Sunbeam Snakes: Essential Care Guide
Author: Scarlett Nightshade
Lifespan: 15-20+ years
Size: Average 3-4 feet
Habitat and Distribution: Southeast Asia; inhabiting swamps, marshes and rice paddies
Renowned for their captivating iridescence, Sunbeam snakes are growing in popularity among snake keepers; and it is no surprise why! Their vibrant rainbow sheen, docile temperament and mysterious nature make for a fascinating animal.
Sunbeam Snake (Xenopeltis unicolor)
© Creatures of Nightshade
Since they are not commonly bred in captivity, most Sunbeam snakes available today are wild caught imports. This can present some challenges to those unfamiliar with establishing wild caught snakes. That said, contrary to popular belief, Sunbeam snakes are quite hardy and relatively tolerant to the stresses that come with importing and captive keeping. While not recommended for the novice keeper, this species will do well in captivity if provided with the correct care.
Due to their small size and fossorial (burrowing) nature, Sunbeam snakes do not necessarily need elaborate
enclosures in order to thrive. You will want to provide several inches of substrate, a large water dish for them to slither through, and preferably some additional underground enrichment such as rocks, pieces of bark, and makeshift tunnels made from PVC tubes buried beneath the substrate.
The outline below lists my preferred enclosure size relative to the snake's length, but individual keeping methods may vary. Please note that the size of the snake does not always accurately indicate age and is used strictly for reference purposes only.
For plastic tubs, be sure to add plenty of ventilation holes so that you do not have an excess buildup of condensation. This makes for a bacterial breeding ground within the enclosure and can create an unsanitary environment for your Sunbeam snake.
Juvenile (> 18 inches): 15qt. Sterilite tubs
Subadult (18 - 30 inches): 32qt. Sterilite tubs
Adult (30 - 48+ inches): 106qt. Sterilite tubs OR 34in. x 18in. x 9in PVC enclosure
Glass tanks can also be used, but keep in mind that maintaining humidity in a glass enclosure will require heavy modification to the tank. The following tank sizes are suitable for Sunbeam snakes:
Juvenile (>18 inches): 10gal. (20in. x 10in. 12in.)
Subadult (18 - 30 inches): 15gal. Long (24in. x 12.5in. x 13in.)
Adult (30 - 48+ inches): 20gal. Long (30in. x 12in. x 12in.)
Substrate and Humidity
Sunbeam snakes are a tropical species that typically remain burrowed underneath their substrate the majority of the time. Therefore, it is crucial to use a substrate that both retains moisture and allows them to burrow with ease. I prefer to use 4-5 inches of an organic potting soil + vermiculite blend to maintain a consistent humidity level of 90%+. I add two cups of water upon initially placing the substrate and then only mist once every week or two for a few seconds each time. Adding a drainage layer to allow for a more even distribution of moisture through the substrate is highly recommended to help maintain humidity.
Sunbeam snakes require a warm spot of 82-85°F and a cool spot no cooler than 75°F. This is best achieved by using a UTH (under-tank heater), or a RHP (radiant heat panel) for PVC enclosures. You will want to avoid overhead heat bulbs, as they will quickly dry out your Sunbeam snake. As with all heating elements, a thermostat should be used with any and all heat sources to avoid potentially harming your snake.
While Sunbeam snakes eat a mix of frogs, lizards and rodents in the wild, they do well on a strictly rodent-based diet in captivity. I start each Sunbeam snake on live mice appropriate for their size, measuring no larger than ½" of the girthiest part of the snake. I rarely have refusals when offering within the first couple weeks of arrival,, but if one does refuse, I leave them be in a completely dark, low-traffic room for the next two weeks to allow them to settle in more. During this time, I do not handle them unless medically necessary, with the only interactions being to spot-clean and change the water dish. Once Sunbeam snakes are well established eating live mice, I begin converting them to fresh killed, then eventually to frozen/thawed. I have had Sunbeams absolutely refuse frozen/thawed feeders despite various attempts, thus some will only take live or fresh killed mice. For this reason, it is important to be prepared in the event you must consistently offer live feeders to your Sunbeam snake.
I do prefer to offer my established Sunbeam snakes some degree of dietary variety, and will alternate between live frogs, anoles, house geckos and frog Reptilinks on top of rodents. This is purely optional, but offering dietary variety serves as a form on enrichment for your snake and is always encouraged.
Treating for Parasites
Lastly, one of the biggest concerns that comes with all wild caught snakes is the potential parasite load they often bring. I treat all wild caught snakes for internal parasites within a week upon arrival, and I immediately treat external parasites if they are present, as well. External parasites are easy to detect and relatively simple to treat, and there are various online resources on how to treat them -- but the same cannot be said for internal parasites. Many inexperienced keepers that acquire a wild caught import believe the best course of action is to rush them to their veterinarian for an in-depth examination. Unfortunately, the stress they are put through as a result of the veterinary visit is often a major cause for decline and eventually death. When keeping wild caught snakes, it is crucial to avoid stressing them as much as possible, and this includes being poked, prodded and excessively handled by a vet. This is where experience comes into play. Knowing how to examine and identify potential issues with your snake and how to treat them without rushing them to the vet is extremely helpful in assuring the survival of such sensitive animals. In order to do so, I highly suggest establishing a good relationship with your herp veterinarian. I am able to treat all snakes for parasites at home because my veterinarian prescribes the medication via Telemedicine, allowing me to receive the necessary medication for my wild caught imports without having to put them through the stress of a long drive and physical examination.
Treatment for internal parasites includes an oral administration of Metronidazole (0.04mg/g) given once within the first week of arrival and then once more 2 weeks after the first dose. This medication is also effective against many strains of bacteria, and will also treat some illnesses such as a respiratory infection. Since Metronidazole is typically prescribed in a 250mg tablet, it must first be dissolved in water to be administered to your snake. Your veterinarian can help you find the correct ratio in which you will dissolve the medication in, which will depend on the weight of your snake and dosage information provided above. For reference, dissolving one 250mg tablet of Metronidazole in 25ml of water would be administered at 1ml for a 250g Sunbeam snake.
As with most wild caught imports, it is important to limit unnecessary handling. While Sunbeam snakes are more tolerant of human interaction, it is best to avoid putting them through additional stress. I never handle any wild caught imports unless medically necessary.
I also recommend keeping them in a dark or dimly lit room. I allow a small amount of natural light to peek indirectly through a window to provide a natural daylight cycle. Absolutely no artificial light sources; this is a semi-fossorial nocturnal species, and light should only be provided through natural means to help them regulate.
In summary, Sunbeam snakes are a fascinating species to keep. Their vibrant iridescence, docile temperament and mysterious nature are unmatched. I hope the information provided in this guide will help the small community of those who keep them in ensuring they thrive in their care, and with the persistent efforts of dedicated keepers, perhaps we will see more captive bred hatchlings in the future.