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Daily Classroom Special
Critter Corner: Meet the Corn Snake
About this Daily Classroom Special
Critter Corner allows teachers and students to learn and share experiences about organisms that can be kept in the classroom. Critter Corner is maintained by Judith Jones, teacher at East Chapel Hill High School (NC) and Teachers Network web mentor. E-mail Judith. Make sure to visit Judy's other Daily Classroom Special, The Time Travel Interviews with Famous Scientists

To the Critter Corner Directory.

Introduction

Questions About the Corn Snake???

The Corn Snake I got my first two corn snakes four years ago from an 11-year-old boy who was breeding them. They are beautiful Okeetee corn snakes. Okeetee is a name given to an eastern subspecies that are orange in color. Since then, I have adopted four more corn snakes of differing colors - a blizzard corn, a snow corn, an amelanistic corn and an anerythristic corn. These last four have specific genetic mutations that given them their unique colors. I find that teaching biology students genetics using these snakes makes for an exciting introduction!

Scientific Name

Elaphe guttata - Elaphe means "deerskin;" guttata means "spotted."

General Physical Description

Okeetee corn snakes are black and orange on top and black, orange, and cream on their ventral side. On the back, corn snakes have a series of orange blotches that are somewhat ringed in black. The bellies have a checkered look. I have heard two stories for how the corn snake got its name. One story by early Americans is that the corn snake was found hunting rodents in corn fields and corncribs. The other story is that the orange, cream, and black checkered belly reminded people of colorful Indian corn. You can take your pick! The markings on the corn snake's neck are split to form two stripes that join like a spear on top of the head. Hatchling corn snakes are about 23-36 centimeters (9-14 inches) in length and the adults reach a maximum length of about 152 centimeters (5 feet).

Behavior

A healthy corn snake is interested in its surroundings. It will flick its tongue actively and move about (unless it is about to shed its skin). These snakes are very easy to handle. I have never had a corn snake bite and my students handle them often. Snakes, in general, are escape artists, and corn snakes are no exception. I have had a few escapees--only some of which have been found! When the temperature is warm or they are hungry, these snakes will move about their cages more actively. Otherwise, they like to settle in dark hiding places. But when they are removed from their cages, they will be satisfyingly active and curious. When corn snakes feel threatened, they will vibrate their tail--they are rattlesnake wannabees! If they continue to feel threatened, they can coil, flatten their heads and strike. However, these behaviors are very uncommon among corn snakes that are used to being handled.

Reproduction

I have never bred corn snakes (although I have bred their close relatives, the black rat snake). The boy I got my first two corn snakes from described their breeding to me. He would make sure that his snakes hibernated over the winter. Then once the female had shed her skin after hibernation, the male would show interest in mating. The male snake is sensitive to the scent of a pheromone on the skin of the female. When the male comes in contact with the female, he will experience "caudocephalic waves" which are jerky type muscular motions. The male will twitch as he places his vent in alignment with the female vent. The male will evert one of his two spined hemipenes into the female vent. Both snakes' tails will wave and then shortly mating will cease. Corn snakes will mate frequently and abruptly cease about 20 days before the eggs are laid. Females need a moist area to lay their eggs. But the eggs can be removed and placed in a plastic shoe box filled with vermiculite that has been soaked in water--but not dripping. The eggs are placed on top of the vermiculite, the lid is added and the eggs are kept in a warm place--27-30 degrees Celsius. The number of eggs laid depends on the size of the female but can vary from 5-35! Hatching will begin about 55-60 days after laying. The hatchings will occur over several days. The baby uses an egg tooth to slice one or more small slits in the leathery egg shell. Once the babies have shed their first skin, they are ready to eat!

Native Habitat and Role in the Environment

Snakes, in general, are great carnivores. Corn snakes will eat rodents and birds and are certainly partly responsible for keeping the rodent population from exploding out of control. Baby corn snakes may eat small lizards and frogs. Corn snakes are typically found throughout the southeastern United States. There is a subspecies that is found in Texas, New Mexico and northern Mexico. A separate population is found in Utah and Colorado. Corn snakes like to live in pine forests, rocky areas, and areas with fallen trees. They like to hide and are not commonly seen in their native habitat. They are often active during the day in the springtime but active at night during warm summer weather.

Classroom Habitat

The first rule is: Find an escape-proof cage! I use a 20-gallon glass aquarium with a secure lid. I add textbooks as weights to keep the lid down. Corn snakes like to climb so I have tied several clean sturdy branches together to create a "climbing toy." I have provided a large hiding log (purchased at a pet store). There is a small bowl of fresh water for drinking. I put newspaper on the bottom because it is easy to change and simple to keep the cage very clean. I keep two-three corn snakes in the same cage. A heating pad underneath one half of the aquarium will allow the snake to choose the most comfortable temperature. I have also used commercial "hot rocks" very successfully although some books will warn that they could burn the snake if the rocks are not working properly. If you wish to breed your corn snakes, you will have to provide a cool environment for winter hibernation.

Food and Feeding Schedule

Corn snakes are quite easy to feed. Baby corn snakes eat "pinkies" or newborn mice. I put my babies in individual small plastic cages for feeding and give them one-two pinkies at a time once a week. I feed my adult corn snakes two mice every two weeks. You can feed them more often and they will grow faster but it is not necessary in order to have very healthy snakes. If you are interest in breeding, more frequent feeding during the non-hibernating period would be a good idea. Snakes must be separated for their feedings or they may grab the same rodent and constrict both the rodent and each other! Corn snakes are constrictors. If the mouse is big enough, the snake will grab the mouse and constrict it. Once the mouse is dead, the snake will swallow the mouse whole. If the mouse is very small, the snake may eat it without constricting.

Handling Tips:

If you have a corn snake that seems a little nervous, you can cover the head with a cloth while you pick it up. My snakes have "learned" that a head cover means being handled and NOT being fed. I tell my students to pretend that they are a tree and let the snake crawl about their hands. They can use their hands as guides. It is not necessary to squeeze the snake and potentially harm it. If the snake is a baby and very active, it can be held a little more firmly but no squeezing is ever necessary. Corn snakes are generally very mellow and make excellent snakes for first-time handlers.

Genetics

I promised to tell you about my interesting color mutations.

My amelanistic corn snake has a mutation that makes it unable to produce the black pigment, melanin. The orange splotches are missing the black rings so the snake takes on an overall bright orange appearance - very attractive!

The anerythristic corn snake has a mutation that makes it impossible to produce the orange color. The appearance is black splotches on a cream background. This is also a very dramatic looking snake--absolutely no orange.

The blizzard (or ghost) corn and the snow corn are white with red eyes. They are missing both the orange and black pigments. The snow corn has a little more apparent pattern giving it a snowflake appearance. The blizzard corn is very plain and white! These are also very surprising for students to look at.

Q & A

 

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