The Amazing Milksnake

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With vivid colors that so closely resemble those a venomous snake, it is no wonder
milksnakes have such wide appeal. Within the species there is considerable variation in
size, pattern, and temperament, and that is without even looking at morphs. For keepers
looking for a mid-size colubrid that provides a slightly greater challenge than a typical
king or corn snake, the milksnake makes a wonderful addition to any collection.

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Natural History
Milksnakes are classified as Lampropeltis triangulum, although there are many
subspecies through its range. A habitat generalist, milksnakes can be found in forests,
marshes, grasslands, prairies, and even around human habitation from the US and
Central America to the northernmost parts of South America. The “milk” in their name
comes from the folk belief that they would sneak into barns and suck the milk from
cows’ udders, a feat no snake is physically capable of. Different subspecies grow to
different sizes, but they are comparable in size to their kingsnake cousins. Milksnsakes
are tricolored in bands of red, black and yellow, although the exact pattern varies with
subspecies. This vidid coloration is an attempt fool potential predators into thinking it is
a highly venomous coral snake, example of Batesian mimicry. Many snake enthusiasts
know the poem “Red touches yellow, kills a fellow. Red touches black, venom lack.”
However, this is only applicable in the US and once one enters Mexico, the milk and
coral snakes can both have red-on-black banding. Kingsnakes are mostly nocturnal
hunters and actively forage for their prey. They will consume any small animal they can
find and will also consume invertebrates and eggs. Contrary to popular belief, prey is not
typically killed by asphyxiation. As the milksnake 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. A properly-kept milksnake can live
well into its 20’s.

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Housing, Temperature, and Lighting
As a mid-sized snake, milksnakes do not need large enclosures. A 30-gallon terrarium or
the equivalent will work excellently for most specimens. 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 milksnakes are terrestrial (although they climb extremely well). 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, as it makes for easy
cleaning and promotes natural burrowing behavior. 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, cork-rounds, and plastic caves work well for
milksnakes. 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 climb on and rub
against while shedding.

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Like all snakes, milksnakes are hyper-carnivores. Captive milksnakes can be kept on
frozen-thawed mice; 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. milksnakes can be
rapacious feeders and will readily consume multiple rodents in a sitting if allowed. To
maintain healthy condition, a milksnake does not need to be fed more than one
appropriately-sized meal every two weeks or so. It is not recommended that you handle
your milksnake for 24 to 48 hours after feeding, as the stress may cause the snake to
regurgitate its meal. 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
Milksnakes are easy to handle, although they tend to bit more high-strung and active
than their kingsnake cousins. 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
milksnake’s body is supported, either in your arms or coiled around your body like a
tree. Being colubrids, they are more active than most boas or pythons and when warmed
up will actively explore their environment.

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Written By: Grayson Kent

Sponsored By:  The Painted Reptile


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