An ontogenic change that is so drastic, it seems like two different snakes when you are the keeper of Black Milksnakes (Lampropeltis triangulum gaigeae). Hatchlings are born at around 13-15 inches with a tricolored banded pattern and gradually fade into a solid black snake as adults. A species that hails from the higher elevations (4000ft-7000ft) of Costa Rica and Panama, Black milksnakes were first established in captivity by the San Antonio Zoo. Many captive-bred lines are still from this original zoo bloodline. We suspect ours to be of the same origin. There are now a handful of breeders that are working with locality animals (eg. Limon, Costa Rica) to retain genetic vigor in captive populations. An impressive animal when full-grown, L. t. gaigeae will consistently reach the 6-foot mark with some individuals and localities reaching 7 feet in length. Couple this with their bulkier body shape, Black Milksnakes are sometimes called the “Poor Man’s Indigo” due to their resemblance to Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon couperi).
Hatchlings may be raised in plastic tubs but they very quickly outgrow this and would be more suited in an enclosure like a 24″x18″x18″ Exo Terra tank or enclosure of equivalent square footage. Due to their large size, adult Black Milksnakes will require a minimum cage size of 4’x2’x1′. More height may be provided but not as necessary as they are primarily terrestrial animals. We recommend having two hide options for your snake. One placed in the cooler end of the thermal gradient and the other in the warm section. Providing hides will also help your snake adjust to its new surroundings by offering a retreat when nervous. Substrate choices can vary but be sure to not allow for excessive humidity build-up due to the substrate. We have found that using a dry hardwood chip keeps the bacteria levels down while the humid hide we offer allows that option for increasing humidity as well.
The majority of caresheets that are out there will reference their high elevations in lieu of keeping Black milksnakes at cooler temperatures. However, we have found our animals basking in spots that reach 94F and have found no change in behavior or fat accumulation due to the warmer basking option. We do maintain our ambient temperatures cool enough (72-74F) most of the year for all our colubrids but found our Black Milksnakes to behave no differently even during the warmer months. There have also been reports of wild gravid females basking in sunlight patches that reach temperatures of 92F and higher. We provide our animals that are in cages with as wide of a thermal gradient as possible. Thermoregulation is a basic need for all reptiles and we like to provide our animals with options to pick their comfort zone. Hatchlings are raised in plastic tubs with a warm side of 83-85F and a cool end around 74-76F. As for adults, we recommend a gradient of 74-83F which leaves some room for fluctuations depending on your room and local climate. Being a montane species, Black milksnakes are cold tolerant but avoid temperatures below 68F for more than a couple of days.
Black Milksnakes do best when the humidity levels are within the 50-70% range. They can tolerate higher humidity but we prefer to keep it lower to prevent an increase in bacterial load in the enclosure. The majority of bacteria species thrive in more humid environments and the health of our animals is paramount. We are able to maintain this range by providing a humid hide all year round. A simple method of making one is by placing moist sphagnum moss inside the hide at the cool end of the enclosure. We have found much success by providing this to all our colubrid species. A weekly misting can help with maintaining those levels during the drier winter months as well.
While the importance of UV lighting may be questionable, the presence of a daylight cycle is still a necessity. This helps all animals with their circadian rhythm that can affect everything from eating habits to mating behavior. We provide a light cycle that simulates our Canadian climate with increased daylight in the summers (14 hours) to a reduction (10 hours) in the winter. We do this to cycle all our colubrids at the same time. A mean annual daylight length of 12 hours is enough if you are not creating a climate cycle. Climate cycling might be necessary to stimulate breeding behavior, however. We will cover aspects of their reproduction at another time, in a separate article. If you would like to peek at some snake breeding basics, here’s a link to a video we made about it. Snake Breeding
We currently house our breeding animals on dry hardwood chips (providing a humid hide to increase humidity). Be sure to allow for dry areas for your snake to move around on so as to prevent scale rot. Scale rot is a bacterial infection that can be caused by soiled and damp substrates. Ensure that whichever substrate you choose does not stay soaking wet for longer than 24 hours. We have found this species to be more prone to scale infections if housed on a substrate that holds humidity for too long. A dry substrate with the option to raise the humidity via a hide or water dish seems to be a safer option long term.
While their wild appetite may include reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals, we feed our Black milksnakes primarily rodents. Hatchlings are offered live pinky mice (Mus musculus) as their first meals without much fuss and very quickly switch to frozen-thawed bi-weekly or weekly offerings. We recommend hatchlings be fed every 5-6 days. They seem to have a slightly slower metabolism than other milksnakes that typically feed every 3-4 days. We slow down the feeds to weekly sessions when they are 1-2 years of age. This is coincidentally also the time when they fully mature into their solid black adult color and pattern. Adults are fed weekly. We occasionally also offer chicks and frog legs to our adults to provide a variety of nutrients. Once established as hatchlings, Black milksnakes rarely turn down a meal.
There should be at least two options to hide within your enclosure. One on the hot side and one on the cool side. Snakes enjoy hiding, so if there is only one hide on a side of the enclosure that is either too hot/cold and uncomfortable, it is unlikely that the snake will not leave the security of its hide. This can cause stress and refusal of meals along with other problems to your snake’s comfort and well-being. Water bowls are also required and expected to be cleaned and replaced with fresh water at least weekly. Water bowls should be big enough for your snake to sit and relax in. This will both help the shedding process while providing more humidity. The Black Milksnake is a terrestrial species that enjoys some low branches and other decor items to climb over on the floor of their cage. We try to emulate the slight changes in topography in the wild by avoiding a flat surface at all costs. Snakes are thigmotactic animals and feel more secure when moving alongside, around, or over other objects. Fake plants also provide some shade from the lights and hiding areas to make your milksnake feel more secure.
This has to be our favorite aspect of keeping these magnificent snakes. A stark contrast to your typical milksnake, L. t. gaigeae are more confident in their movements and rarely show signs of nervousness. While babies may be more prone to attempt squirming away, they do not tend to bite. Typically only excreting musk or urates as a defense mechanism when young, our adult snakes are so well-mannered that they are a favorite for photoshoots. It could very well be this calm demeanor that also reminds keepers of the Indigo Snake. While the smaller milksnake species and even some of the larger ones (including L. t. hondurensis) can be prone to being more nervous, the Black Milksnake consistently matures into a mellow fellow. For more information on how to deal with your first hatchling black milksnake, click here.
With more keepers catching on to the award-winning personality of the Black Milksnake, it is comforting to see more captive propagation in recent years. Along with the addition of locality animals, this species only serves to ensure its longevity amongst herpetoculturists for years to come. Many seek to own a black snake to start with, but Black Milksnakes bring their keeper along a growth journey before maturing into their final form. Why? Because some things are just well worth the wait.