Sunbeam snakes are a fascinating family of snakes famous for their iridescent scales.
These snakes are related to pythons but are unique enough to be a separate family. They are a much older than pythons and have changed very little over millions of years.
Unlike pythons they are adapted to digging in the forest floor. This means they have a much less evolved skull and jaw structure.
Not much is known about this family of snakes compared to more popular pet pythons like Ball pythons. Yet, dedicated keepers continue to learn more about this elusive family of snakes.
Continue reading as we share nine interesting facts about this species.
1. Their Scientific Name Means “Alien Shield”
Most people know this species as the Sunbeam snake or iridescent earth snake. However their true scientific name is Xenopeltis.
They were first named in 1827 by a Dutch botanist Casper Reinwardt who discovered them while living in Indonesia. Their name Xenopeltis breaks down into two parts:
- Xeno is a Latin root word that translates to ‘alien’ or ‘other’.
- Peltis comes from a Greek word for a small type of armor.
When combined these two root words roughly mean ‘alien shield’.
This odd name describes the beautiful and unique coloring of the outer scales of this species. Their appearance is unlike any other pet snake. While they appear black or brown in the shade, bringing one into the light exposes a hidden array of colors.
Their scales are iridescent which gives them the same rainbow appearance as an oil spill on water.
Even apart from their brilliant colors the Sunbeam snake is an unusual-looking species because they are an active burrower. This behavior means they have a narrow, shovel-shaped head to make it easy to dig in loose earth and marshy vegetation.
Since it is nocturnal and does not rely heavily on sight while hunting its eyes are small and poorly developed compared to species that are active during the day.
2. There Are Two Sunbeam Snakes
The family Xenopeltidae consists of two species the common (Xenopeltis unicolor) and the Hainan (Xenopeltis hainanensis). The common Sunbeam snake has a larger range than Hainan’s and is more often sold in the pet trade. The range of these two snakes overlaps in southern China where they share the same habitat.
Common and Hainan species are only distinguishable from each other with DNA analysis. Their appearance, behaviors and lifestyles are nearly identical!
Sunbeam snakes are a genetically unique and unusual group of snakes. Not pythons, not boas and not colubrids (e.g. rat snakes, king snakes, and garter snakes) they are classified as their own family.
Genetic analysis of sunbeam snakes revealed that they are most closely related to true pythons (Pythonidae). However this species diverged from a common snake ancestor millions of years ago making them distinct from even close relatives.
Over the course of their evolution these snakes have changed little.
They are a highly primitive species that share many traits with ancient species that first appeared in the early Cretaceous period, nearly 129 million years ago. This was around the same time than some types of dinosaurs lived!
3. Their Scales Are Iridescent
Sunbeam snakes do not look especially eye-catching when out of the sunlight. In fact they appear uninteresting when compared to many other snake species. Their base color is a plain black or brown with a white belly and white-rimmed scales. This is why they are often called black Sunbeam snakes.
Their real secret is revealed in bright sunlight!
The scales of Sunbeam snakes are highly iridescent which causes them to appear like a rainbow under the right lighting.
Surprisingly these iridescent scales do not actually contain pigments for red, blue, purple or green. Instead the rainbow colors are caused by microscopic crystalline structures that interfere with light and cause it to scatter into different hues when reflected.
The reason for their iridescent scales is unknown, though several theories have been proposed:
- Iridescence helps this species blend in with the multicolored forest floor.
- The crystalline structures that produce iridescence help strengthen scales and repel water.
- Iridescence helps with temperature regulation in and out of sunlight.
Iridescence is not a unique trait to the Sunbeam snake. What is unique is that they have the highest level of iridescence among all snake species. Some form of this color trait can also be found in different animals across the globe, including other reptiles, butterflies, birds, fish and even a mole!
4. Males And Females Grow To The Same Size
Sunbeam snake size is a maximum of three feet. Larger individuals have been photographed in the wild but this is not common. For pet species most are captured and sold as juveniles around two feet in length.
Because they are rarely bred as pets the growth rate of Sunbeam snakes is not known. Based on the growth rate of closely related pythons we can estimate that this species grows most rapidly during the first two years of its life.
Males and females look identical and grow to the same size. This species is not sexually dimorphic so it is not easy to tell males and females apart.
The Xenopeltis family is an egg-laying snake. Females lay between 6 and 17 eggs per clutch which hatch after 7 to 8 weeks of incubation.
Hatchling are born only a few inches long with a large white or pink band that covers their neck and back of the head. Except for this pinkish white collar of scales they appear identical to adults. This ring fades each time the young snake sheds and is entirely gone by the time it reaches young adulthood.
The reproductive habits and early life stages of these snakes remains largely a mystery.
Their secretive nature in the wild and their sensitivity in captivity has made it difficult to research their courtship, breeding and egg-laying behaviors. Even under optimal conditions these snakes rarely breed in captivity. Even if eggs are laid, they often turn out to be nonviable.
5. Sunbeam Snake Care Is Difficult
Owners looking to purchase exotic pet snakes usually need experience handling dangerous reptiles. Luckily this is not the case with the Sunbeam snake. This species is nonvenomous and does not pose a threat to humans.
Instead potential keepers should have extensive knowledge about caring for highly sensitive reptiles with specific temperature, humidity and substrate requirements.
Once established these snakes can thrive as pets, but caring for one takes dedication, work and experience. Ideally this snake should only be kept by those with past experience caring for many different species.
Most pet sunbeam snakes are imported from the wild and need to be kept in just the right environment to survive. They are best suited for experienced owners who are able to meet their strict temperature, humidity and setup needs.
If you are interested in owning an iridescent snake you can handle and interact with then take a look at the Mexican black kingsnake.
Sunbeam snakes may not also be the best choice for owners hoping for a personable, hands-on and active reptile. This elusive species is nocturnal and spends most of its days and nights buried under the substrate.
This secrecy makes it difficult for owners to keep track of their health and monitor for signs of illness or injury. This means keepers should be experienced in recognizing signs of poor health in snakes without much close inspection.
Most of the time these snakes should be left alone to avoid unnecessary stress.
If you are looking for a breathtaking (though elusive) snake, have a good knowledge of husbandry and experience working with delicate reptiles then this snake may be ideal for you.
6. Their Husbandry Is Difficult
Sunbeam snakes are found in rice paddies, swamps and jungles that remain relatively cool and humid year-round. Because of this they can only tolerate a narrow range of environmental conditions that must be precisely met for them to thrive as pets.
Establishing a healthy Sunbeam snake habitat is very difficult even for experienced keepers. You will need to provide both temperature and humidity gradients that must be precisely maintained.
The hot side of the tank should remain at 80°F, with an 85°F basking spot. The cool side at the other end must be between 70°F and 75°F. An under-tank heat mat should be the primary heat source as this species loves to burrow.
Tank temperatures can be trial and error with this species. Aim to start with the temperatures above, but you might need to adjust them depending on the individual.
Sunbeam snakes need a temperature gradient in their enclosure to allow them to self-regulate their own body temperature.
Every Sunbeam snake enclosure should have a humidity of at least 75%. This can be maintained with a fogger that turns on and off throughout the day to maintain high moisture. You should also provide a large, shallow water bowl which will contribute to the tank’s overall humidity.
Since these snakes are avid burrowers they also need at least six inches of loose, spongy substrate in their tank. Use a loose substrate like organic soil or coconut coir which can hold moisture without becoming too damp or moldy. When squeezed their substrate should release a few water drops.
If you use a fogger then check substrate dampness frequently in order to fine-tune the output. Generally a fogger set to 75% will keep the substrate sufficiently damp.
The ideal substrate will release 2 or 3 drops of water when squeezed. More than 3 droplets indicates that it is too wet, while less than 2 is a sign of dryness.
Some owners keep their snake’s tank propped up at a slight angle which causes water to collect on one end of the enclosure. This creates a humidity gradient which closely mimics their natural habitat.
7. Sunbeam Snakes Have A Lifespan Of 10 Years
The lifespan of a Sunbeam snake is estimated to be around 10 years. This is shorter than the lifespans of some pet snake species like ball pythons which can live for 30 years. However it is not an insignificant time commitment.
With good care and husbandry pet Sunbeam snakes can live for around a decade.
Sadly many juveniles die within their first 6 months of being kept as pets because of the stress of capture, handling and transport. These snakes will not live long in captivity if provided suboptimal conditions.
Like all pet snakes this species can develop common health problems like dysecdysis, dermatitis and infections (bacterial, viral or fungal). This species is particularly susceptible to respiratory and fungal diseases because of its high humidity needs.
To prevent illnesses and maximize a Sunbeam snake’s lifespan we highly recommend taking your pet to a licensed reptile vet for annual checkups.
These snakes are sensitive to handling and exposure to bright lights. Though it may be tempting to take them out of their enclosure to see their beautiful colors, you should not. This species does best if handled very rarely.
Stress caused by improper housing and frequent handling is the leading factor of pet sunbeam snake death.
Stressful conditions will also weaken their immune systems which in turn can cause them to succumb to parasitic infections.
8. One Can Be Purchased For Under $100
Buying a Sunbeam snake is not expensive, despite it being one of the more uncommon species sold as pets. Generally an adult or juvenile costs between $70 and $100. If purchasing from an online seller shipping will be an additional $50 to $75.
Sunbeam snake prices are comparable to the price of a ball python or corn snake. Other popular pet species like hognose snakes and rosy boas usually sell for more than $150.
Though the price of these beautiful snakes is comparatively not much, this species should not be an impulse buy.
The care requirements and shy nature of this species makes breeding them a challenge for even professional herpetologists. As a result most are collected from the wild and not bred as pets.
Any wild-caught snake carries a higher risk of parasites or disease so buying this snake in-person is the best way to find one.
Look for a Sunbeam snake with bright, clear eyes, smooth scales and no physical deformities. You should also look for signs of parasites like missing scales, mites and watery feces. The body should feel firm, strong and be slightly flattened.
As constrictors these snakes are strong and muscular. However, they still have a slender body shape that is flattened for burrowing. Their body shape is similar to other fossorial snake species like sand boas and Mexican burrowing pythons.
So far the exportation of wild Xenopeltis snakes does not appear to be causing harm to their populations. The conservation status of sunbeam snakes is listed as “Least Concern”. However populations of these reptiles have been difficult to monitor because of their secrecy.
9. Xenopeltidae Are Only Found In Southeast Asia
Sunbeam snakes are found in Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines and parts of southern China.
They are adapted to living in wet, humid environments with thick vegetation and warm temperatures. It is common to find them in both wild and developed tracts of land like rice paddies, marshes, rainforests, agricultural fields and yards.
Across their range Sunbeam snakes have been recorded living at elevations from 100 to 2,000 meters above sea level in heavily forested mountains and valleys.
Unlike many constrictor species these snakes are burrowing (semi-fossorial) and tunnel in muddy substrate or rotting vegetation. As a result they commonly live in lowland areas near streams, creeks and swamps that receive enough moisture to keep the ground damp.
This species is considered nocturnal due to its tendency to hide during the day. From morning until dusk they will spend most of the day buried. Once night falls they emerge from their burrows to hunt for prey.
Thanks to their marshy habitat wild Sunbeam snakes primarily feed on frogs, other amphibians and reptiles. They will also not turn down birds, small mammals or even eggs.
After striking and subduing prey with their curved teeth they suffocate it with their muscular coils. Their jaws are lined with dozens of small, recurved teeth that are used to grip prey while they constrict and swallow it. To hold struggling prey and prevent damage to their jaws their teeth are hinged at the base. This means their teeth can wiggle in their sockets without falling out.
Keepers around the world view the Sunbeam snake as one of the most beautiful and elusive snakes in the hobby. It is easy to see why when their iridescent black scales erupt into a rainbow of colors in the sunlight.
Their coloration appears to be a patternless black and brown in the shade but is highly iridescent in bright light.
Sunbeam snakes are a fossorial species adapted for burrowing and native to tropical, marshy habitats in Southeast Asia.
It is normal for them to live in solitude and burrow. During the day they hide by burying themselves under loose, loamy soil, leaf litter and rotting vegetation. At night they actively hunt for small animals. As constrictors they are heavy, well-muscled snakes with a surprisingly strong grip.
Keeping a Sunbeam snake is not for beginners. This species is highly sensitive to their environmental conditions and needs an owner with a lot of experience.
What do you think about the beautiful and elusive sunbeam snake?
We will leave you with some of our favorite facts about this species:
- No fossils of sunbeam snakes have ever been discovered, but their DNA suggests that they may be one of the most ancient snake species alive today!
- The tail of a sunbeam snake takes up only 1/10th of its total body length. This is much shorter than the tails of other snake species which can be 1/3rd of their body length!
- They are adapted for burrowing with a narrow, shovel-shaped head, small eyes and a flattened body.
- Members of the family Xenopeltidae are only found in Southeast Asia.
- This species eats a varied diet of frogs, small mammals, birds, eggs and other reptiles.
- Most Sunbeam snakes are imported from the wild which means they are not used to living as pets. They need an experienced owner to help them adjust to their new homes and remain happy and healthy.
- The cost of setting up a tank for this species can run to $500 for an enclosure, fogger, lighting, substrate and décor.