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A Snappy Spaniard

Well, seems to have been a hot minute since I last put something up on here...past time. And today's topic, someone who might very well be the sassiest snake in the house:

A permanent glare and mouthy disposition; generally though, he never bites.

This is Spitfire. He's named that for a reason (just like he's got the nickname Huffle-Puff for a reason): there's a bit of attitude in this one and he likes to voice it. Not that it ever amounts to teeth in my hand, he just likes to be vocal about things he disapproves of: being offered mice when he's not hungry, the lid coming off his tub when he's in shed or in a hyper mood, if I accidentally breathe on him or move too fast...the list goes on. If he doesn't like it, he'll hiss and huff and look at you like you insulted his dignity.

Spitfire is an incredible example of several interesting factors that I'll cover in this blog: ontogenetic color changes (much like the Baird's ratsnakes I've touched on before, and will probably revisit at some point), convergent evolution, a point on the fact that snakes exist even where most people never think about them being there, and a case for individual personalities.

First, some natural history: Spitfire is what is commonly called a ladder snake, or ladder ratsnake. Depending on who you talk to, these guy are currently classified as Rhinechis scalaris or Zamenis scalaris (I align with the former, particularly due to most recent genetic studies), and used to be placed with many of the other old-world ratsnakes in the genus Elaphe (which also used to contain a lot of New World ratsnakes before genetics started showing that they really shouldn't all be lumped together; they've been separate for many millions of years). This species is found across most of the Iberian Peninsula ie. Spain and Portugal, and follows the coast and a few islands through southern France and just into western Italy. Yes, that's right: there are snakes in Europe, and a fair few different kinds. They can be found from sea level to almost 6500 feet in elevation (they tend to avoid the higher mountain ranges) and live just about anywhere there is semi-dry, scrubby vegetation with lots of leaf litter or loose earth that they can burrow and root around in. Any small animals may be considered prey, though they tend to target warm-blooded things and especially small mammals, and hunt either during the daytime or, when it's particularly hot out, in the twilight hours (much like more familiar species such as the corn snake).

Ladder snakes can grow to lengths of just over 5 feet, though between 3-4 feet is a more standard average. They are fairly heavy-bodied animals, terrestrial in habit (occasionally climbing in low brush or rocky areas) with an enlarged rostral scale on their nose to assist in digging. Their color, is the first big topic I'll cover, with photo assistance:

Spitfire when he first arrived as a juvenile.

Another angle, to show that adorable face.

When they're young, ladder snakes start out with a bright yellow coloration (not really shown in the above pics, I know; plant lights make for weird hues) overlaid by a busy, jet black pattern of mottled blotches on their sides and "H"-shaped dorsal markings, as well as a dark mask of lines across various parts of the head. This pattern and particular coloration doesn't stick around though; rather, as they get older, the side blotches and the bars crossing over their backs begin to fade, while the spaces between the arms of the "H"s darken, connecting the saddles to make a pair of parallel lines that run down the back. The following photos show Spitfire over the course of the past couple of years, as he's lost his baby shades and turned more adult.

With the change in pattern, the background color has also shifted; no longer yellow, Spitfire is now a more muted olive-tan with hints of an almost peachy or sandstone flecking on or between some scales. Other individuals may turn out a more slate gray, or almost creamy tan, even an almost solid sandstone background. More of the dorsal banding tends to remain near the tail, but even there is almost faded out; he now is an almost solid-colored, two-striped snake all the way down. The only real remainders of that strong pattern are the two stripes that shoot down from under and behind his eyes:

Even those, though, are somewhat muted now. Why do they undergo this change though? Many species go through some sort of change in appearance as they grow up, an ontogenetic shift, but not always this dramatic in terms of pattern. It could be the babies do better with a pattern that really breaks up their outline in flicker-fusion escape tactic, or perhaps the high contrast is a Batesian mimicry of some potentially harmful animal in their environment (insects or the native vipers being potential candidates). Adults, being a more formidable item to tangle with and perhaps blending better with solid-colored rocks, logs, or other debris in their environment, have little need for that complex coloration and perhaps survive better with just the movement-disorienting stripes. Either way, it makes for a fun trait to observe as it alters over time. Supposedly the sexes also differ somewhat in appearance, females being a touch more yellow, but sadly I don't have a girl to compare this dude to.

Ladder snakes are also a great example of convergent evolution. Anyone who's dealt with a bullsnake or other gopher snakes in the genus Pituophis might notice that there are some distinct similarities between these two genera: the heavy-bodied stature of a mostly terrestrial snake, the enlarged rostral scale for burrowing, shielded scales that stick out over the eyes and give the snake a rather classic "resting bitch face" look (pardon my French) to perhaps help keep dirt out of them or shade the pupils, and also the highly energetic defensive displays that can involve loud hissing, puffing up the neck and body and sitting up in a strike-ready S-posture, and a general preference for putting on a big show over actually biting.

The two groups are, however, not particularly closely related. Pituophis are allied with the North American ratsnakes and even kingsnakes more so than they are with Rhinechis and the other old world ratsnakes, probably the last ancestor the two shared was 5-15+ million years ago. Spitfire is closer to such species as the Asian bamboo ratsnakes or Eurasian leopard ratsnake. The reason they look similar is because they both experienced similar environmental pressures that selected matching traits to survive best. A scrubby semi-arid habitat tends to make animals less inclined to climb than a temperate or tropical forest will, and also encourages burrowing to escape harsh heat. A snake on the ground may also encounter more large predators than one in a tree, or even just animals liable to step on them, for which a display to make one's self look bigger or sound threatening and noticeable is useful; being heavy-bodied also makes them more intimidating. Similar cases can be seen in the emerald tree boa of South America vs. the green tree python of New Guinea; similar appearance, but entirely unrelated, just inhabiting a similar niche in the ecosystem.

As mentioned before, Spitfire has a rather unique personality out of all my snakes; while Rebel the bullsnake (again that convergent similarity) can occasionally get hissy and huffy, he doesn't do so as readily as Spitfire does. Some have reported their ladder snakes are even more cantankerous, musking and sometimes biting readily in defense; others also have reported individuals as laid back as your average corn snake. This is a great example that, even though most species have a particular tendency to behave in a certain way, all can be individuals, and have a personality that is unique to them and them alone. I suspect that many of the more cantankerous ladder snakes may be so due to less frequent handling, particularly when young, but this is of course only speculation.

If you're the kind of person who doesn't mind a little spice in your noodles, these guys tend to make decent pets. There are a few hurdles to get over if you want one though: first, is finding one. Europe has tightened restrictions on exporting many of their native species because a large number are threatened with extinction (because much of Europe has been more or less bulldozed in favor of human habitation development or agriculture). Ladder snakes are classed as IUCN Least Concern currently, as much of their range is not heavily developed and their habitat preferences lend them to hanging on pretty well around people (even supported by people when said folks recognize the rodent-removal service they provide around farms and houses instead of defaulting to killing them), but as they're still wildlife, they're affected by the same rules governing other species oftentimes. As such, ladder snakes only pop up occasionally here in the US, though those same restrictions do tend to mean the ones available are usually captive-bred which is always a good thing.

Once you find a ladder snake, next step is housing. As medium-sized terrestrial snakes, they don't need a lot of headroom (though if given branches to climb they will utilize them), but appreciate tubs or enclosures that are at least a couple feet across in lateral dimensions (a good rule of thumb is always at least 2/3 the length of the snake along one side, if not more; more is always better where possible). Substrate is best if it's a thick layer of aspen, newspaper, coco fiber, etc. to permit their burrowing habits as well, and several adequately-sized hides should be provided in various locations around the enclosure. Water bowls should be median-sized, up to big enough to let them soak, and also heavy enough that a burrowing reptile doesn't just tip the whole thing over (ceramic is good, and also much easier to keep clean than those textured plastic ones that build up grime in a heartbeat). These guys are not much for high humidity, and prefer it on the drier side, though when shedding if the enclosure is fairly arid it will often help to provide a shed box when they enter blue. Temperatures also should be fairly warm, similar to the conditions of corns and other warm-temperate snakes; a basking spot around 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with a cool side around 78.

Most ladder snakes are ready feeders, their food responses again similar to those of the North American gopher snakes. Mine is an exception, frequently entering periods of snappy refusal for no obvious reason (though more often in winter, when they would naturally slow activity if not enter hibernation), but generally if you offer a ladder snake food, watch your fingers because they're fast and lock onto movement with great intensity. A mouse or rat a little thicker than the thickest part of their body once every 7-10 days is usually enough for an adult snake, juveniles fed just a little more frequently as they grow faster. If handled gently and frequently, they can become great animals to work with, and like all my animals Spitfire has been tamed down in part to turn him into a reptile ambassador, helping people appreciate them more through direct encounters and sometimes handling:

Spitfire this past spring visiting students at my university.

So as a wrap-up, this is a very uncommon but extremely charismatic animal from a part of the world most people probably don't associate with many reptiles, and though Spitfire likes to voice his displeasures on the regular, that just adds to his charm in my opinion. Perhaps in a few years I can locate a girlfriend for him, and visit the topic of their reproductive patterns as well as show you all a whole new suite of those shockingly patterned youngsters.

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