Sometimes there is just not room for a large vivarium suitable to house a larger snake. However there are a number of interesting snakes that would be suitable for smaller enclosures. Commonly available are Kenyan Sand Boas, Children’s Pythons, Western Hog Nose etc. The Banded Water Snake (also known as the Southern Water Snake) is an often overlooked alternative. We rarely stock them as we only stock captive bred animals and these are just not often available.
The banded water snake is an attractively patterned, non venomous, semi aquatic (in the wild), reasonably heavy bodied, although fairly short snake from some of the southern states of America. On average the snakes grow to just under a meter with the males a bit less and the females sometimes slightly more. It fills the niche occupied by the grass snake in the UK (and actually has similar colouration, especially the underside – although different patternation). It is semi aquatic, spending much of its active time around the banks and fringes of lakes and rivers where it commonly feeds on fish and amphibians. In captivity it will eat small rodents so don’t worry about feeding, you won’t have to get hold of frogs.
The UK regulations guidelines on housing for snakes suggest a vivarium length of not less than 2/3rds the adult length of the snake, so an 18 inch (45cm) minimum vivarium for a male or a 24 to 30 inch for a female. In the wild the banded water snake is semi aquatic. but this does not mean a semi aquatic vivarium is necessarily best for captive snakes. If you have the time (and money for kit) this would make an attractive set up but I would not recommend this for beginners, busy people or people on a budget. In an aquatic set up it is very important to keep the land area fairly dry to prevent scale rot, the air well ventilated and turning over regularly to prevent fungal growth and have a good filtration system for the water. Banded water snakes have a habit of defecating in the water. You will need a more efficient filter than you need for an equivalent sized fish tank. It would be more beneficial to the snake for most keepers to set up a terrestrial viv. using substrate suitable for increased humidity and have a larger than normal water dish, which would need refreshing daily. In this type of set up the snake will thrive but not be at risk of all the potential problems of the more complex semi aquatic vivarium. Glass vivariums (or terrariums if you like) are ideal as they will tolerate higher humidity without issue but wooden are fine as long as the ends of the panels are sealed and also the joints when assembled. This prevents moisture getting into the joints, vents etc. and causing the vivarium panels to “blow”.
As with most snakes UVB lighting is not really necessary for a banded water snake but a day/night cycle is and of course you will want to see it. There are various lighting options available and it depends a bit on how you are heating your viv. My preferred lighting would be an LED strip or screw in LED lamp. But other lamps will work (such as energy efficient lamps – the curly fluorescent ones that take an age to brighten up). Just remember that incandescent lamps (the old “light bulb” or “spot lamp”)and halogen lamps are inefficient at producing light and waste a lot of energy producing a lot of heat (which is why they are used for heating and for basking areas). There will need to be a method of controlling that heat (thermostat) and a guard to protect the snake from burning itself if you use this method, which is why I tend to avoid it now better methods are available. You can use incandescent to create a basking area for the snake if you wish but from experience this is not essential as long as you can maintain a good thermal gradient across the viv.
Banded water snakes are relatively small snakes so heating with a heat or “thermal” mat is fine. The snake will not grow large enough to cover the whole mat (and by doing so produce a phenomenon known as “thermal blocking”) and the heat will radiate and convect round the whole vivarium whilst still producing a “hot end”. Mounting the heat mat on the end wall of the vivarium rather than the floor produces a longer thermal gradient for the snake to enjoy and goes some way to preventing accidental damage to the mat by dropping something on it and inadvertently piecing it with a sharp piece of substrate. Not very likely but I have known two customers do this and it produces a lot of smoke as the hot spot this creates smoulders the viv. and/or substrate. An alternative would be to use an infra red lamp or a ceramic heat emitter and both would work well but you must also fit a heater cage to protect the snake from burning itself (unless of course the heater is above the mesh top of a glass vivarium).
Whichever heating system you use you will need a thermostat to control the temperature. If a heater fails the snake will be fine for a few days until you can replace it. If it gets too hot it could be dead in hours (it could even suffer nervous system damage within minutes if hot enough) so a thermostat is essential kit. The on/off thermostats used with heat mats are typically half the price of the pulse proportional or dimmer stats commonly used with heat emitters so this may influence your decision.
A hot end temperature of up to 30C with a low end of 24C is what to aim for.
As said, unless you have a bit of extra cash and the luxury of some extra time, I would not go down the semi aquatic route. A simple set up with a hot end, a cold end, substrate such as coir or orchid bark (or a mix or the two), a couple of hides at least, one with some damp moss under it to create an even more humid microclimate for shedding, a bit of decor to make it interesting to look at and a larger than average water bowl placed somewhere in the middle to help with humidity levels, a temperature gauge and a humidity gauge is all you need. The banded water snake does seem to enjoy a more crowded vivarium so use decor it can get under, hide in and explore. The good old skull ornament usually features in our set ups somewhere! Ideally humidity wants to be up to 60% and no lower than 40%.
If you do want to go for a semi aquatic set up it is vital that the barrier between the water and the land area is sealed properly to prevent the substrate getting water logged. If this happens it will lead to fungal growth (which can cause respiratory problems in snakes) and scale rot if there is nowhere dry for the banded water snake to hole up in. On top of that it will smell, as the lower levels become anoxic and the substrate starts to rot. The water will require a good filter to remove solids (waste from the snake and bits of substrate knocked in) and to provide a medium for the bacteria that eat ammonia and nitrite to live in (Nitrosomonas and Nitrobacter). A gravel bed will also provide extra surface area for bacterial growth. A few broad leaved plants in the water will provide cover and make it more likely the snake will use the water to explore. It will need to be treated like a fish tank; regular partial water changes and gravel cleans (in situ) and de-chlorinator will need to be added to any fresh tap water used (unless using rain water or RO water). Regularly check any wooden matter such as branches, including the reverse side, for any signs of mould or mildew. The snake itself will need to be monitored more closely to ensure it is not suffering from any of the problems associated with much higher humidity already mentioned. See why it may not be a good idea for a beginner?
Wild banded water snakes mainly eat small fish and amphibians. Wild caught specimens will tend to need this food, at least initially. This is another good reason to go for captive bred (and we only sell captive bred animals), aside from the ethical and health reasons (wild caught are likely to come with their own little cast of parasites and ailments). Captive bred snakes will eat defrosted mice (pinkies for hatchlings or very young snakes). A tip I read suggested that, as the snakes tend to hunt fish by corralling them in the shallows and then sticking their head amongst them and swiping round at anything that touched their necks, touching the snake on the side just behind the head will stimulate a feeding response. Now I always take things on the internet with a pinch of salt but I have tried this myself and it does work. Please note that it will be necessary to increase the size of the food as the snake grows. Seems obvious but I know of owners with two year old corn snakes still feeding pinkies because “that was what the shop told me to feed it”.
Banded water snakes generaly live to around 15 years.
The Angell Pets Team