The sunbeam snake is one of the most curious looking snakes you will come across. Its iridescent scales give this snake a highly polished appearance.
This snake is inky black in color and refracts light in a way that gives its scales an eerie yet colorful glow that constantly keeps changing. This phenomenon is hard to capture on camera, however, it is quite spectacular and allows the sunbeam snake to stand out.
Sunbeam Snake Care Sheet
Quick Reference Section
- Experience Level: Advanced
- Family: Xenopeltidae
- Scientific Name: Xenopeltis unicolor
- Other Names: Iridescent Earthsnake
- Risk Factor: Nonvenomous, constrictor
- Average Adult Size: 3 feet 3 inches – 4 feet 3 inches (1 m – 1.3 m)
- Lifespan: 9 years – 12 years
- Clutch Size: 10 eggs
- Food: Frozen pinky mice
- Average Temperature: 90°H/75°L
- Humidity: 80 – 100%
- UVB Lighting: optional
- Average Price Range: $50 – $75
- Conservation Status: Least Concern on IUCN Redlist
- Enclosure: ReptiZoo Terrarium
- Substrate: Zoo Med Eco Earth
- Decor: Exo Terra Snake Cave
- Heat Pad: Zoo Med Heat Pad
- Heat Mat Regulator: Century Digital Heat Mat Controller
- Humidity/Temp: Zoo Med Digital Thermometer & Humidity Gauge
- Lighting: ReptiZoo Day/Night Lighting kit
- Food: Ug Rodents Frozen Pinkies
Sunbeam Snake Facts and Information
The scientific name of this species is Xenopeltis unicolor. This species is inky black in color. And although the body of this snake is composed of just one color, their iridescent scales refract light in a way that gives them a rainbow shine.
This phenomenon, although rare, is not unheard of. This same property can be witnessed in other snakes such as the Colombian rainbow boa, and the white-lipped python.
The Xenopeltis unicolor belongs to the family Xenopeltidae which includes just two species. These two species (X. unicolor and X. hainanensis) also make up the genus Xenopeltis. Both species are referred to as sunbeam snakes and are identical in appearance.
This species is endemic to Southeast Asia (such as China, Laos, Singapore Island, Malaysia, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Thailand) and portions of Indonesia.
The species are generally 3 feet long, slender and have wedge-shaped heads. This allows them to burrow through the earth where they spend most of their time.
The scales of this snake are highly polished and iridescent. Its jet-black coloration augments the iridescence. Juveniles have white scales below their head that disappears over time.
Sunbeam Snake Habitat
In the wild, they live in swampy areas such as rice paddies. They are perfectly adapted to live in humid climates. As such, if you plan to keep one as a pet, you have to provide a humid environment.
They spend most of their time burrowing in mud and soil looking for prey such as frogs, rodents and other small reptiles.
It is best to house this snake in an enclosure with wooden or plastic sides. Glass aquariums aren’t advisable as they easily absorb heat and become overheated over time if temperatures aren’t monitored. In addition, the transparent sides and top of glass terrariums stress snakes.
We suggest either a vivarium designed specifically for snakes or a terrarium like the Exo Terra one pictured above. The front on these easily open, but are secure. You can of course add an opaque film, but with the terrarium it should be fine.
A 40-gallon vivarium is large enough to comfortably house this constrictor. It is important that the length of the snake is shorter than the sum of the length and width of the vivarium.
Since they spend a lot of their time burrowing, they do not need decorations such as branches. The substrate amount and conditions are much more important. You can decorate the enclosure with branches if you like. Provide an artificial cave for the snake.
This serves as a hiding spot. This cave needs to be large enough for the snake to hide in entirely if it wants. Excellent cave choices include a clay pot or a commercially made snake cave such as the Exo Terra Snake Cave.
Suitable substrates for the enclosure have to be dirt-like. The eventual bedding needs to be about 4 to 8 inches deep. This encourages them to burrow. Coconut coir mixed with peat moss creates this dirt-like bedding.
This bedding has to be damp. Prop up one side of the vivarium slightly. This will allow water to gather at the other end making it very damp (having a muddy consistency). The rest of the bedding still needs to be very moist.
Another suitable substrate is Zoo Med Eco Earth. This comes in brick form. Soak it in water to break it down. It creates a perfectly humid environment for the snake. Because it is excellent at retaining moisture, it ensures that the humidity is always high. You can add sphagnum moss to it.
A substrate of 3 parts peat moss and 1 part sand is also another good choice. Coconut fiber based substrate is advantageous as it retains moisture excellently and absorbs bad odor.
The ambient temperature of the enclosure needs to be around 80 F (26.6 C) with a warm spot reaching 85 F (29.4 C). To create a warm spot, tape a heat mat to the a third of the underside of the tank. This creates a temperature gradient where one side of the tank is cool, and the other side is warm.
To properly regulate the temperature of the enclosure use a heat mat thermostat such as the Century Digital Heat Mat Thermostat Controller.
For more on thermostats check out our review of the best reptile thermostats.
With the temperature gradient, the snake can regulate its body temperature by moving around the enclosure. Night temperatures should never drop below 75 F (24 C).
Sunbeam snakes require very high humidity levels to thrive. The humidity level in the enclosure must not fall below 75 percent. Optimally, humidity levels needs to be between 80 to 100 percent. If you live in an area of high humidity, it is easier to maintain this high humidity inside the snake’s tank.
There are many ways to keep the humidity high. For starters, make use of substrates such as peat moss, green moss, cypress mulch, coconut coir, and sphagnum moss as they retain moisture and promote humidity. In addition, mist the bedding regularly using a mister such as the Moisten land misting system.
Also, have a basin of water in the enclosure for the snake to submerge in when it wants. Lastly, provide a humid box and track the humidity levels using a humidity monitor.
As they spend most of their time underground, they don’t need special lights such as reptile UVB lights. The ReptiZoo day/night light kit or something similar can be used to light the enclosure for 12 hours each day to provide a day-night cycle. Lighting also makes cleaning easier as you can better examine the enclosure.
Feeding the Sunbeam Snake
This snake is a constrictor and asphyxiates its prey before eating it. In the wild, they feed on geckos, shrews, lizards, frogs, moles, and other snakes. In captivity, they accept rats and mice.
It’s best to feed them dead prey. However, younglings may not accept dead prey right way. You can start them on live prey and then switch to dead prey after a while. Because they have smaller jaws as compared to other constrictors, feed them smaller meals.
Hatchlings can be fed a thawed mouse every week. 2-foot long juvenile should be offered two to three fuzzy mice in per feeding, while fully-grown adults can be fed two to three hopper mice. As with hatchlings, juveniles should be fed weekly. Adults should be fed every two weeks.
Thaw and warm the food properly and thoroughly before offering it to the snake. Always use tongs or tweezers to feed the snake. This prevents it from biting you. While the bites are harmless, it can be an unpleasant experience for the snake, as you will startle it when you involuntarily jerk your hand back.
Sunbeam Snake’s Temperament
Sunbeam snakes prefer to be left alone. Picking them up often stresses them. You should handle them about twice a week. They are mild tempered and rarely ever bite.
While they are shy initially, this changes over time once they get used to being handled. They are calm friendly snakes who show no signs of distress around strangers.
Sunbeam Snake’s Lifespan
Little is known of how long these snakes live in the wild. However, in captivity, they can reach ages of 12 years although they have an average lifespan of 9 years.
Breeding Sunbeam Snakes
Little to none is known about how to these species breed successfully. As such, few breeders have reliably bred them yet. Almost all pet sunbeam snakes are caught. However, this isn’t a problem as the pet trade has little effect on wild populations.
Because most are imported, they are usually riddled with parasites and worms. It is important that you treat them. A trip to your nearest exotic/herp vet is necessary.
They are usually covered in blisters, as they are not well housed before being sold. If the snake is covered in blistered, you can treat it with an antibiotic.
Because of the humid and wet environment promotes mold and bacteria growth, you have to be meticulous when it comes to cleaning the enclosure.
All excrement has to be removed in a timely manner. Similarly, the substrate has to be replaced every few weeks. However, if there are signs of mold, change the substrate.
Coconut fiber based substrate is great as it absorbs bad odor and helps prevent the growth of mold. Nevertheless, humidity levels have to be constantly high for this snake to be comfortable and healthy. Replace the bowl of water provided regularly.
Clean the enclosure regularly (every 3 months) with a 10 percent bleach solution. Properly rinse and dry the enclosure after cleaning it.
Some common health issues include parasites such as mites and worms, blisters, labored breathing, loss of appetite, diarrhea, and fluid discharge from nostrils and mouth.
Pricing and Availability
Because these snakes are not bred, there are no morphs available. This isn’t bad as the inky black coloration and iridescent scales make this snake a striking and unique looking snake. They are moderately priced and should cost you between $50 and $75.
These snakes are usually unwell and full of parasites when they arrived. As such, it is important to visit the herp vet immediately after acquiring it. This ensures they are treated and get off to the best start. Some online sites to acquire them include Reptiles n Critters, LLLReptiles, Backwater Reptiles, and Underground Reptiles.
Although almost all sunbeam snakes sold as pets are wild caught specimens of X. unicolor, they do not have any special status. According to the IUCN Redlist, this species is of least concern and their wild population is stable.
The sunbeam snake may be a gentle and delightful species, but captive specimens require specific care and attention to survive and thrive. The high humidity requirement makes specimens tricky to care for.
The vivarium of this snake has to damp at all times. Substrates such as peat moss and coconut coir are efficient at retaining humidity and are needed if the snake is to remain comfortable and health at all time.
If you have any comments and advise on the colorfully iridescent sunbeam snake, we would love to hear them.
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