Gopher Snake

By Snaketracks / August 26, 2019
Gopher Snake

Gopher Snake Care Sheet

The Gopher Snake is a popular species, especially in North America. It is not common to find this hardy adaptable snake in your backyard or while on a camping trip. However, regardless of their large size, this species is non venomous and poses no threat to humans.

While gopher snakes may not be as remarkable as exotic snakes such as boa constrictors but they are a favorite among many since encounters with this snake in the wild is common and quite memorable. Additionally, gopher snake care is simple and straightforward.

Quick Reference Section

  • Experience Level: Moderate
  • Family: Boidae
  • Scientific Name: Pituophis catenifer
  • Risk Factor: Nonvenomous, colubrid
  • Average Adult Size: 70.87 to 108.27 in (1.80 to 2.75m)
  • Lifespan: 15 to 30 years
  • Litter Size: 2 to 24 younglings
  • Gestation Period: 65 to 75 days
  • Food: Frozen rodents
  • Average Temperature: 90°H/70°L
  • Humidity: 30 – 50 %
  • UVB Lighting: Optional
  • Average Price Range: $40 to $750
  • Conservation Status: Least Concern on IUCN Red List

Facts and Information

The range of the gopher snake is huge. They can be found from southwestern Canada all the way to New Mexico. They are found in British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan, all in Canada. In the United States, they can be found in the central and Western United States. In Mexico, they can be found in Tamaulipas, Zacatecas, Baja California, Durango, and Sinaloa.

The binomial name of this snake is Pituophis catenifer. Terse at least 11 subspecies which include the San Diego gopher snake, Pacific gopher snake (P. c. catenifer), Great Basin gopher snake (P. c. deserticola), Bullsnake (P. c. sayi), Cedros Island gopher snakes (P. c. insulanus), San Martin Island gopher snakes (P. c. fuliginatus), Coronado Island gopher snakes (P. c. coronalis), and Santa Cruz gopher snakes (P. c. pumilis).

While the nominate subspecies looks like the prairie rattlesnake, it lacks the black and white banding of the prairie rattlesnake and has a narrower head.

Different subspecies reach different adult lengths however on average they reach lengths of 36 to 84 inches. While there are several morphs and variants available, they are severally pale brown or yellowish with a series of large dark blotches with thinner blotches on their sides.

Gopher Snake Habitat

These large nonvenomous snakes can be found a wide variety of habitats including shrublands, chaparrals, forest, mountains, grasslands, and deserts. They are often found near moist habitats but prefer to spend almost all their time in open parts of the habitats where they can forage for food.

Enclosure

The gopher snake requires a terrarium that is designed for reptiles. The enclosure needs to have a secure lid as gopher snakes are very curious and investigate every part of their enclosure.

If there is a way out of the enclosure, they will find it. Also as ground-dwelling snakes, a short terrarium is best. Lastly, it is important that the enclosure is well ventilated. Good ventilation ensures that the substrate is always clean and dry.

It is not advisable to acquire a terrarium for a hatchling since you will have to upgrade it after a few months. House hatching in five-gallon tanks or six-quart tubs.

For juveniles, a 20-gallon short terrarium, such as the Exo Terra Glass Terrarium which measures 24 x 18 x 12 inches, is best. Short adults should be housed in a 30-gallon tank, while large adults should be housed in a terrarium that is 48 inches long such as the Carolina Custom Cages Terrarium.

The gopher snakes make excellent display pets especially if the enclosure is well decorated with branches, artificial plants, fake rocks and such. However, regardless of how the enclosure is decorated, it needs a couple of hides, one for the warm end, and another for the cool end. Two to consider include the Zoo Med Reptile Shelter and the Pangea reptile hide box.

Substrate

Because the humidity level needs to be low most substrate types work well. Apart from substrates such as cedar and pine shaving which is toxic to snakes, and substrates such as sand, gravels, and rocks that are abrasive or can be swallowed, almost all other substrates work.

Simple bedding made of paper (paper towels or newspaper) can be used. They work well and are simple to replace. However, they are not aesthetically pleasing. Reptile carpet such as Zoo Med Eco Cage Carpet, aspen snake bedding, coco coir, and reptile barks such as Zoo Med Repti Bark are all excellent choices and are aesthetically pleasing.

Temperature

As with any other snake, it is important to provide and maintain a temperature gradient within the enclosure. Since the gopher snake is a ground-dwelling snake, you should make use of under tank heat mats. This ensures the snake gets warmed up enough.

The heat mat must over an area a third of the enclosure at one end of the enclosure. The mat should never be in the center. The basking/ warm end needs to have a constant temperature of about 87 F the cool end of the terrarium should have a temperature in the 70s if the enclosure is large enough, the right temperature gradient would definitely be achieved. A great heat mat is the Fluker’s Heat Mat. Use the heat mat in conjunction with a heat mat thermostat such as the Hydrofarm Thermostat.

Humidity

Because these snakes live in deserts, grasslands, and even shrublands, they do not require much humidity. In fact, the humidity levels of rooms are good enough for the gopher snake. An ambient humidity level between 30 and 50 percent is okay for this snake.

You don’t need to mist the enclosure or use a humidifier. The only time they need high humidity is when they shed. However, all you need to do is to provide a hide box filled with a damp substrate such as paper towels, coco coir or moss.

Provide the snake is clean drinking water at all times. The water bowl needs to be large enough for the snake to soak in and heavy so the snake doesn’t knock it over easily. Do not place the water bowl at the warm end of the terrarium since the heat will cause the water to evaporate at a high rate and increase the humidity level of the enclosure.

Lighting

As with most snakes, the gopher snake doesn’t require special UVB/UVA lighting as they acquire all the needed calcium and vitamin D3 from the whole mammal (rodents) you feed them. However, to maintain their circadian rhythm, you must provide a day-night cycle.

If the enclosure receives indirect sunlight, no lighting is needed. However, they will use the shortening hours of sunlight reached to track the season and may stop eating as winter approaches (when they brumate). If you wish to prevent this, you can provide artificial fluorescent lighting such as the Tenergy LED Light Bulb.

Ensure that you turn off the lights during the night so as not to stress the snake. If you know that you won’t be around to fastidiously turn the lights on and off every day, then acquire a timer such as the Century 24 Hour Plug-in Mechanical Timer.

Feeding the Gopher Snake

Pacific Gopher Snake
Pacific Gopher Snake

On the topic of Gopher snake vs rattlesnake, in the wild, gopher snakes are known to hunt and eat the much smaller rattlesnake. Other foods, the gopher snake eat in the wild include pocket gophers (thus its common name), birds, eggs, lizards, and even bats.

In captivity, feed it one appropriate sized rodent once a week. The prey has to be the same size or slightly larger as the widest girth of the snake. Feed hatchlings and younglings mice, and feed adult rats. The meal has to be pre-killed or frozen. Wiggle the meal in front of the snake or leave it in front of the hide boxes.

Gopher Snake’s Temperament

Cape Gopher Snake
Cape Gopher Snake

The gopher snake is one of the more perfectly docile snakes you can find. They seem to enjoy being handled and are quite curious. They will investigate any new object introduced in their enclosure. These characteristics make them exciting pets to keep.

When they feel harassed, they may bite although this is rare. They usually hiss, lift their bodies high and rattle their tail like a rattlesnake. They may also release a malodorous musk. While adults are very docile, younglings can be quite feisty and aggressive. However, with regular handling, they will grow out of it.

Because they aren’t arboreal, it is important to use both hands to hold them and support their weight. As with other snakes, don’t handle them for about 72 hours after feeding them and when they are shedding. In all, gopher snakes are really engaging.

Gopher Snake’s Lifespan

As with other large snakes the gopher snake has a long lifespan, especially in captivity. In the wild, they have an average lifespan of 12 to 15 years. however, in captivity they can live up to 33 years. as such in captivity, they can live over two times longer. You need to be committed if you wish to keep this amazing snake as a pet.

Breeding Gopher Snakes

Albino San Diego Gopher Snake
Albino San Diego Gopher Snake

Breeding gopher snakes can be a rewarding experience as they sell well and are loved by snake enthusiasts. This is particularly true if you breed some of the fancier morphs such as RUSTY, Albino, Motley or Patternless. Morphs can be matched to produce fancy colors and patterns which are in demand. Because this is an article written to provide care information, we will only briefly cover the breeding process.

The females reach maturity at age 4, and males reach maturity at age 1.5. They must be of a healthy weight. Aws with North American snakes, the gopher snake breeds after brumation/ cooling period which occurs in late fall. During brumation reduce the ambient temperature to about 55 F. Also, turn off any light in the enclosure and ensure the room is dark. Brumation generally lasts 2 to 3 months.

The snakes are oviparous and gravid females lay two clutched of eggs yearly. Also, provide gravid females with an appropriate nesting area. They can lay up to 24 eggs per clutch. Incubate the eggs at a temperature of about 82 F in moist substrate. Incubation lasts between 65 and 75 days.  

Health Issues

Albino Pacific Gopher Snake
Albino Pacific Gopher Snake

While colubrids are hardy snakes that rarely have health problems, here are the two main health problems to watch out for.

  • Refusal to eat (Anorexia) – These snakes may refuse to eat once the temperature falls or the length of the days shorten significantly. In the wild, this allows them to brumate through the winter. While the loss of appetite can be a sign of illness, it is perfectly normal for the snake to brumate for several months. If the snake appears healthy but is refusing to eat during fall or winter, this is okay. A healthy snake has shiny scale and I well fleshed out without dents and depressions running down their body.
  • Blister disease occurs when the enclosure is too damp. With this, you will notice blisters on the snake as well as small bumps underneath the scales. Ensure the substrate is clean and dry. Gopher snakes don’t require high humidity levels.

Other health conditions include mouth rot, scale rot, pneumonia, and respiratory issues, regurgitation, improper shedding, and parasites.

Pricing and Availability

Head of Gopher Snake
Head of Gopher Snake

The gopher snake is readily available in pet shops, especially in the United States. They come in many different morphs/variation and this is a determinant in the price of the specimen.

While common variants cost about just $40, rare morphs can cost as much as $750. Because of their popularity you can find them at almost all reptile conventions and many shops across America.

If you wish to acquire specimens from online stores/markets, you can try Morph Market (which has variants such as San Diego, Bechtel, Het, RUSTY, Great Basin, Albino, Motley, Patternless, and Dyer), Underground Reptiles, Snakes at Sunset, and Backwater Reptiles.

Conservation/Threats

The wild populations of the Pituophis catenifer are stable throughout the species geographical range. As such the species has a ‘Least Concern’ status on the IUCN Red List. Because of the stable populations of this species, they have no special status on the US Federal List, CITES, and the State of Michigan List.

Conclusion

The gopher snake is a large North America snake that is easy to care for as it is docile and requires low humidity. They need a large terrarium which is about 3 feet in length.

Because of their large size, they may not be best for beginners, although an attentive beginner should have no trouble raising and keeping gopher snakes as pets as far as they follow this care sheet and contact an expert such as a herp vet whenever there is a problem.

Their care is similar to that of a corn snake although the gopher snake is larger and feistier. Kindly leave any comment you have concerning the species.

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