Northern Pine Snake Care

The northern pine snake is one of the most striking snakes from the Pituophis family. Their camouflage is reminiscent of trees and pine needles found in northern pine forests and they’re the most cryptic subspecies of pine snake.

Interestingly, an isolated colony of the northern pine snake exists in the legendary Pine Barrens of New Jersey. The northern pine snake carries a certain distinction and mystique originating from the same area as the Jersey Devil.

They’re not only found in New Jersey; specimens found to the south have much less black coloring. I believe they evolved to mimic the rattlesnake. Wild and even some captive-bred specimens readily rattle their tail when stressed. While being the ultimate bluffers, this snake takes a fearsome appearance when displaying defensive behavior.

Male Northern Pine Snake
A male northern pine snake found in my collection today.

Northern pine snake care

Care for the northern pine snake is rather straightforward and identical to their close relatives, the bullsnake, and the gopher snake. I definitely recommend buying captive-bred specimens, preferably hatchlings, over wild-caught ones.

It’s best to get them as young as possible so you’ll have complete control over how they’re brought up for when their adult personality forms.

Treat them well and handle them gently and many will grow into receptive, even-tempered adults. Another reason to avoid wild-caught specimens is that of their declining numbers in the wild. There’re enough breeders out there to satisfy the demand for these snakes. And what a beautiful snake they are.

Always have clean water available in the snake’s enclosure. These snakes commonly tip their water bowls over when they’re too light. A heavy-duty plastic bowl or a tin bowl with a rubber bottom helps prevent tipping and sliding of the water bowl. It’s not a definitive solution though, when these snakes get an idea, they’re stubborn and do as they please.

Never take retaliatory action against the snake for this. Also, be sure to get the water up as soon as possible. Excessive humidity can lead to an upper respiratory infection and these snakes don’t need high humidity levels. The only exception is when the snake prepares to shed. Raise the humidity a bit if the snake has a history of poor shedding.

Northern Pine Snake Facts

  • Experience level: Intermediate
  • Temperament: Docile to defensive
  • Family: Colubridae
  • Scientific name: Pituophis melanoleucus
  • Constrictor: Yes
  • Average adult size: 4 to 6 feet
  • Lifespan: 20 to 25 years
  • Venom: No
  • Hardiness: Hardy
  • Stress level: Moderate
  • Food: Small rodents
  • Reproduction: Egg laying
  • Breeding level: Somewhat difficult
  • Average Temperature: 80°H/70°L
  • Humidity: 40 to 60%
  • Habitat: Terrestrial
  • UVB lighting: No, optional
  • Enclosure size: Adult - 4'L x 18"W
  • Average price range: $100 - $175

Proper snake handling for positive interaction

Gain trust from your snake through gentle handling. Be confident, handle confidently. Always treat your snake with respect. Don't be overly forceful.

Habitat

As the name would imply, these snakes prefer vast pine forests but are also found in various other habitats including fields, hills, sandy areas, dunes, and other types of forests. They’re very shy and try their best to avoid people in the wild. As pets, they’re intelligent, alert and recognize their keeper over other humans once acclimated.

Enclosure size

While babies roughly up to a year are kept in various smaller enclosures, keep adults in enclosures at about 4‘L x 18″W in size.

Heating and humidity

Keep the ambient temperature at about 80°F and with a warm spot to aid digestion. Nighttime temperatures can drop about ten degrees. Keep humidity levels between 40 to 60%.

Northern Pine Snake Video

Cleaning snake enclosures

Keep your snake’s enclosure clean for both its health and to prevent unpleasant odors from forming. Snakes have no hair, therefore, produce no dander. If a snake enclosure smells, it’s due to bacteria buildup and needs proper cleaning.

The way and frequency of cleaning depend on the enclosure, the snake, the substrate, and most obviously, the smell. Spot cleaning is okay as long as all the bacteria is scrapped up in the process. If you still smell an odor, you didn’t get it all. While spot cleaning works in some situations, clean the entire enclosure when necessary.

A more thorough cleaning is required when unfortunate events such as regurgitation occur. Simply scrub down hard on soiled areas and decide by your own sense of smell if you eliminated all odor-causing bacteria. It’s not hard to keep a snake enclosure from smelling but you have to stay on top of it. I highly recommend high-quality air purifiers for snake rooms.

Size

The northern pine snake reaches impressive lengths. They average out to about five feet as adults while larger specimens are possible. They grow quickly attaining most of their length in the first two years of their lives. Avoid power feeding for faster growth. Believe it or not, they’ll grow just a fast when fed correctly. They’ll be healthier too. 

Lifespan

These are long-lived snakes. It’s not uncommon for these snakes to live up to twenty-five years so take that into consideration before you commit to buying one. Of course, only healthy ones reach the full potential of their lifespan. One of the best ways of doing this is to avoid overfeeding your northern pine snake. That goes for all the other snakes in their family as well.

Diet

In the wild, these snakes take rodents, birds, small rabbits, and possibly even squirrels. They also carrion feed when the opportunity presents itself.

Handling

These snakes are powerful when healthy. They have an extremely strong grip when they decide to use it. I find docile specimens extremely easy to handle. They don’t wiggle around as much as the bullsnake.

Still, the gopher snake handles slightly better, but they’re pretty close. It is important to develop a relationship with your northern pine snake. That means building trust through gentle handling.

Northern pine snake bite

These snakes are bluffers and their bark is far worse than their bite. They have rather small teeth compared to boas and pythons, so sustaining a bite from a pine snake isn’t a big deal. As with any non-venomous snakebite, be sure to wash the wound thoroughly with warm water and soap. Such lacerations heal quickly and vanish in a few days.

While taking a bite from your snake is frustrating, never take retaliatory action against it. Pet snake bites are the fault of the keeper, not the snake. A bite from a snake is a mistake, and there’s always a reason for it. Besides that, they wouldn’t understand any kind of “punishment” coming from you, so it’s pointless and only makes the problem worse. 

Remember that, similar to humans, snakes have bad days too. Avoid accidental feeding errors by not hand-feeding any of your snakes. Use forceps or hemostats. You don’t want your snake to associate your hand with food. That’s a bad habit to start.

Feeding – Don’t overfeed them!

I’ve never had any problems getting a northern pine snake to feed, but I do have some important advice. Don’t power feed your pine snake. They’re susceptible to regurgitation syndrome and vomiting damages their insides.

If you have a pine snake that has regurgitated, wait at least ten days before offering another meal. After a snake vomits, it loses essential enzymes necessary for digestion. It takes about ten days for these enzymes to replenish themselves. Feeding the snake too soon will lead to another bout of regurgitation and possible damage to the intestines.

Avoid feeding especially large prey to your pine snake

If a massive bulge appears in the snake’s belly, it’s a sign that you’re feeding it too large of a prey item. Instead of offering one large rat (to an adult), offer two or three rat pups or small mice instead. Only feed your adult pine snake every seven to ten days. Feed hatchlings up till their first year an appropriately sized rodent every four days.

I feed mine rat pinkies during this period of the snake’s life. Watch for obesity which can damage the liver and kidneys. If the keeled scales of the pine snake start to spread and you can see flesh between them, cut back on feeding. Spreading the meals out for a while will get the snake back down to healthy body weight.

Northern Pine Snake
A male northern pine snake I had back in the early 2000's.

Avoid nose rubs! Proper enclosure size for a pine snake (and bullsnake too!)

The enclosure for the pine snake must be spacious. This also applies to their cousins, the bullsnake. Both snakes grow larger than the gopher snake

While the pine snake is not nearly as active in its enclosure as the bullsnake, they’re both prone to nose rubs when quarters become too tight. These are large colubrids, after all. The pine, gopher, and bullsnakes all have noses that were apparently designed for burrowing.

While one would think this would make them less susceptible to nose rubs, the opposite holds true. They use their nose excessively when trying to dig their way out of a small enclosure. Unfortunately, their bulldozer nose is no match for glass, wood, or even plastic walls.

A defensive northern pine snake
A female northern pine snake demonstrating defensive behavior. Taming her down is challenging.

Northern pine snake temperament – About 50/50

I’ve kept many northern pine snakes over the years. When it comes to the temperament of these snakes, it’s about a 50/50 split. I’ve kept completely docile specimens who never displayed any defensive behavior.

I’ve also had specimens who were extremely nasty that never fully acclimated to handling. 

I’m going to go out on a limb here a make a general statement. In my experience, I’ve found localities to the north much more irritable than those found to the south of their range. Do not confuse them with the southern pine snake here. The northern pine snake is found as far south as Georgia.

It always seems like the darker ones are more feisty than the ones with higher white patterns. Nevertheless, this is a beautiful snake and when you find the right one, its disposition is like a corn snake. 

Northern Pine Snake
Just another pretty face?

Northern pine snake breeding

I have a friend who breeds the northern pine snake exclusively. He tells me these snakes are cooled down to the low-end temperatures you’d expect suitable for brumating colubrids. If the low temperature isn’t consistent, breeding simply won’t occur.

It’s worth mentioning that he deals specifically with specimens of New Jersey localities. For further information about breeding members of the Pituophis family, please refer to the Great Basin gopher snake page HERE.

I think there’s still plenty of room for new northern pine snake breeders. Babies move out swiftly when reasonably priced. Besides that, colubrid popularity is back on the rise.

A northern pine snake
Getting up close and personal with the northern pine snake. This is a male with stunning reddish highlights.

Availability

These snakes usually aren’t too hard to find. Keep an eye on the online classifieds and private breeders. Well-started babies are usually available from August until November. They’re also fairly common at snake shows.

Price

Out of the pine, bull, and gopher snakes, the pine snake remains the most expensive. It’s common to spend at least $150 for hatchlings and a bit more for adults, especially proven breeders. We’re not even talking morphs here.

The cleaner the white, the more expensive they are. The southern and black pine snakes are also pricey, but new conservation laws have greatly limited their availability. The Mexican pine snake is also more expensive.

Other phases of pine snake

Southern pine snake

Found in Florida and protected. These come in two phases – clean, or abstract. While both are really nice, I prefer the former phase. I kept a wild-caught specimen for a short time during a severe drought. The snake was found under a spigot awaiting the water to flow from it. He seemed very thankful for taking him in.

I offered him a large bowl of water which he proceeded to gulp down resulting in regurgitating some of it. He quickly rallied but had a hard time shedding out of its old skin due to long-term dehydration. I was able to help him with that too.

This southern pine snake was completely docile a real gentleman. At about five and a half feet long, he readily fed on small rats. After the drought had ended and the summer was over, I released him back where he was found. 

Mexican pine snake

The Mexican pine snake is offered for sale from several breeders/flippers and I must say that I’m tempted to buy a pair. I really like the coloring and clean pattern. If I had the room, I would keep a pair of every kind of snake.

Black pine snake

Another endangered species that is nearly impossible to score these days. While I’ve seen jet black specimens, I’ve also found some with blotches of gray, or white. I only kept one over the years. He often displayed a very nasty temper.

Conclusion

The northern pine snake can make a great pet when you get a docile one. Even when bought as hatchlings, there’s about a 50/50 chance on whether you’ll get a snake that’s easy to handle or one that sounds like air escaping from a hole in a tire every time you approach it.

I have a northern pine snake with such a disposition now, but I also have a male who is completely docile that doesn’t bite or hiss. While still a beautiful snake, it’s not something I’d recommend for first-time snake keepers. 

As members of the Pituophis family, remember not to overfeed your northern pine snake. As hatchlings, you might feed them appropriately sized pinkie or fuzzies every four to five days. As adults, feed them once a week at the most. Avoid offering large prey items such as jumbo rats. Instead, assuming you’re feeding a full-grown large northern pine snake, feed them two small rats or two mice.

The northern pine snake is one of my all-time favorites. I’d like to hear from those who have experience in husbandry and those who have valuable advice to add. Please do so in the comment section below.

Northern Pine Snake as Pets

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