stone under a basking bulb is a great way to create a hot spot, as the stone will store heat without reaching dangerous temperatures. The lights should be turned on in 12-hour cycles. Hides are important for providing a sense of security. Half-logs and plastic caves work well for smaller snakes, but it is difficult to find commercial hides for snakes as large as adult boas. Cat boxes with the flap removed work well, as do plastic tubs with doorways cut into them. Place at least two hides within the enclosure, one on the cool end and the other on the hot end. A large water dish should be provided for both drinking and (potentially) soaking. It recommended to put at least one large piece of furnishing, such as a hunk of driftwood or a large rock, so the snake has something to rub against while shedding. A humid-hide may also help with shedding issues. This is the same as a normal hide, but it contains a micro-climate of high humidity. Simply take a hide box, stuff it with sphagnum moss, and mist it regularly. be careful not to keep the tank too humid, as excess moisture promotes respiratory infections.

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Diet

Like all snakes, boas are hyper-carnivores. Captive boas can be kept on frozen-thawed prey; this is a safer alternative to live-feeding as it reduces the risk of injury. The ideal

meal should be as thick as thickest part of the snake. Young boas can be fed appropriately sized mice, although rat pups are a better choice. As they grow, they will need larger food items or sometimes multiple food items per meal. Adult boas readily take rats, small rabbits, guinea pigs, and domestic fowl. Due to their large size, coldblooded metabolisms, and mostly sedentary lifestyle, boas do not need to be fed very frequently. While baby snakes should be fed weekly, as they grow the feeding can be more spaced out. A typical female boa, measuring about 8 feet and weighing 15 to 20some pounds, does not need to eat more than once every 6 to 8 weeks to maintain healthy condition. It takes 10 to 14 days to fully digest a meal, and it is not recommended that you handle your boa for 24 to 48 hours after feeding. Many keepers chose to feed their snakes in a separate enclosure or feeding tub to prevent accidental injection of substrate or strong feeding-aggression.

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Handling and Taming

Boas are particularly handleable snakes. The muscular bodies do not wiggle as much as smaller, skinnier colubrids, and a well-socialized boa can be considered a “lap-snake.” Upon bringing your snake home, allow the animal a week or so to settle into its new home before you being handling. Initial handling sessions should be kept short, slowly building up over time. The best way to pick up a snake is to scoop them up from below. Grabbing them from above is very invasive and an outstretched hand looks remarkably similar to a raptor talon and may provoke a defensive strike. If you  must grab your snake, go for the tail. Make sure the bulk of the boa’s body is supported, either in your arms or coiled around your body like a tree. It is not recommend to wear boas like necklaces, as an adult can easily constrict a man into unconsciousness or worse if it gets its coils around your head or neck. Some boas may require hook-training, especially if they learn to associate the opening of their tanks with a meal. Using a snake hook or similar tool, gently tap the snake on the snout. The snake will get conditioned to this and learn that the hook means food and not playtime; also, if the snake is going to strike better it bite an inanimate tool than your hand. Being so heavy-bodied, boas do not like to expend excess energy and it id not uncommon for pet snakes to rest coiled up against their owners to absorb their body heat when they are out. Boas also display a strong sense of curiosity and will actively explore their environment.

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Sponsored By:

The Painted Reptile

Written By:

Grayson Kent

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