For $1,500, you could buy a used car, a new laptop — or a "palmetto morph" corn snake. Among reptile enthusiasts, the corn snake (Pantherophis guttatus) is often touted as the perfect beginner's serpent, an ideal pet for first-time snake-keepers. Not only are they easy to take care of, but the reptiles come in a rainbow of colors and patterns.
Breeding "corns" can be lucrative because some rare variants — like the palmetto morph, a whitish snake adorned with tiny red spots — command hefty price tags. (Fortunately, more affordable options are available for snake hobbyists on a budget.)
Corn snakes might be even more valuable to American agribusiness. Out in the wild, they're masterful rodent-hunters. By keeping rats and mice in check, the snakes help make our farmlands safe for seedlings and grain stores.
What's in a Name?
The species' natural range extends from southern New Jersey to the Florida Keys and includes large portions of Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas and the Gulf Coast states.
In the continental U.S., corn snakes have relatives aplenty. They're classified as New World rat snakes, a group of nonvenomous serpents that feed on rodents and other small animals. One well-known species is the Eastern rat snake, which occurs as far north as Vermont. That hardy animal can grow to be more than 7 feet (2.1 meters) long, but corn snakes are a bit on the smaller side — full-grown corns rarely exceed 5.5 feet (1.67 meters) in length.
Corn snakes in the wild usually look tannish-orange and display black-bordered patches of dark red scales. Flip one over and you may find a checkered, black-and-white pattern on its underbelly. Perhaps this explains how the "corn snake" got its common name; those bellies might have reminded early settlers of multicolored corn kernels.
Even though modern rat snakes aren't venomous, anatomical evidence suggests that their prehistoric ancestors were. Somewhere down the line, the forerunners of today's corns lost the ability to produce venom. In its absence, living rat snakes use constriction to kill their prey.
But when danger strikes, wild corns have been known to behave like venomous species. Hey, imitation's the highest form of flattery, right?
Corns coexist with a variety of different rattlesnakes, like the Eastern diamondback. Lacking "rattles" themselves, corn snakes can nevertheless produce loud buzzing sounds when they vibrate their tails against dead leaves or tufts of grass.
Sometimes, this defensive strategy frightens would-be predators. It's a popular tactic. Across North America, lots of other harmless snakes — such as the bull snake and the Southern black racer — use the same trick.
Unfortunately, people often mistake harmless corns for venom-wielding copperheads. A kind of pit viper, the copperhead uses heat-sensing depressions, or "pits," behind its nostrils to track down rodents and other warm-blooded prey items.
Like corns, copperheads are abundant in the Southeast and they have dark blotches on their backs. The good news is it's fairly easy to tell these reptiles apart — once you know what to look for.
Let's talk craniums. Copperheads have triangular skulls and vertical, slit-like pupils. Yet the edges of a corn snake's head are more rounded. Also, rat snake pupils are basically circular. Patterning is another area of distinction. Your average copperhead will look browner than a typical corn snake, and unlike most corns, the pit vipers tend to have hourglass-shaped backside blotches.
One thing the two snakes have in common is a taste for rodents. Young corns predominantly feed on treefrogs and lizards. But as the rat snakes get older, they'll begin to consume birds, eggs and of course, rodents. Indeed, small mammals like voles, marsh rats and white-footed mice are dietary staples for full-grown corn snakes.
When rodent populations spiral out of control, the economic consequences may include large-scale crop destruction, food contamination and the spread of serious diseases. So allowing corn snakes, copperheads and other natural predators do their thing can really benefit farmers — and the rest of us, for that matter.
Speaking of farms, corn snakes have an affinity for barns, old houses and abandoned buildings. Why wouldn't they? Rodents and small birds are attracted to these man-made shelters. Wild corns will also take refuge under logs or discarded boards. You stand a good chance of finding one in a field or meadow that borders a forested area.
While much of their hunting is done at ground level, con snakes sometimes pursue their victims down rodent burrows. On other occasions, the reptiles take to the trees in search of prey. Slender and nimble, corns are well suited for navigating branches. Plus, they're skilled at wedging themselves into tree bark crevices, allowing them to climb trunks at vertical or near-vertical angles.
In the southern part of their range, corns remain active throughout the year. But northern populations are more seasonal, with snakes cozying up in empty burrows for the winter. Breeding usually takes place during the spring; after a 30- to 45-day gestation period, females lay clutches of 10 to 30 eggs.
And they're not shy about mating in captivity. As such, corn snakes of all ages are widely available in pet stores and at reptile conventions. (That's right: Cons aren't just for "Star Trek" fans.)
Most people who have corn snakes for pets keep them in glass terrariums with screen lids. An adult will require at least a 20-gallon (75.7-liter) enclosure measuring 30 inches by 12 inches (76 centimeters by 30.5 centimeters). But if you have the space, consider getting a bigger one. Baby corns can be housed in smaller enclosures — although you'll eventually need to provide them with an adult-sized setup.
Cover the bottom of the terrarium with aspen shavings or (if you're not too worried about aesthetics) dry newspapers. Then get yourself a small, sturdy water dish — and expect to clean it daily. As far as furnishings go, a hiding place is an absolute must, as snakes really like their privacy. Shoeboxes and commercial reptile "hides" will fit the bill.
It's generally a good idea to give pet reptiles a temperature gradient inside their enclosures. Using a heat lamp, keep one end of the terrarium at 85 degrees Fahrenheit (29 degrees Celsius). The other side should stay at about 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius). Unlike many lizards and turtles, pet corns do not require a UV lighting fixture.
Depending on your corn snake's age, it should get fed every five to seven days — or every seven to 10 days. The perfect meal is a mouse that's roughly the same width as the reptile is at its widest point. Since live prey can be dangerous, experts strongly recommend giving frozen mice to your pet.
Learn more about corn snakes in "Corn Snakes: The Comprehensive Owner's Guide (The Herpetocultural Library)" by Kathy Love and Bill Love. HowStuffWorks picks related titles based on books we think you'll like. Should you choose to buy one, we'll receive a portion of the sale.