Exotic. Uncommon. Incredible. Dazzling. Underappreciated.
All of these are words I would readily use to describe today's blog subject: Reynard and Domhara, my pair of Dominican Red Mountain Boas.
Once classed in the same genus as the far better-known Rainbow Boas (Epicrates), this species and most of the other boas found throughout the Caribbean from the Bahamas all the way south to the Virgin Islands and their neighbors have been placed in their own group, genus Chilabothrus. Some species are very small (not to be confused with the so-called "dwarf boas" of the Tropidophiidae family which are also found throughout the Caribbean and the Central/South American mainland), including the critically endangered Virgin Island boas, while others like the Cuban tree boa can exceed 14 feet in length. The Dominican however, C. striatus, is a more moderate species, with adults averaging 5-6 feet and only rarely pushing to sometimes 7 or 8 feet in length.
As the name suggests, the Dominican Mountain or Hispaniolan Boa is primarily found on the island of Hispaniola, where the Dominican Republic and Haiti are located, and a few outlying offshore islands (reports of this species in the Bahamas are false, belonging instead to the Bahamian Boa species of which there are a surprisingly large number of at least 5 in the archipelago). Three subspecies are known, two from restricted regions in Haiti and the third (ssp. striatus, the nominate subspecies) more widespread across the island and also the primary one in captivity. They are an adaptable species built for an arboreal lifestyle especially when young, which my pair loves to show off as they climb up the branches in their tubs every night I can observe them. Extremely slender overall until they reach full maturity, and with a highly prehensile tail, when they decide they want to hang on it's hard to get them to climb off something (and for their size they are powerful animals). As adults, they are more often found on the ground, as they do develop a bit of a thicker build (similar to that of many carpet pythons), but still will regularly climb if given opportunity.
This species can be found through most of the island habitats present, from sea level to over 4,000 feet in elevation; their preferred habitat though is the thicker wet forests of the highlands, where it's humid, more moderately warm than hot, and muggy most of the time. Nocturnal by nature as well, they are the most active at night (and both of mine love demonstrating this; thumps in the dark are not uncommon as they drop off their branches from a misjudged grip or reach), and use both the sense of smell all snakes rely on as well as rows of sensory heat pits along their lips to locate prey. These pits are not as obvious as those in many python species, or even many of their arboreal South American relatives, and not quite as sensitive as those of pitvipers, but just visible if one looks closely enough and powerful enough to do their job. Their eyes have highly slit pupils, narrow even when expanded in the dark. Anything small enough is fair game: lizards, rodents, birds, etc. However, youngsters have a particular proclivity for four-legged reptiles, while the adults are far more generalized.
The appearance of the Dominican boa can be highly variable, but often truly striking. Babies, like Reynard, are a range of dull grayish brown or rusty colors, lighter in the background and near the head with darker often highly convoluted blotches (especially toward the back end) and similarly darker tails, and those blotches often fronted or ringed by even darker to black borders. As they grow, the borders around the blotches often grow more distinctive, similarly with the color difference between background and blotch. Adults from some localities and lineages are where the "Red Mountain" name arose; while many may still end up rather drab shades of brown on reddish brown or silver-grays, others age to truly brilliant rusty oranges or fiery reds, brightest as always near the head and fading to varied shades of rust, silver, and brown along the tail and everything overlain and enhanced in wow-factor by the shimmering iridescent properties their scales possess. Out in sunlight, an adult is a jaw-dropping brilliant animal. The leading edge of most blotches are also more deeply outlined in darker shades than the trailing edges, making for almost banded and fading appearances within the larger pattern.
Perhaps one of the other more interesting and lesser known facts about this species though, and a trait shared by some of the other species in the genus and, interestingly, even more strongly in the "dwarf boas" of the region: depending on their mood, temperature, or time of day, they can change color somewhat. Domhara will readily shift even now from a drab (wrong word really, still an intense deep color) rusty orange to a brighter, more flashy sandstone color seemingly on a whim at times.
Behaviorally, the Dominican is also a top-notch animal. Few ever have the inclination to bite even in defense, and are instead extremely inquisitive (if cautious especially when young) and love to roam. Most cases where bites are known have typically been due to a feeding accident, or a blue-moon chance with a snake in a particularly foul mood one day; overall, it simply doesn't factor as a valid risk with keeping them. As seen below, they're the kind of animal you really don't have to worry with at all unless you've done something worth being bitten for:
With these incredible attributes, it would seem inexplicable that this species is still so uncommonly seen in captivity. But, there are at least a couple decent reasons for why they're not quite so common as the far more cantankerous Brazilian and Colombian Rainbows. For starters, the issues with babies. As mentioned previously, one of the primary food sources for this snake in its natural biome is lizards, and in a region where tiny reptiles swarm in the trees and bushes, anoles and other diminutive species make up almost the entire menu list for juvenile boas. This translates directly into captivity as well most of the time; while anoles and geckos are far easier to acquire than, say, the brush and fence lizards some southwestern US kingsnakes etc. tend to prefer, they are still less common and also more expensive than the dime-a-dozen rodents we keepers like to feed our animals.
So, when a big female boa gives birth (yes, like most boas this species is viviparous, and may produce anywhere from 12-30 plus little squirmers), many if not most of the offspring tend to want lizards and nothing else from the get-go. This is where Reynard is still at; at about 8 months of age right now he's finally reaching the transition stage (heavily scented pinky mice are taken), but until now he's only taken lizards, even if he does so quite readily an with quite large lizards compared to his size. It's impressive how large a meal they can get down their pencil-thin necks, but I digress. It can take anywhere from a few weeks to many months or even up to a year to get some to finally start switching to rodents, and as a fairly cautious nocturnal animal babies are typically more willing to feed and easier to convince rodents are food when offered at night, or within the safety of a hide, which takes some finagling on the keeper's part sometimes.
Once they're on rodents though, this is a species that doesn't often refuse food (except when in shed sometimes, or when males are ready to breed; the standard refusal moments for most species). When Domhara is being a little more skittish and doesn't take it off the tongs, I need only leave the mouse near the entrance of whatever box she's in and let her take her own time. It's important not to overfeed these snakes too however, once a week for babies and once every other week or so for subadults and adults with a properly sized food item (a bit thicker than the thickest part of their body) is enough. A naturally very slender species, they're also slow growers and so feeding too often especially as they get older can and will result in fat snakes. A fat snake is not a healthy snake.
The other big issue with these guys: they don't usually bite, but if you scare one you will probably regret it. Many species of snake naturally musk as a defensive tactic, producing a foul substance to ward off predators that they'll smear around with their tails, but mountain boas take it one step further: irritate one and they can projectile squirt it across a room, and one unhappy boa can make those with lesser constitutions gag outright. Well-handled animals do it far less of course (Domhara has only musked a few times, Reynard never has so far), but all it can take sometimes is one good scare and you might have to air the space out for a few days before you can breathe in there again. On a similar note, when these guys make the more standard messes, they pee. A lot. And it tends to set in a paste that takes some scrubbing to get off (especially as they like to do so from atop their branches so it drips across several parts of the cage furniture). So, regular cleaning is very important, and just a little more intensive than the needs for cleaning up after a corn snake for example.
If you can get an animal already established on rodents though, and you're willing to work with it enough to get it accustomed to handling and/or be ready to deal with the occasional stinkbomb, a Dominican Mountain Boa is a great moderately sized pet. They do need a bit of humidity, so large tubs may be more effective than big glass cages (Domhara is housed in a big storage tub currently, one that will be upgraded as she reaches full size) to keep that moisture in, but that can also mean the overall house for them can be fairly inexpensive; adults like an environment at least 4 feet long and a couple feet high/deep, sizes that can easily be found in sturdy tubs. Also, they are more forgiving on the humidity aspect than rainbow boas are, and the only absolute need is make sure it's up when they're in shed (or like me, just always let them have a nice moist shed box available and spritz the cage every couple days; Domhara regularly chills out in the moss day to day). More than one hide is wise, and having space for them to climb and things to climb on is a must. Water dishes big enough to soak in are also recommended, and the temperature gradient for this species is pretty easily maintained; room temperature or a touch higher for the ambient, and a hot side in the mid-80's. Like most snakes, heat can be given in several different ways, and though they may appreciate the ability to bask in sunshine or a good light, UVB rays are not a requirement for the species; after all, they often spend the better part of the day hidden from sight.
Overall, I consider this to be one of my favorites of the species I currently keep, even if they have both their pluses and their drawbacks. With a bit of experience earned with other snakes, these are one that I strongly recommend, particularly if you're looking for something a little different, a little Latin American, and perhaps a little more handleable than your average rainbow boa. I might stress though: make sure you acquire them from reputable sources who take good care of their animals first, and breed in captivity. Though this species is not currently listed yet as threatened or even vulnerable by conservation authorities, the nations that divide its island habitat are somewhat unstable and have imposed little control or enforcement over the collecting of animals or the preservation of their habitat, so this species could face risks of overcollection or habitat loss in the near future if not (unreported) already and place it in the same ranks as the already endangered Puerto Rican and Virgin Islands boas. For so beautiful an animal, such would be a tragedy, so best to seek those with experience and captive-bred history, to learn about acquire these fantastic animals from.