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Painted Bronzeback (Dendrelaphis pictus) Caresheet
Francis Cosquieri
This care-sheet details how to keep the species Dendrelaphis pictus (Painted Bronzeback). The methods detailed here should also serve as a starting-off point for other closely related Dendrelaphis species, such as D. elegans and D. caudolineatus.
This care sheet is written from the experiences of the author with these snakes; it is not considered an “absolute” set of rules, but merely the methods the author has used to keep and breed Dendrelaphis pictus.
Description: This is a small, slender snake with a distinct head set off from a narrow neck. The snout is noticeably blunt and “square-tipped”. The eyes are large with round pupils. As with many arboreal snakes, the tail is long and attenuate, and fairly prehensile. This snake, as with Chrysopelea, which it resembles somewhat in conformation, has a noticeably concave vent which it uses for gripping whilst climbing.
Literature states that this snake can reach a length of 1.2 metres, however all the specimens seen by the author have been considerably shorter, the males generally not exceeding a pencil-thin 60cm or so, the females a little more and slightly more heavy-bodied.
As belied by their vernacular name, Painted Bronzebacks obviously have a bronze or coppery dorsal surface with an obvious sheen. This species has a diagnostic black stripe beginning on the snout, passing through the eye to create a “mask”-like appearance, and continuing down the length of each flank. There is a cream lateral stripe beneath the black one. The ventral surface is usually a cream, dingy white or yellowish.
One male obtained by the author from an Indonesian import has a green tinge to the top of its head.
When defensive, this snake will rear up and flatten the neck laterally to reveal turquoise “flash colours” on the interstitial skin. This can be a shocking and sudden transformation and may help ward off would-be predators. This effect is heightened by the wide gape and the bright red tongue.
This snake is very mildly venomous; however, despite the dramatic threat display the author has found this species rather inoffensive and reluctant to bite, at most resorting to bluff striking with an open mouth. This species is considered harmless to humans.
Dendrelaphis pictus is a fairly adaptable species that can inhabit a wide range of habitats within their distribution, in all cases though they are active, arboreal hunters of frogs and lizards. It has been reported that they are capable of making gliding leaps similar to Chrysopelea (Flying Snakes) and the author would not be surprised if this was the case given the similar appearance of both genera, however although these snakes are more than willing to leap from the hand if given the chance, I have not witnessed a flattening of the snake to any extent as is the case with the Flying Snakes. However it is worth noting that the skull is able to “flatten” considerably.
Acquisition and Acclimation: This snake is fairly abundant within its range and often seen on dealer’s lists from places like Indonesia and Malaysia, however it does not seem to be very commonly offered for sale in shops and so it may be necessary to specifically order them in.
This snake is initially very nervous and does not relish human contact at all. That said, it does seem to be somewhat less flighty than Chrysopelea, rarely fleeing in a headlong rush and smashing into the terrarium glass like the latter. That said, during acclimation this snake needs to be left well alone – it is not a snake that should be handled often and is best observed within its enclosure.
In 2006 I acquired 2.1 of this species (imported by Dan), to which a further 4.2 were later added from an import by Tom Halvorsen. Since I prefer not to cohabit snakes during acclimation (the better to monitor feeding and health issues and ensure each specimen is doing well) they were initially quarantined singly in large faunariums and 19L RUBs (which, having a good height, allow the snakes to climb about with the addition of some branches screwed into the sides).
It was noted that several of the snakes did not seem to be faring well in the tubs, whereas the ones that were kept in faunariums (which were exposed to UV and white light via a pair of fluorescent tubes suspended above the row of boxes) did considerably better, appearing more active and alert as opposed to becoming listless and spending all their time curled up on the substrate.
Thus, all of the new arrivals were transferred to the clear plastic faunariums, arranged in a row within a 48” wooden vivarium heated to ensure a fairly constant temperature of 26-28C. Fluorescent tubes were placed directly onto the mesh lids so that the light could reach the snakes. A substrate of soil was used, and each snake had a deep ceramic water bowl and a small potted Pothos or Ficus pumila to hide in and help raise humidity. The snakes clearly appreciated regular sprays of warm water and usually came out of hiding even in the early days to enjoy them, eagerly drinking the droplets from the sides of the boxes, leaves and their own bodies.
Several of my snakes were quite thin when they arrived. Like most small, active tree snakes they have a high metabolism and start burning themselves out quickly without food. All of my animals that seemed to lack good weight were force fed on the second night I had them and then again a few days later; there was only one regurgitation, otherwise all prey was digested well.
Kept in such a way most of the snakes soon perked up and acclimatised well.
Coming from Southeast Asia, these snakes required extensive purging of internal parasites, worming and also treatment for mites and ticks. This had to be repeated several times, but was only initiated once the snakes had started eating voluntarily. Quarantine for the first snakes was unproblematic at around three months, but required somewhat longer for the second group (until I was satisfied they were all well).
Housing: Once I was satisfied that the Bronzebacks were healthy and feeding, they were transferred to tall glass aquariums in ratios of 2.1 (the initial trio) and 2.2 (two of the snakes had not survived the quarantine period).
The lids used were plain mesh, with a spotlight above one end, and two fluorescent lights each (a UV bulb and a white-light bulb). This allowed a thermal gradient from the top to the bottom of the tank, from around 32C in the basking area, to 24 at the cool end. These snakes appear not to relish cooler temperatures than this.
A “bioactive substrate system” was utilised for the final setups, with an inch or so of large, round gravel on the bottom of the tank to act as a reservoir for excess water runoff. Over this a sheet of fine gauze was placed, onto which the main substrate was put. Substrate was a mix of orchid bark chips, soil, peat and a small amount of sand, with a stack of cork bark pieces and several high branches of various thicknesses as furnishings. The snakes appreciate being given thick branches upon which to lie and prefer these over thinner tangles and forks.
Ficus pumila was used as an attractive “carpet” plant as it grows quickly, can cover the bottom of an enclosure and thrives within the terrarium if it is well ventilated and watered regularly. It also will grow over objects such as cork bark, and up walls.
Hanging baskets of Pothos were also suspended as-sold within the enclosures and the snakes spend most of their time climbing among them, or coiled within the Ficus at the bottom of the enclosure when at rest. Unlike Chrysopelea, the Bronzebacks tend to rest on the ground when inactive, either underneath pieces of cork bark or hidden in the vegetation.
The snakes are sprayed with warm water every evening. The mesh lid of the tanks ensures that the humidity does not become too high or the air stagnates, although this species seems to prefer a higher overall humidity than the Flying snakes.
Feeding: Of my seven surviving snakes, several voluntarily took pinkies left overnight within their boxes within the space of a few weeks. The others proved somewhat problematic to convert to a diet of rodents, although a further few eventually began eating pinkies scented by rubbing them on the backs of live American Green tree frogs. For the last few holdouts I had to resort to force-feeding for some months before they began accepting prey voluntarily.
Force-feeding this species proves far less difficult than for Chrysopelea, as Bronzebacks have far more pliable mouths, a much wider gape and more elastic throats. Unlike Flying snakes, however, they are very reluctant to bite down on anything placed in their mouth which is why force-feeding was necessary instead of simply assist-feeding (which is far easier on the snakes, and the keeper's frustration levels!).
These snakes have a fairly high metabolism and require food quite regularly, my adults are fed several pinkies or a single fuzzy every 3-7 days. I note that despite the maximum size of about 48-50”attributed to this species none of mine has grown to any great extent and can only assume that at around 30” the largest is at full size.
The snakes remain shy about feeding and won’t take until after I have left, although I will note here they are rather gentle with one another and are the only snakes I feel confident leaving to their own devices while feeding communally – it is an interesting sight to leave a small pile of pinkies and return to find three snakes quietly and calmly gathered around the pile, consuming them slowly, without bothering each other.
In the wild these snakes feed on lizards and amphibians, and it follows that they would do much better on a diet of small frogs in the beginning. If these are offered I imagine success with this species would be much more likely.
Breeding: In 2009 one of the females laid four very elongated eggs around 1” long (about the shape and size of Opheodryas aestivus eggs). These were incubated in my usual manner (suspended in a sealed box above water warmed to the required temps). At 26-28C the four eggs hatched after a fairly long incubation (unfortunately I don’t have the exact dates of laying and hatching to hand) to reveal neonates around 4-6” long and exact replicas of the adults in miniature, down to the tiny turquoise flash colours on the neck.
They were initially kept in cricket boxes on kitchen towel, which was kept slightly damp and changed daily.
At around the size of a blade of grass when hatched, these slender little snakelings were too small to even take a pinky head, although they did assist-feed reasonably well on pieces of mouse tail and pinky feet/legs. However, it was decided that they would need something more to give them the best possible start in life (and to avoid stressing them to much) and my local pet shop was kind enough to order in regular imports of tiny frogs via at cost. These the babies took ravenously, although, like the adults, never when I was watching. Fed on a diet of live frogs, the snakes grew quickly to a size where they would take small pinkies and converting them proved little challenge.
Conclusion: Unfortunately this is not a commonly-kept species, despite being very beautiful and not particularly hard to acclimate. The are small and agile enough to keep in a planted terrarium and can make a nice display, although they never seem to lose their shyness and many will slither into cover when they see the keeper, even after a few years in captivity – this is a species that enjoys peace and quiet, although if one remains still and silent in the room they will soon return to their exploring and climbing and provide hours of entertainment.
These are not snakes for the beginner, but far from the most difficult species to keep. In short, they're beautiful snakes with some great behaviour and wonderful threat displays, but not the easiest of captives. That said, they are hardy enough that most do well if they are acquired in good condition and given the right care.
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