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Sunbeam Snake

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Lukas Ackermann

Is the Sunbeam Snake right for you?

Species group:

Other common names: Asian Sunbeam

Scientific name: Xenopeltis unicolor

The basics:
The Sunbeam Snake is classified in the same Super Family as the pythons, but some very unique characteristics have landed it in a family all its own. Rarely bred or even kept, yet quite common in the wild, this fascinating snake presents us with a wonderful opportunity for study. The Sunbeam Snake occupies a vast range, being found from India, Myanmar and southern China through most of Southeast Asia to Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines. A related species is limited to southern China. Nocturnal and highly fossorial (dwelling below-ground), it frequents moist to wet habitats such as lowland river edges, rice paddies, swamps, and seasonally-flooded fields.

Appearance / health:
Don’t be misled by the “unicolor” portion of the Latin name – “Sunbeam” is far more appropriate, as this gorgeous snake gives new meaning to the word “iridescence”. The range and brightness of the colors it exhibits under light far exceed those of the Rainbow Boa and other better-known species. In subdued lighting, the upper body is colored reddish-brown or black, while the ventral surface is cream to white. The scales are small, and appear “polished”.

A cylindrical shape and small, pointed head mark the Sunbeam Snake as a highly-skilled burrower. Adults average 3 to 4 feet in length.

Behavior / temperament:
Sunbeam Snakes become stressed when removed from their subterranean hideaways, and should not be handled unless absolutely necessary (captive bred specimens may vary in this regard). In any event, the smooth, glossy scales render them difficult to control, and the musk they release when disturbed is among the worst conjured up by any snake. When left alone, however, Sunbeams adapt well to captivity and are most interesting to observe. In common with Sand Boas and other burrowing species, Sunbeam Snakes often strike at anything moving across the substrate, so take care when working in the terrarium.

Housing:
A single adult may be housed in a 40 to 75 gallon aquarium stocked with 6-10 inches of moist cypress mulch, sphagnum moss, or similar substrates. These secretive snakes will not thrive if forced to shelter in caves; body contact with the substrate is essential to their well-being. However, some will remain beneath a piece of glass laid atop the substrate, and so may be easily observed. The tank’s screen lid should be secured by cage clips. Red or black reptile night lights will assist in nighttime observations, when Sunbeam Snakes leave their underground retreats. Ambient temperature: 75-85 F. Basking temperature: 88-90 F.

Droppings should be removed as they appear. In contrast to most commonly-kept snakes, Sunbeams thrive in damp conditions. The substrate should be kept moist. As other snakes are included in their diet, Sunbeam Snakes are best housed alone, and should be watched carefully when paired for breeding. Nearly all offered for sale have been wild-caught, and therefore should be examined by a veterinarian.

Diet:
Sunbeam Snakes are opportunistic predators that consume frogs, lizards, snakes, and small mammals such as moles, shrews, and rodents. Prey is overcome by constriction, and most have a very strong feeding response. They will literally explode from the substrate to snatch mice moved about with a feeding tong…very impressive, and always a shock to the uninitiated! The jaws of the Sunbeam Snake are not well-suited to swallowing large meals. Except for extra-large individuals, young mice are preferable to adults as a food source.

Written by Frank Indiviglio

Breeding:
Virtually nothing is known of their breeding habits in the wild, and captive reproduction is, unfortunately, quite rare. Clutches may contain up to 18 eggs; the young sport a white neck-collar that fades within 12 months.