Corn snakes are beautiful, docile, and easy to keep. They come in a wide variety of colors and patterns and make rewarding pets for beginning and experienced owners alike. Yet because they are so common and inexpensive, they sometimes don’t get the attention – or care – they deserve.
Corn snakes don’t have a lot of specialized requirements. You don’t need expensive reptile foggers, UV lights or anything fancier than a clean cage and a steady supply of mice. With good care and a proper diet, your Corn Snake can live over 20 years in captivity.
This article introduces you to one of America’s most beautiful snakes. We will discuss the Corn snake’s history and its life in the wild. We will talk about some of the many morphs produced by Corn Snake breeders and tell you how to give your Corn Snake the best possible home and diet.
But first, let’s start by answering the question everyone asks: why do we call them “Corn Snakes”?
How Corn Snakes Got Their Name
In the 17th and 18th centuries American Colonists living in the south grew a lot of corn. After they harvested their corn, farmers stored the ears in buildings called cribs. The corn provided food for the colonists. But it also drew hungry rats and mice. The rats and mice, in turn, drew hungry local snakes.
Farmers came to call the red-orange snakes they saw slithering in their corn cribs “corn snakes.” The logs and rafters provided Corn Snakes with hiding places. In return, the Corn Snakes took care of the rodents who came to eat but got eaten instead.
Another theory suggests the farmers called them Corn Snakes because of the checkerboard pattern on a Corn Snake’s stomach bears some resemblance to a variegated ear of corn. The specifics are foggy but these snakes clearly have been associated with corn for a very long time.
In 1766 Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus classified the Corn Snake as Elaphe guttata. Linneaeus thought the North American snake was closely related to the European rat snakes. Until the early 21st century biologists agreed with Linnaeus.
With the advent of DNA testing, scientists realized the relationship between European and American rat snakes was more distant than Linnaeus realized. In 2002 Elaphe guttata was renamed Pantherophis guttata.
Corn Snakes in the Wild
Corn Snakes can be found throughout the southern United States. Their range spreads from eastern Texas and Louisiana to the Florida Keys and as far north as the southern New Jersey Pine Barrens. They are comfortable in pine and oak forests, underbrush, and fields, where they spend much of their time hiding under logs and rocks.
While human habitation threatens many species, Corn Snakes are tolerant of humans and still congregate in barns and abandoned buildings where they find shelter and rodents. But many Corn Snakes are killed crossing highways, while others are killed by humans who mistake them for venomous Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix).
If you live in an area where both Copperheads and Corn Snakes are found, here are a few ways you can tell the difference:
- Copperheads are shorter and heavier-bodied than Corn Snakes
- Copperheads have a cat’s-eye slit pupil while a Corn Snake’s pupils are round.
- Copperheads have a larger triangular-shaped head.
- A Corn Snake is more brightly colored than a Copperhead.
Whether it is a Corn Snake or a Copperhead, back away and give the snake room to escape. Both Corn Snakes and Copperheads would rather avoid you than bite. Both snakes eat harmful rodents, and in many areas, both are protected by law in the wild.
Corn Snakes are not fussy eaters in the wild. While they primarily eat rodents, they will climb trees for eggs and hatchling birds. In the New Jersey Pine Barrens Corn Snakes supplement their mouse diet with Eastern Fence Lizards.
Corn Snake Morphs
In the wild Corn Snakes have brown, orange, golden yellow, red and black patterns on their back and sides. In the pet trade Corn Snakes come in several hundred different pattern and color variations.
Corn Snake pattern morphs include:
A few of the many color morphs include:
- Candy Cane
Breeders have combined these morphs to create designer Corn Snakes with multiple mutations. There are also several Corn Snake hybrids available including
- Jungle: Corn Snake x California King Snake
- Scaleless: Corn Snake x Great Plains Rat Snake
- Turbo: Corn Snake x Gopher Snake, Pine Snake or Bull Snake
This article goes into more detail about some of the most popular Corn Snake morphs.
Housing Your Corn Snake
Hatchling Corn Snakes are between eight and twelve inches long and can live comfortably in a shoebox-sized terrarium. But Corn Snakes grow quickly. Within two years that cute little slithering pencil will be between three and five feet long.
Whatever size home you choose, make sure the top is tightly secured. The slender-bodied Corn Snake is a notorious escape artist. Avoid using screened tops. While they provide ventilation, Corn Snakes will rub their noses raw on them.
Corn Snakes are very active and like to climb. Give them a branch to exercise on and they will spend more time outside their hides. And while you can keep an adult Corn Snake in a 20- or 30-gallon aquarium, it will be much happier in a larger container.
A clear plastic holiday tree container is a great way to give your Corn Snake a roomy home. They are inexpensive, easy to clean and secure against escape. Since Corn Snakes like ventilation, you can add a few tiny air holes on each end.
Use a drill or awl to make these holes. Work from the inside of the container and gently sand away any rough edges that might injure a rubbing snake. This will give your Corn Snake some air and help keep their humidity at a suitable level.
Give your Corn Snake hiding places. Ideally your snake should have a hide in both the warm and the cool areas. The hide should be big enough that your Corn Snake can fit their whole body inside, but small enough to provide a feeling of security and pressure. In the wild Corn Snakes squeeze themselves under fallen logs or piles of debris to avoid predators.
Your Corn Snake should have a heavy, shallow water dish. If the dish is too light your active Corn Snake might tip it over. The bowl should be big enough that the Corn Snake can soak its entire body. Corn Snakes will soak while in shed or for relaxation. Make sure your Corn Snake always has clean water – especially since they sometimes use their water dish as a toilet!
Unless you are breeding your Corn Snakes, they should each be kept in individual cages. Corn Snakes are not social animals and keeping them together in an enclosure causes them stress.
Substrate for your Corn Snake
Many keepers use newspaper or paper towel for lining Corn Snake cages. This substrate is inexpensive and easy to replace but not particularly attractive. Reptile carpet is convenient, attractive and easy to clean in cold tap water. But Corn Snakes burrow in the wild and will frequently find ways to crawl under their carpet.
For a substrate that resembles the Corn Snake’s wild environment, try a mixture of two parts organic topsoil, two parts Exo Terra Plantation Soil, and one part play sand. Make sure the topsoil is organic and contains no chemical fertilizers or additives!
Avoid substrates with wood chips or 100% sand substrates. Your Corn Snake can ingest these while eating and wind up with an intestinal blockage. Pine or cedar shavings are found in many pet stores but should not be used as their oils are toxic to snakes.
Whatever substrate you choose, make sure it is kept clean. Check your Corn Snake’s home every day and spot-clean any excrement you may find. Once a month change the substrate out entirely. A dirty cage can lead to scale rot, infections and other problems.
UV Lamps for Corn Snakes?
Unlike iguanas, bearded dragons, and other lizards, Corn Snakes do not need UV supplementation to survive. But in the wild Corn Snakes spend a good bit of time in the sunshine soaking up UV rays.
Many Corn Snake breeders claim their snakes are healthier and show brighter colors when exposed to 10-12 hours of UV light a day. Other keepers do not use UV light in their Corn Snake cages. Their snakes are also healthy and brightly colored: whether or not they would do better under UV light is an often-debated topic.
Whether or not you choose to add UV supplementation to your Corn Snake’s habitat, you should probably refrain from using UV light with any albino or red-eyed Corn Snakes. Albinism makes them more sensitive to sunburn and damage from UV rays.
Heating a Corn Snake’s Cage
A heating pad or heat tape on the bottom of your Corn Snake’s cage will ensure it always has a warm spot to digest its meals. A basking area of 85 to 88 degrees will be ideal: the cool area should be 78 to 82 degrees. At night the temperature can drop to 68.
To maintain this heat, use a reptile thermostat to ensure the warm side stays warm. A thermostat with a timer can help reproduce the day/night temperature gradient Corn Snakes experience in the wild. Thermostats are not optional. Corn Snakes should have a warm area, but too much warmth can kill them.
If you are planning to breed your Corn Snake, a three-month period of brumation at temperatures of 41-59 degrees will put them in the mood for springtime love when they are warmed up. Remember that a Corn Snake’s natural environment gets chilly in the winter. Also keep in mind that the usually diurnal Corn Snake hunts at night during summertime to avoid the heat.
Feeding a Corn Snake
Hatchling Corn Snakes need food every 5-7 days. Offer them pinky mice to start and increase the size of their food items as they grow. Once they are past 18 inches you can start feeding them every 7 to10 days. An adult Corn Snake should be fed one or two large mice every 10 to 14 days.
Corn Snakes can take mice their whole lives. You can also feed them very small rats. Rats are more energy-dense than mice. A juvenile Corn Snake eating rat pinkies or hoppers should be fed every 10 to14 days. An adult Corn Snake eating rat fuzzies should only be fed every 14 to 21 days. Quail eggs may also be a welcome occasional treat.
Obesity is a major issue with many captive snakes. Lack of exercise and ready access to food means they pack on fat stores that can lead to health problems. In the wild Corn Snakes regularly go weeks or even months without eating. So long as your snake is maintaining its weight and not showing signs of lethargy or emaciation, it will be fine.
Handling Your Corn Snake
Unlike some feistier serpents such as White-Lipped Pythons, Corn Snakes very rarely bite, musk, or poop on their handler. Handling gives active and curious Corn Snakes a workout and a chance to explore. But too much handling can make your Corn Snake stressed.
You should avoid handling your Corn Snake for 24 to 48 hours after it eats. When handled after eating, some snakes will regurgitate their meal. This is messy and can kill your pet. You may also want to avoid handling your Corn Snake while it is in shed. A shedding snake cannot see well through its cloudy old skin and may be defensive.
(That being said, if your Corn Snake is having a bad shed taking it out and then letting it slither around in a moist warm towel should remove any stuck skin).
You should handle your Corn Snake no more than 3 or 4 times a week. Be gentle with them and do not squeeze or grab too tightly. Pay attention while you are holding your snake. Corn Snakes are docile and easy-going, but they can move quickly. If your Corn Snake gets out of your grasp he could be under a refrigerator or bookcase in seconds.
If you are looking for your first snake, a Corn Snake is an excellent option. Corn Snakes tolerate a wide range of environments and are not fussy eaters. They are strikingly beautiful in their wild form and the many Corn Snake morphs available give prospective Corn Snake owners a wide variety of patterns and colors to choose from.
Keep your Corn Snake’s habitat clean. Make sure their lid is tightly sealed and that they have no opportunities to escape. Provide them a steady supply of food, but don’t overdo it. Keeping Corn Snakes really is that simple. With the pointers provided above, you now know what it takes to provide your Corn Snake everything it needs for a long and healthy life.