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This care-sheet details how to keep the African species of the genus Philothamnus (Bush Snakes). It 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 Philothamnus species.

A Note on Names: The vernacular name “Bush Snake” should not be confused with the Asian species Rhadinophis prasinum and R. frenatum, which are sometimes sold under the name “Green Bush Rat Snakes”. This article concerns the African genus, not the rat snakes!

The scientific name Philothamnus means “lover of shrubs or bushes” (derived from philo – “closely affiliated to/ lover of” and thamnus – “shrub/bush.” Well descriptive of their habits).

Description: Philothamnus snakes are inevitably slender, slim and long-bodied, with fairly elongated heads that are well separated from the neck. The eyes are large and usually yellow, with round pupils. The dorsal scales are always smooth and unkeeled. As with the similar-looking American genus Opheodryas there are two general body shapes that fall within the genus; like the American Green snakes these roughly correspond with the modes of life the snakes lead:

The first body type has a relatively flat, square-tipped head and a more attenuate, long body; usually the eyes are proportionately larger. As with the Rough Green snake (Opheodryas aestivus), the species with this general body shape tend to live relatively arboreal lives. In many species the ventral and subcaudal scales are strongly keeled, in a similar way to the Asian genera Dendrelaphis (Bronzebacks) and Chrysopelea (Flying Snakes) to assist with gripping the bark of trees. Examples of this type of body form are P. semivariegatus and P. punctatus.

The second body type is relatively more stocky and shorter (although still fairly slender by the standards of most snakes), with a more rounded head and slightly smaller eyes relative to the body size, in much the same way as the Smooth Green snake (Opheodryas vernalis) of North America. These species live more terrestrial and even semi-aquatic lives, and they may or may not have the keeling on the ventral scales; certain “mid-way” species such as P. natalensis have the stocky body type but keeled ventral scales. The scales of these species are notably smooth and waxy. Examples of this type of body type are P. battersbyi and P. hoplogaster.

In coloration these species are almost always some form of green, usually bright emerald green. Depending on the species they may be plain (such as P. angolensis and P. battersbyi) or spotted/blotched (such as P. semivariegatus and P. hoplogaster).

There are exceptions, the major one being the beautiful Philothamnus macrops, which is often banded in brown and green, or even bronze and may have blue spots or be entirely brown.
These are all fairly small species, with most averaging between 60 and 90 centimetres, although some may reach 120cm. Due to their slim body type they often appear much smaller than their length might imply.

Natural History: This genus is widespread throughout sub-Saharan Africa, with at least nineteen species recognised. The highest number of species falls around central Africa. Regardless of their origin, all these species share an affinity to water and damp places; they are almost always found close to lakes, ponds or rivers. They inhabit open forests, savannah, fynbos, reed beds, coastal bush, montane forests and gardens within their range, and various species can be found at fairly high altitudes of up to at least 2700 metres.

They are active, alert snakes that hunt by sight and feed on frogs, lizards and small birds and their chicks. Some species will also take small fish and tadpoles, and juveniles will also take grasshoppers and other orthopterous insects.

The two body types within the genus (again, as with the North American Opheodryas species) inhabit slightly different modes of life. The slender, more arboreal species spend more time climbing shrubs, low bushes and trees, and tend to feed more upon lizards and geckos. The shorter, stockier species inhabit a similar niche to Garter snakes, living a more terrestrial life or in low vegetation, and some species are semi-aquatic. These species tend to feed more on amphibians, skinks, tadpoles and small fish.

When disturbed or threatened, the first instinct of these shy, retiring and inoffensive snakes is to flee, and they can do so with great rapidity. However if they are restrained they can bluff by inflating their throat in the same way as the venomous Boomslang (Dispholidus typus) with which they may be confused by laymen. The skin of the throat may be brightly coloured, for example in P. semivariegatus it is blue. There may also be bright colours on the interstitial skin that become visible when the snake inflates its body (or has eaten large prey).

Acquisition and Acclimation: These snakes are common in many areas within their distribution, although they are rather rare in pet shops in the UK. They are more often imported to Europe where the naturalistic terraria required to keep them successfully are more popular, and they can often be encountered at shows there.

Philothamnus species are often available on lists from Tanzania, from where the majority of specimens are imported from, and they may be available to order from pet shops willing to do so.

However, one word of warning; most of these species look very similar to one another and imports often contain more than one species. One order of ten animals by the author resulted in three species of Philothamnus being imported (P. semivariegatus, P. battersbyi and P. punctatus) as well as a single specimen of Hapsidophrys (=Gastropyxis) smaragdina. Therefore to ensure one has a good chance of receiving males and females of the same species it is wise to order a fair few animals and split them by species accordingly.

One thing about these snakes – they are extremely nervous, shy animals that will not do well if subjected to frequent stress, so they must be kept in a low traffic area that is not disturbed frequently, and where the room lights are not switched on after dark as this can startle them. That said, a pair of P. punctatus have lived on my computer desk for the last four or five years and have become trusting enough to go about their daily business unconcernedly while I am sitting right in front of them.

Being diurnal, sight-hunting tree snakes, these snakes like to bask and will not do well at all unless they are given the opportunity to do so. Without bright light, the beautiful green colour can fade over time and they lose that lovely, waxy lustre they have to their scales. Accordingly, I made sure all my specimens had both UV and full spectrum lights available from the get-go to make sure there were no problems during acclimation. The lights are kept on for about 14-16 hours a day. Under these conditions the snakes are easy to keep and, although they will remain shy, usually adjust well to captive life.

Handling: As mentioned before these are very shy and nervous snakes that will become stressed by handling or being disturbed too often. They are very definitely a “look, don’t touch” kind of snake. They are completely inoffensive and most species do not try to bite, although there are some exceptions, notably larger specimens of P. macrops and P. angolensis (the latter of which can be downright pissy by Philothamnus standards).

Housing: Although these snakes are easy to keep and fare very well in captivity under the correct conditions, there are several factors that must be taken into consideration when designing their enclosure.

Firstly, and most importantly – these are active, diurnal snakes that need to bask and cannot be kept in “tub” style enclosures. Doing so will invariably result in dead snakes in a matter of weeks. Like other diurnal tree snakes, these snakes need to bask and thus must be provided with good quality lighting. The author uses a UV-producing bulb such as Repti-Glo 10.0 in conjunction with a bright sunlight-reproducing, full spectrum “high noon” bulb such as Life-Glo 2. Arcadia’s range of daylight bulbs and especially the t5 series remain a very good prospect for species like this, which should be treated like lizards rather than the more familiar snakes in terms of their need for lighting.

The enclosure for these snakes needs to be airy and prevent the build-up for stale air, and should be able to handle a fairly high humidity (although the snakes themselves don’t appreciate too high humidity all the time, it is better to give them an airy enclosure and spray them once a day and let this dry out). Thus, the ideal enclosure for this type of snake is the Exoterra style glass vivarium with mesh lid. This is the type of enclosure that has served the author very well with these species.

These small snakes are ideal inhabitants for a naturalistic vivarium – in fact this is the surest way of keeping them happy and healthy. They can be kept in groups and will not fight if kept together. A bioactive substrate and live plants are ideal for this type of enclosure, and the good quality lighting provided for the snakes will go a long way to making sure the snakes thrive. The snakes also gain security from having foliage to hide in and climb around on.

In fact, given their close relation to water, these snakes are ideal for paludariums including a fixed water area. Although they will eat any lizards or frogs put in with them, having such an enclosure gives an ideal opportunity to include small fish. Although the snakes may eat one or two, they enhance the aesthetic appeal of the setup and provide a ready-available food source to the shy snakes. A water section can be created by using silicone to fix a glass divider a few inches high across the bottom. The longer styles of Exoterra (90cm x 45cm x 60cm) are ideal for forming a setup for a pair or trio of these snakes.

The bottom of the terrestrial part of the setup is covered in large grade, smooth river gravel (a diameter of about 1” is fine), which will act as a reservoir for excess water, keeping the soil separate from the water and ensuring it does not get waterlogged. A sheet of coarse material like muslin or fine plastic mesh is spread on top of this so that the soil does not mix with the gravel.

A substrate of soil mixed with sand and peat in roughly equal proportions is used. Mixed in is fine orchid bark to provide air pockets in which the helpful aerobic bacteria can breed. This is layered over the muslin/ mesh a few inches deep (about 4” is fine).

Live plants can be planted directly into the substrate or in the case of larger plants buried pot and all. Ideal species include Spathiphyllum (Peace Lily), which is easy to keep, thrives in this type of setup and has the advantage of coming from the same area as Philothamnus! It is not often one gets to see flowers growing in the terrarium, but this is not difficult to achieve with Peace Lilies.

Also very useful is Ficus pumila, which has small, brightly-coloured leaves and can cover the bottom of such an enclosure with a vibrant, living carpet. This species also has the advantage of being capable of growing over branches and other terrain features, and if a false wall is provided can grow up that like ivy.

Pothos (Devil’s Ivy) is ever-useful and can grow directly planted, submerged or trailing from a hanging basket, making it adaptable and ideal for a variety of situations. The only disadvantage of this plant is that it can easily run rampant and overtake the setup, and can require fairly extensive pruning to ensure it does not completely overgrow the inside of the terrarium.

Other easy to grow plants include Tradescantia, which can also be used trailing or from hanging baskets; Chlorophytum (Spider plant), which reproduces rapidly with tiny little replicas of itself and can also grow submerged in water – making it ideal for semi-aquatic setups. Maranta (Prayer plant) is also hardy and attractive and grows well in this type of enclosure.

Also be sure to provide plenty of branches and twigs for the snake to climb up, as these snakes are predominantly arboreal and spend much of their time above ground. Also they need some decent places to hide and feel secure at ground level.

The background temperature for the enclosure should be around 25C during the day, with a spotlight above the mesh of the enclosure shining down to create a hotspot of around 32C or so where the snakes will spend much of the time basking in the mornings before they start moving around.

Feeding: In the wild Philothamnus are dietary generalists, taking small lizards, frogs of various kinds, small birds and their chicks. However, despite adapting to captive conditions well, their inherent shyness can mean that it is quite a while before they relent and begin to feed. They usually will not eat f/t rodents – being sight-oriented snakes they tend to be attracted to and excited by movements… and having such good eyesight they will not feed when the keeper is present (which makes jiggling the prey not an option).

The other problem is that having such a fast metabolism, these snakes can burn themselves out and starve to death in the time that other snakes might still be adapting to their conditions.

It has been noted by the author that the snakes voraciously and relentlessly hunted down and consumed live small frogs that had been imported from Indonesia to feed to tiny baby Dendrelaphis (which would have been unable to take any other prey). Several of the frogs proved too large and so were put into the Philothamnus enclosure. The change in the normally shy, retiring snakes was amazing to behold, as they became relentless hunters that spent hours looking for more frogs after they had been consumed.

It follows that anybody wishing to keep these species would therefore do best offering them live frogs or small lizards – given how undemanding these species are otherwise, this would seem to be the easiest way.
However the author does not enjoy feeding live lizards or frogs to snakes and this is unnecessary in most cases anyway. Although most Philothamnus won’t take f/t rodents to begin with, there are several other ways of getting them to eat something other than frogs or lizards.

Although many Philothamnus seem reluctant to take pre-killed pinks or fuzzies (even if they are scented, brained or other tactics are used), a rare few will eat them greedily. In any case, assist-feeding for the first few weeks can yield good results. This in itself can be tricky though, as certain species are more prone to spitting out pinks than others.

Generally speaking, the terrestrial, stockier species like P. battersbyi seem to chew and swallow down small rodents placed into their mouths more readily than the long, slender arboreal species like P. semivariegatus (which is particularly hard to get feeding in captivity on anything other than lizards and frogs). Many of these will quickly bite into and swallow down a pink pushed gently into their mouth, chewing in a manner very reminiscent of rear-fanged snakes in doing so!

However, a technique I have used to encourage the more reluctant assist-feeders to swallow pinks rather than spit them out is as follows. I find that the best way to do this is to gently restrain the snake and push the pink into it's mouth until it starts biting down (again, they chew very much like a rear-fanged snake would and do indeed have enlarged back teeth... although I'm not aware of any literature that describes them as venomous). Once they are biting carefully let the snake go and it will usually move away a few metres and then pause to swallow down the food... wait for the snake to fully swallow the meal, then repeat until you feel it has had enough... this can take quite a while, but is preferable to "force feeding" in my view.

Another method that can have wonderful results is to offer the snakes live, small fish such as minnows, guppies and danios. The snakes seem to be very attracted to the movements of the fish and will pursue them readily. One method of acclimating them that has stood the author in good stead is to have the snakes set up in a glass aquarium with no substrate, which has a centimetre or two of water at the bottom. A lattice of branches and some potted plants are then placed onto this so the snakes have somewhere to climb around and rest (they tend to curl up and sleep in the plant pots). When they are ready to be fed, it is a simple matter to place some live small fish in the water, which the snakes will actively pursue. These can serve to keep the snake going while it learns to accept assist-fed and eventually tease-fed rodents from forceps.

Philothamnus are active species that have very high metabolisms for snakes, and as such they require feeding more regularly than most. The author prefers several small feeds at regular intervals, usually every 3-5 days; the snakes seem to manage smaller prey better than large prey items, as they are relatively brittle-bodied for snakes.

Breeding: These snakes are not particularly difficult to breed if they are kept in small groups. Mine are cycled to receive a cool period for about three months of around 24-25C but without the spotlight. In the wild, depending on where they originate from, they may also experience wet and dry periods, although in my experience it is not necessary to replicate these to result in breeding – it generally tends to happen on its own if the snakes are kept together.

Depending on species, they may lay between 2-16 eggs, each about 1-2” long and somewhat elongated, which take between 60-75 days to hatch when incubated at around 26C.

The babies hatch out grey and around 20cm long and very thin, and they can be difficult to feed. Generally they will swallow small pieces of chopped pinky (tails, legs, strips of flesh as well as sections of mouse tail) if these are inserted into their mouths gently. They will also swallow down pieces of fish-flavoured cat food if this is placed into their mouth, although it is not recommended that this is used as a sole food for growing snakes. Some species will also eat small crickets and grasshoppers (and this proves a godsend when it does happen!). Finally, they will also chase small fish fry if these are placed in water in a transparent dish such as an Ikea Glimma tea candle holder. They need feeding every few days and as long as fed well grow surprisingly quickly.

Unlike the adults, the babies proved to be more accommodating of pink mice once they were of the appropriate size and this, combined with their lack of shyness, made them very easy and enjoyable to keep once they reached a large enough size to take pink mice.

Conclusion: Snakes of this genus make rewarding, attractive and intriguing pets. They are active and great display species, if a little shy at first. As long as they can be convinced to feed and acclimate quickly they make very good subjects for planted display vivaria and can provide hours of entertainment for the keeper to become engrossed in.

Copyright: Francis Cosquieri
This site has information on the following genera of Ratsnakes ... Spilotes, Spalerosophis, Ptyas, Zamenis, Elaphe, Rhinechis, Senticolis, Pseudelaphe, Pantherophis, Bogertophis, Orthriophis, Gonyosoma, Oreocryptophis, Oocatochus, Euprepiophis, Coelognathus, Archelaphe