Trinket Snake Care Guide
Written by Sue Knight
Common Name: Trinket Snake, Indian Trinket Snake
Widely accepted Scientific Name: Coelognathus helena helena
Previous Scientific Name: Elaphe helena helena
Latin: coelo ... Hollow / empty
Greek: gnathos ... Jaw
Named after Helen, daughter of Zeus in Greek mythology
Ventral Scale Count: 210-244
Supralabials: 9-10 (rarely 8 or 11)
Anal Plate: Divided
Coelognathus helena are named after the daughter of the Greek god Zeus, who was famed for being the most beautiful woman in Greek mythology. There are two subspecies of the Indian Trinket snake, the nominate form Coelognathus helena helena and the Collared or Montane Trinket Snake C. h. monticollaris. The latter is very rare in the hobby and has only been kept and bred on a few occasions that we know of.
A Brief Taxonomic History
Trinket Snakes belong to the family Colubridae, which resides in the subfamily Colubrinae, they further belong to the genus Coelognathus, species helena and subspecies (trinominal name) helena. The species helena has two recognized subspecies.
Trinket Snake - Coelognathus helena helena
Collard Trinket Snake - Coelognathus helena monticollaris
First described in 1803 by DAUDIN, this species has formerly been known by a variety of names; Coluber helena (Daudin 1803), Natrix helena (Merrem 1820), Herpetodryas helena (Schlegel 1837), Cynophis bistrigatus (Gray 1849), Plagiodon helena (Duméril, Bibron & Duméril 1854), Herpetodryas malabaricus (Jerdon 1854), Cynophis helena (Günther 1864) and was first known by the more well known name of Elaphe helena (Minton) in 1943.
In 2002 Utiger, Schätti, Helfenberger and colleagues demonstrated that along with some other Asiatic ‘Elaphe’ species that Trinket Snakes were more closely related to five other species than the former encompass all Elaphe genus. So the then defunct, genus of Coelognathus was revalidated to reflect this and along with the five other species (C. erythrurus, C. phillipinus, C. radiatus, C. subradiatus & C. flavolineatus) were placed in a separate genus from the former catch-all Elaphe genera. Coelognathus had previously been used by Fitzinger in 1843 for radiatus.
Such name changes are common, as studies into Ratsnake systematics shed more light on the understanding of the relationship (phylogeny) between them and subsequently their evolution from a single common ancestor (monophyletic relationship or paraphyletic relationship if not all of the descendants are represented in a particular lineage).
The proposal above is readily accepted by those who wish to differentiate between Asiatic ‘Racer-like Ratsnakes’ and their more Elaphe-like Ratsnake cousins e.g. E. schrencki, (Russian Ratsnake) E. dione, (Dione Ratsnake) E. climacophora (Japanese ratsnake).
The Trinket snake inhabits most of India where it is commonly found in coastal regions. It has been recorded from the following areas: Jammu & Kashmir, Gujarat, Delhi, Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Bangladesh, Manipur, Orissa, Nagaland, South Pakistan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. There are unconfirmed reports from more central Pakistan too. On the Island of Sri Lanka, it can be found between sea level and at altitudes up to around 900m, where it has a preference for scrub areas at the edge of rain forests, rice fields, plantations and the edges of meadows, especially in the vicinity of water like irrigation ditches or small pools. They have also been found sheltering in termite mounds, rock piles and crevices, and in the cooler months observed resting in bushes and small trees with heavy foliage.
In the wild the diet of C. helena consists of reptiles, frogs and small mammals as well as birds and their young. It has also been noted that young Trinket Snakes will take insects and small lizards as part of their diet.
They can be both diurnal and crepuscular/nocturnal in summer months.
The first captive breeding in the United Kingdom was by Trevor Smith in the 80's
Trinket snakes are sexually dimorphic with females generally attaining lengths of between four and five foot (122-152cm), although bigger specimens up to 5 and a half foot (168cm) have been recorded. Males are small in comparison and generally only reach three foot (92cm). Both sexes start out as hatchlings at approx 10 inches long and grow at the same rate until about one year of age, at this point the males growth rate will slow down and noticeable differences in food intake become apparent.
Trinket Snakes have quite an intimidating display where they ‘S’ up, inflating their throat and a gape exposing the black lining to their mouth. This is usually only a defensive pose adopted by hatchlings occasionally, captive bred adults will very rarely exhibit such behaviour. As the snake grows, so does their confidence which likely reduces their perceived need to posture. They are generally a gentle snake and very rarely attempt to bite once adult, although may be more nervous when young or if startled. Something that is remarked on by a lot of keepers when holding a Trinket Snake for the first time is how different they feel, being more rigid and solid feeling, not so flexible as other Ratsnake species when in the hands
In captivity C. helena will readily accept a diet of rodents, an interesting observation is their ability to constrict multiple food items at once. If you offer food via tongs, the first will be seized and constricted. Then while offering an additional food item before the snake has finished its investigation to find the head to begin consuming it, it will strike out and take the second into its coils, prior to continuing to eat both food items. This has been observed in both juvenile and adult specimens. Trinkets snakes have a marked preference for smaller food items and larger items may be ignored or constricted and left. This is to be expected for a snake with a relatively elongated head and smaller gape than some other Ratsnakes. Females have a voracious appetite and will feed every 5-7 days whereas the males will probably only feed every 10-14 days once adult. The intense feeding schedule for females is essential to maintain good body weight because of there prolific breeding abilities. Reducing this food intake can successfully reduce the rate at which they reproduce, with a view to a more sensible regime for curtailing the rate at which they are physically capable of reproduction.
Hatchlings will readily accept small pinkies as their first meal, with a feeding regime of approximately every five to seven days for the first six months with the size and quantity of food being increased as they grow. Some keepers advocate a mixed diet, so a variety of prey items can be offered, mice and rat pups, may be taken by sub adult snakes and large females may even take the occasional day old chick.
As a general guide when feeding snakes the meal you offer them should only just be seen in the stomach, if the scales are stretched around the stomach after you have fed a food item next time offer something smaller, like wise if you can't see that the snake has eaten then increase the size or quantity of the next meal.
Food items should be thoroughly defrosted before being offered and slightly warmed through, some keepers defrost there snakes food in a plastic bag in a bowl of warm water, changing the water when it chills this helps to warm the mouse all the way through. Others will defrost the food naturally at room temperature and then warm it through by placing it on a heat mat or localizing heat with the aid of a hairdryer. Defrosting prey items directly in warm water is not recommended because some vitamins and minerals can be lost in this process, with them being leached into the water.
Never defrost your snake’s dinner in the microwave, at the worst it will explode and at best, the extremities will be cooked!
All snakes periodically slough (shed, ecdysis) their outer layer of skin, how often mainly depends on the growth of the snake, hatchlings can slough as often as every four to six weeks but there is no set time pattern for this. Adults will shed less often maybe only 5 times a year.
At the onset of a shedding cycle your snakes’ appearance will become somewhat duller, the usual black markings may take on a more grey appearance and the overall appearance is muted. What is happening is that a milky secretion is separating the outer layer from the inner layers of skin, loosening the outer layer ready for it to be discarded. This opaque appearance will affect the eyes too and they will take on a blue appearance, you may hear other keepers say my snake is in the blue, this is what they are referring to. At this point the snakes eyesight is very poor and the skin quiet delicate, you should not handle your snake until they have finished the shedding process completely. They may become aggressive whilst in shed; this is due to their restricted eye sight and subsequent uneasiness. Food should not be offered whilst a snake is in shed as the bulge in its tummy can hamper the shedding process and the discarding skin can act as a tourniquet. Also, energy is used in the sloughing process that may otherwise have been used to digest the meal, putting further unwanted effort into the process.
The eyes will remain milky for approximately three days and then gradually clear, this is because the secretion has been absorbed into the top layer now making it pliable and easily removed. The snake will look more or less normal now but within 2-3 days it will find a suitable rough object in the vivarium to rub its snout on, breaking the skin free away from the jaw lines, it will crawl out of it’s old skin. This process may only take 5-10 minutes and many keepers miss this unique experience. The whole sloughing process from start to finish lasts approximately 10 days.
Healthy snakes usually have little or no difficulty with shedding and tend to shed their skins in one entire piece. Exceptions to this include snakes with injuries and those housed in enclosures with suboptimal temperatures and/or humidity levels.
Trinket snakes are especially prone to sloughing problems if not provided with the correct humidity requirements as set out below.
Hatchlings can be raised in 3 litre containers heated by thermostatically controlled heat mats (these should be placed under the tank and not cover more than one half of the tank; one third of the tank is recommended). This set-up will be fine for the first few months, progressing to larger tubs as they grow. A substrate of kitchen roll or newspaper is ideal at this age, hides should be made available in the hot end and cooler end. A moss box for humidity to aid the sloughing process should be made available at all times.
Sub-Adult Females & Adult Males:
A 24 x 18 x 18" viviarium or similar sized container is suitable for a sub-adult female or an adult male. It is always an exciting time, moving a snake into a vivarium, as you can now furnish it with branches, plants, rocks and a more appealing substrate. Provide plenty of hides, including a humid one. Heating wise a thermostatically controlled heat mat is the best option for this species, as ceramic bulbs tend to dry the air too much, making the proper humidity hard to maintain, which, may lead to dehydration, and related problems such as bad sloughs and respitory infections.
Adult female Trinket Snakes can be maintained in a vivarium measuring 36 x 18 x 18 in (91.5 x 45 x 45 cm) set up as described above for sub adult females & adult males.
A simple equation for determining the minimum size of a vivarium for your snake is generally Length of enclosure plus Width of enclosure should be equal or greater than the total length of snake.
Temperature and Humidity
Snakes are poikilothermic, also often referred to as ectothermic and as such, rely on an external heat source to maintain their preferred body temperature. Ectothermic means that they use external environmental conditions to control their body temperature, poikilothermic means that their internal temperatures vary while performing different bodily functions, such as shedding, feeding etc. and again this is largely achieved via external environmental conditions.
A reptile’s ability to digest food, use energy and its ability to protect itself from disease, are dependent upon reaching the correct body temperature. Snakes can change their body temperature by moving back and forth from a warmer part of the cage to a cooler part and vice versa. If snakes are kept in temperatures which are too warm or too cold, this places stress on their immune system and can lead to problems.
Average 24hr Temperature
Weather station NARAYANJANJ is at about 23.60°N 90.50°E. Height about 8m / 26 feet above sea level - between 1947 and 1970
Average Monthly Rainfall
Weather station NARAYANGANJ is at about 23.60°N 90.50°E. Height about 10m / 32 feet above sea level - between 1947 and 1977
A variety of substrates can be used for sub-adult and adult Trinket Snakes, a couple of considerations when deciding what to use should be, ease of cleaning, will it mould or become a soggy mess with daily spraying and most importantly is it non toxic?
Cedar shavings should never be used for any reptile as they are toxic and cause respiratory problems, acting as a skin irritant.
Suitable substrates include sphagnum peat moss, coconut coir and bark chip. All of which can be supplied via your local reptile store, which should stock several types of substrate and be able to advise which ones are suitable for your needs.
Other additions to the cage could be plants, plastic being the best for ease of use, as they are easily cleaned, these will also serve as additional hiding areas.
Large rocks that cannot be upturned, not only serve as an interesting addition to the cage furniture to explore but also gives the snake a solid rough object to begin the sloughing process on.
Hides: Being a shy species several hides should be placed in various areas of the cage, with one of them being a humid hide, which is essential for the overall well being of this species, without such a hide it will likely have problems sloughing. Another benefit of having a permanent humid hide is that it can be very hard to determine when a female is gravid and so this can also double as a laying box.
Water: Fresh water should be available at all times and presented in a sturdy water container, that isn’t easily turned over causing spillages and large enough for them to curl up and soak in if they wish.
Being a tropical species, Trinket Snakes do not require a brumation period. A two month cooling period starting in November is beneficial for this species to stimulate breeding behaviour, but not essential. The temperature should be maintained at approx 68F with a decrease in humidity levels and minimum light levels during this period.
Trinket snakes are fairly prolific and will lay eggs all year round, with approx 3-12 eggs in each clutch and an average of 4 clutches per year, although up to 7 have been recorded for this species (Schulz 1996). Therefore it is of prime importance that adults especially the females be well conditioned. The females will store sperm (Amphigonia retarda) and up to four fertile clutches can be achieved from one mating, although pairing every second clutch may be more successful in insuring the fertility of the clutches.
Copulation can be a lengthy affair with pairs hooked up for several hours, (Smith 1990) commented on the stamina of his snakes which were hooked up for five hours, it has been known for Trinket Snakes to be hooked up for twelve or more hours.
Female Trinket Snakes will typically lay between 3-12 eggs. These should be removed from the laying box to the incubation box preferably wearing a pair of latex gloves to stop the transfer of oils from the hand to the eggs, which could impede the oxygen/carbon dioxide transfer through the shell during incubation.
One method of incubation is to fill a plastic container two thirds full with damp vermiculite (when a handful is squeezed in the palm of the hand, it clumps together and only no water should be produced). Vermiculite is a sterile medium that can be purchased from your local garden centre. Don't unnecessarily handle the eggs and make sure the female has completely finished laying before removing them, as unduly disturbing her whilst in the process of laying can result in her stressing and holding on to the remainder of the eggs (resulting in her becoming egg bound - dystocia). The incubation box should have a fitted lid, and the humidity inside should be between 95- 100%, some condensation will form on the lid but if this is too much and is dripping on the eggs, this means the incubation medium is too wet. Wipe the lid with some kitchen towel and sprinkle a little dry vermiculite over the surface of the eggs to take up the moisture.
The eggs should be checked weekly removing the lid will give a good exchange of air, towards the end of the incubation period once every couple of days is advised. Developing eggs actually breathe they take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. If the carbon dioxide builds up to dangerous levels, then the eggs will fail. Also for this reason, egg boxes should not be over crowded and ideally eggs should be laid in the box singularly not in a clump. Although, if the eggs have adhered to each other it is advised that no attempt is made to separate them, as damage can be caused in doing so. The eggs can be incubated at temperatures between 78-84F (25.5-29C), expect them to hatch after 58-80 days. Typically eggs incubated at 82F (28C) will hatch after 65 days.
Incubation in the cooler temperature range generally will result in stronger, healthier babies. One phenomenon, that has been recorded on a few occasions, is hatchlings that emerge from eggs, that have experienced a spike in incubation temperature may have tail anomalies (see photo below); in that the end of the tail is folded back on itself. This usually rights itself after a few sheds. Too high a temperature can also result in kinked spines, congenital defects, internal organ failure and weird non genetic patterning of the snake or death.
Eggs that are incubated on too a wet medium may absorb more water and this subsequently can lead to lose of nutrients for the developing embryo resulting in weak hatchlings, too wet an incubation substrate can also lead to dead in egg, in the final stages of incubation the hatchling will absorb a lot of moisture from the egg, thereby letting the egg shell become more pliable for piping if the eggs have become water logged through too wet a substrate this can hinder this natural process. It is better to err on the side of caution aiming for slightly drier than too wet, as this is easier to rectify. If the eggs look dimpled then they are too dry (eggs however do dimple towards the end of incubation as they are getting ready to hatch). Do not spray eggs directly, just simply pour a little water around them, they will regain their shape within a day.
Hatchlings should always be housed separately, to prevent stress, the risk of cannibalism and for you to be able to make more accurate records of their feeding, sloughing and general health.
There are no known genetic colour morphs being bred in captivity at present, however we have seen hatchlings being sold as heterozygous for albino, although as yet, no one who has purchased these, and bred them, have produced any albino mutations.
An albino specimen is reliably on record however (Gohil, 1983) and also completely black or melanistic specimens (Wall 1913).
A 'High Yellow' variation is being marketed in the hobby, this is not a genetic mutation and is believed to a locality animal, originating from Sri Lanka.
Recently some very attractive 'Blonde / Golden' Trinket Snakes have been seen on breeders price lists, these have not yet been proven to be a genetic morph and commonly believed to a locality animal.
Quarantine:The first and often only purpose of a quarantine is to protect your established collection from unwanted diseases and parasites that may possibly be carried by newly acquired animals. All new snakes and reptiles that you bring into your home where there are others, need to be quarantined for at least three months or the maximum time known for the incubation of diseases that affect the species you are keeping. This should be regardless of whether it is a captive bred specimen or wild caught animal. The most commonly seen parasite is the snake mite, these can be seen as tiny black crawling bugs on your snake or in the enclosure, these need to be dealt with as quickly as possible to stop the spread to other snakes in your collection and to stop them multiplying to a stage where they pose a serious risk to your snake. There are many products available from reptile stores especially for eradicating these mites, please read the instructions carefully or take advice from your vet. It is not within the scope of this guide to give advice on treatments of parasites and diseases but just to make you aware that there are some and how important the quarantine period is to monitor the health or your new snake.
Captive bred snakes however are usually disease and parasite free, but why take the risk of infecting other animals when a period of solitude away from others can prevent the spread?
During quarantine, you should not share water bowls or any other cage equipment between vivaria, including feeding tongs. Don’t handle established stock on the same day as dealing with your new snake or if you have to, deal with the established stock first then the new snake. Always shower and change your clothes after dealing with a snake in quarantine before tending to your established stock.
This really is an important step in keeping your collection healthy, disease and parasite free and we strongly suggest that you read more about it.
When you first purchase your hatchling it should be left for a minimum of one month to settle into its new environment. No handling within this time to allow it to settle into a good feeding regime. Most people make the mistake of handling there new pet too soon, this can result in the snake becoming stressed and refusing to feed. For the first month the only contact should be for feeding and routine maintenance (cleaning and changing the water). After this initial settling in period regular handling of 2-3 times a week will ensure that your snake becomes manageable. Snakes should not be handled when they are in shed, nor should they for three days after being fed as this could result in them regurgitating there meal. You should always wash your hands with at least hot water and soap before and after handling any snake or reptile, although an alcohol scrub to kill germs would be better.
Record keeping is a good way of monitoring your snakes health, and events such as feeding, sloughs, weight and lengths can then be looked back on if there is ever a problem with your snake.
References & Further Reading
GOHIL K.K. 1983 An Albino Trinket Snake (Elaphe helena). Hamadryad, Madras 8/1: 14.
GUIDO NIEHAUS & SCHULZ K-D. 1989 Asian Ratsnakes of the Genus Elaphe Part X1. Elaphe helena (Daudin 1803) Snake Keeper.
METHA R S. 2003. Prey Handling Behaviour of Hatchling Elaphe helena (Colubridae) Herpetologica 59 (4) pg 469-474.
SCHULZ K-D. 1996 A Monograph of the Colubrid Snakes of the Genus Elaphe Fitzinger.
SMITH T. 1990 The Trinket Snake, Elaphe helena The Herptile. Vol 15. No.1.
SMITH T. The Captive Care & Breeding of Two Asiatic Ratsnakes. The Reptilian Vol. 1 No.2.
SOMAWEERA R. 2004 Guest Article: Sri Lankan Colubrid Snakes Sri Lankan Naturalist Vol. 6 No. 3-4 pg 32-46.
STASZKO R & WALLS J G. 1994 Rat Snakes: A Hobbyist’s Guide to Elaphe and Kin.
UTIGER U, SCHÄTTI B & HELFENBERGER N. 2005 The Oriental Colubrine Genus Coelognathus Fitzinger, 1843 and Classification of Old and New World Racers and Ratsnakes (Reptilia, Squamata, Colubridae, Colubrinae) Russian Journal of Herpetology Vol. 12, No.1. pg 39-60.
UTIGER U, HELFENBERGER N & SCHÄTTI B, CATHERINE SCHIMDT, MARKUS RUF & VINCENT ZISWILER. 2002 Molecular systematics and phylogeny of Old and New World Ratsnakes, Elaphe, auct., and related genera (Reptilia, Squamata, Colubridae). Russian Journal of Herpetology Vol. 9, No.2. pg 105-124.
WALL F. 1913 A Popular treatise on the common Indian snakes. Part 19. Coluber helena. J. Bombay nat. hist. Soc. 22: pg 22-28.
WHITAKER R & CAPTAIN A. 2004 Snakes of India: The Field Guide.
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