Sunbeam snakes or Xenopeltis unicolor, their binomial nomenclature, are small, black, fossorial snakes that are native to Southeast Asia.
Unfortunately, this species does not fare exceptionally well in captivity; there is a high death rate among wild-caught individuals, and captive breeding hasn’t been successful. Which is exactly why it is SO important to do your research prior to bringing one home.
If you do your homework by educating yourself on proper care, these black beauties can make for the PERFECT pet snake for any experienced keeper willing to research the care requirements and respect the needs of a sunbeam snake.
What You’ll Learn In This Sunbeam Snake Care Sheet:
- Background information on the sunbeam snake
- Where to buy a healthy sunbeam snake (plus what to look for!)
- Proper diet for all ages
- How to properly set up a sunbeam snake enclosure
- Health concerns to be aware of (plus how to prevent them!)
- Handling & bonding tips
- & So much more!
Almost every aspect of sunbeam snake husbandry is vastly different from the requirements of more common species, like ball pythons or corn snakes.
As such, you’ll want to be prepared to take notes and learn everything you possibly can to ensure you provide ideal care for your pet sunbeam snake.
From their low temperature and high humidity requirements to the need to facilitate their natural burrowing instincts, this snake has particular husbandry needs that can’t be overlooked!
As such, let’s now dive deep into discussing all things sunbeam snake care!
In This Article
Sunbeam Snake Background Information
Sunbeam snakes are popular in captivity for one main reason: their highly iridescent, shiny, black color.
In the sunlight, they have a rainbow-like sheen. Some folks may also appreciate how novel of a species they are.
And if you’re looking for more rainbow-like snakes, you’ll love the rainbow python!
Unlike their sheeny black back and sides, the underside of sunbeam snakes is a contrasting pale gray or white.
They can be considered a small species of snake. Fully grown, a sunbeam snake’s size is rarely even four feet long.
Beyond their appearance, sunbeam snakes aren’t ideal as a captive pet. They hide most of the time, they’re only active at night, sensitive to the environmental conditions of their enclosure, and stress out easily. They can even die from being over-handled and over-stressed.
However, these difficulties can be attractive to any reptile owner who has the experience and is looking for a challenge.
The life expectancy of sunbeam snakes is believed to be around twelve years. But, it’s hard to obtain an accurate estimate since most captive specimens were removed from the wild as adults. As explained in our article on how long snakes live – snakes typically get older in captivity.
In their native Asian habitat, these snakes spend the day hiding in loose, damp soil and plant litter. They come out at night to hunt their preferred prey – small amphibians, reptiles, and sometimes mammals.
Despite their rarity and advanced husbandry requirements, sunbeam snakes and their setups are relatively affordable compared to other snake species.
This is thanks, in part, to their small size, low-temperature requirements, and prevalence in their wild habitat.
However, you do take the inherent risk of the wild-caught animal not surviving the transition to captivity.
🔑 Sunbeam Snake Background Key Takeaways: Although not an ideal pet for everyone due to their stringent enclosure requirements, nocturnal nature, and tendency to stress out easily, sunbeam snakes make a great challenge for more experienced reptile pet owners. Additionally, they and their setup both tend to be pretty affordable as well. Hailing from Asia, these iridescent snakes are relatively small, growing to be around 3 feet (seldom over 4) and can live around 10 years in captivity.
Where to Buy a Sunbeam Snake
Once you’ve weighed the costs of snake ownership and decided its something you can afford, your next step will be to actually find your pet snake.
Fortunately, most large-scale reptile importers have wild-caught sunbeam snakes available for sale.
However, if you order one online, chances are you won’t be able to see the actual animal that you’ll receive until it arrives on your doorstep.
If you attend reptile expos or make a special request at your local reptile shop, you will have the opportunity to inspect your animal before making your purchase. This doesn’t guarantee success and a thriving snake, but it does allow you to visually check for proper body condition, parasite load, and any active infections.
Captive-hatched and captive-bred sunbeam snakes are not easy to find, but with a little patience and a lot of digging, you may get lucky.
How to Select a Healthy Sunbeam Snake
After you’ve decided which snake gender you prefer, you’ll want to ideally hold and examine your sunbeam snake to ensure they are a healthy, well-cared for individual.
Try to find snakes that seem curious and alert, but also strong in their movements.
If you can, finding a sunbeam snake that is a little on the plump side is also best. A little wider in the middle than the their tail is ideal.
Also, be on the lookout for any of the following red flags:
- Multiple blisters
- Folds in the scales
- Scale rot
🔑 Sunbeam Snake Purchasing Key Takeaways: If you’re fine purchasing a snake without inspecting it first, finding a supplier who sells sunbeam snakes isn’t too hard. However, this risks you receiving a sick snake. If you must have one, it’s best to spend the extra time searching for a breeder. If you’re able to examine your snake in person before purchase, assess its strength, energy levels, weight, and scales to ensure its healthy.
Sunbeam Snake Diet & Feeding
Sunbeam snakes can be surprisingly enthusiastic about eating in captivity! Their feeding response is SO strong that they may even mistake your fingers for a pinky!
As such, be sure to exercise safe feeding practices, such as using feeding tongs.
Sunbeam snakes have smaller jaws than other, similar-sized species of snakes. They evolved to eat the soft, small amphibians of their wet habitat and baby rodents hidden underground, in nests.
Thanks to their strong feeding response, they may even be willing to accept frozen, thawed mice right away.
If your snake has acclimated for several weeks and still won’t eat, you could scent its food with a frog or gecko.
How Their Diet Varies Based on Age
Keeping their petite jaw anatomy in mind, the only things that change as the snake grows are prey size and feeding frequency.
Hatchlings are capable of eating pinky mice, subadults can handle fuzzy mice, and adults will eat hopper mice.
Feeding Schedule: How Often to Feed Sunbeam Snakes
Take a look below to get an idea of how often to feed your sunbeam snake at any age. For reference, the term “adult” is used to describe snakes that are of breeding size and m
Baby Sunbeam Snake Feeding Frequency
Feed hatchlings every five to seven days, while subadults will eat every week. A subadult will be a snake that measures around 2 feet long.
Adult Sunbeam Snake Feeding Frequency
As your sunbeam snake reaches maturity and the ideal body composition, gradually slow down the feeding frequency to every two weeks.
Also, increase or decrease the rate if your pet gains or loses too much weight. An adult sunbeam snake will typically be one that is at least 3 feet long.
🔑 Sunbeam Snake Diet & Feeding Key Takeaways: With a smaller and weaker jaw than other snakes, sunbeam snakes do best with softer foods. You’ll want to feed your hatchling every 5-7 days, your subadult snake weekly, and your adult snake every two weeks. It is recommended to start with live fuzzy mice for juveniles and work your way towards thawed or frozen hopper mice as they reach adulthood.
Sunbeam Snake Habitat & Tank Setup
One of the MOST fun aspects of pet ownership – aside from picking your snake’s name perhaps – is setting up the enclosure!
From getting creative with decor and accessories to establishing the right temperature and humidity gradient, creating your new pet’s ideal habitat is both a fun and rewarding experience.
However, as you’ll soon come to discover, the sunbeam snake’s enclosure requirements are where its peculiarities stand out…
But as with any species, you will need a securely locking lid or doors, temperature and humidity gauges, and the ability to install electrical heating.
Size of the Enclosure
Staying under four feet long, sunbeam snakes don’t require a vast enclosure. The minimum size is around 20″ long by 10″ wide. This is the equivalent of a 32-quart plastic tub or a ten-gallon aquarium.
As with any animal, a bigger home is ALWAYS better, as long as you use the space efficiently. Most snakes don’t like large, open spaces as it can leave them feeling vulnerable. So, in a way, clutter is best.
The enclosure height doesn’t matter very much, since sunbeam snakes aren’t known for climbing.
Type of Enclosures
Plastic tubs make an ideal enclosure for this shy, reclusive species. The opaque walls will make your pet feel more comfortable and secure.
They’re also great at helping you maintain high humidity levels, which is ESSENTIAL for this species.
Clear enclosures, like glass and acrylic, can work, but lack privacy. If your animal seems stressed by the constant exposure, you can always cover some or all sides with dark-colored construction paper or fabric.
Another drawback of these types of tanks is that the screen lids will make it hard to keep the humidity high. This can be resolved by covering the screen with something solid like wood, plastic, or glass.
Since they are fossorial and easily stressed, sunbeam snakes AREN’T an ideal occupant for fanciful display terrariums.
That is, unless you intend to showcase the decorations rather than the animal.
Custom wood and plastic enclosures work great for maintaining high humidity levels and offering a little more privacy than a traditional aquarium, but they’re often cost-prohibitive.
Ideal Temperature Gradient
Bottom heat is the ideal choice for sunbeam snakes, supplied by an under-tank heater, heating pad, heat rope, or heat tape that covers one-third to one-half of the enclosure’s length.
The heating element should be powered by a thermostat to make sure that it doesn’t get too hot. Heat lamps and heat emitters will dry out the air and substrate.
The thermostat’s probe should be placed within the substrate on the warm side, right above the heating element. Set the maximum temperature on the thermostat to around 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Meanwhile, aim to obtain a low temperature of 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit on the other end of the enclosure.
Keep thermometers on BOTH the warm and cold ends of the enclosure. Sunbeam snakes aren’t tolerant of the usual high heat requirements of tropical snake species.
Ideal humidity Levels
High humidity is essential for sunbeam snakes. In their native lands, they frequent mucky, wet rice paddies.
Low humidity will cause improper shedding, respiratory issues, and undue stress on your pet.
Keep the ambient humidity of the enclosure around 75%-100%.
Also, the substrate on the warm end can be kept quite moist and occasionally swamp-like. This will help to release humidity into the air and mimic the snake’s natural environment.
However, you should always make sure that your pet has an area of dryer substrate to retreat to if they desire.
The best substrate for sunbeam snakes is coconut coir, also known as coconut fiber. This can be purchased loose or in compressed bricks to save money.
The blocks need to be soaked in warm water to break apart. Squeeze out the excess water before you add it to your sunbeam snake’s habitat.
Coconut fiber is very soil-like and allows you to create a wet, swampy environment that keeps the entire enclosure humid. It also allows your sunbeam snake to burrow, which is imperative to keep this species healthy and happy.
Never, under any circumstances, use a substrate that your snake can’t burrow in. This will cause extreme stress for your pet.
Other materials that you can use or mix into your coconut coir (keeping in mind that your snake needs to be able to burrow) include:
- Cypress mulch
- Sand (less than 25%)
- Potting soil
Maintain a substrate depth of four to eight inches. This will allow your sunbeam snake to burrow to his or her heart’s content.
Decor and Accessories
Spending most of their lives in underground burrows, these snakes DON’T require many decorations or hides.
However, it may be ideal to lay down a layer of leaf litter and some slabs or rounds of coconut bark for your pet to rub against while shedding and explore when hunting. These various scents, textures, and new hiding opportunities are very enriching for any captive animal.
You can even add a branch if you like the appearance. Just don’t expect your sunbeam snake to suddenly become an arboreal snake!
Never use any massive rocks or decorations. These can cave in on tunnels and burrows, potentially crushing your sunbeam snake.
The water bowl should be deep and wide enough for your pet to thoroughly soak in, BUT not so deep that it can’t escape or might drown.
As a general rule, leave your sunbeam snake alone, but check its water every day or two in case it soiled it with substrate or feces.
🔑 Sunbeam Snake Habitat & Tank Setup Key Takeaways: Sunbeam snakes, unlike many other species, require high humidity levels of 75-100% and relatively low temps, such as 80-85 degrees Fahrenheit for a warm side. They also MUST have a substrate in which they can burrow, making coconut fiber an excellent choice. They don’t need a lot of space nor do they require many accessories or decor. In fact, a 10-20 gallon plastic bin with a large water dish works great!
Sunbeam Snake Handling & Bonding
The good news is that sunbeam snakes generally don’t bite. Even if they tried, their jaws and teeth are somewhat small for their size, so they may not even be able to break human skin!
That being said, this species is prone to stress from over-handling. They just don’t tolerate it very well. Keeping sunbeam snakes is more of a “look, but don’t touch” situation.
After several months – once your pet has had adequate time to settle in, get used to its new home, a new diet, and its eating regularly – you can begin introducing handling. Keep handling sessions short, under fifteen minutes, and to a maximum of two to three times per week.
If you notice your sunbeam snake’s behavior change when you start handling it, cut back again, or eliminate handling completely and accept your snake’s inherent behavior and stressors.
Bond with it during feeding time and by watching it engage in its natural behaviors inside the enclosure.
🔑 Sunbeam Snake Handling & Bonding Key Takeaways: Not big fans of being handled, sunbeam snakes are better bonded with during feeding time and from a distance. Fortunately, they’re not big biters, so if you must handle them after they’ve had time to adjust to you and their new home, rest assured you most likely won’t be injured.
Sunbeam Snake General Health Information
Sunbeam snakes are at risk for many of the same ailments of other captive snakes: mites, respiratory infections, burns from improper heating, and regurgitation from large prey or low temperatures.
Since they’re so prone to stress, veterinary visits can be more harmful than beneficial…
It’s best NOT to take this species in for unnecessary veterinary wellness visits or “just in case” visits. Do your research, take photos, and communicate with your veterinarian, but always keep transportation of this species to an absolute minimum – only when required to save its life.
One health issue that is semi-unique to this species is a kind of bacteria that causes blisters. If you notice blisters on your snake, it’s imperative to take them to the veterinarian for a proper course of antibiotics.
Knowledge of blistering in other snake species indicates that you should reduce the humidity to resolve the issue. However, this is NOT true for sunbeam snakes.
Reducing the humidity will further stress your pet and allow the disease to worsen.
Ensure the substrate is damp but not wet, keep the humidity and temperatures at proper levels, avoid handling, provide the appropriate course of antibiotics, and your sunbeam snake should recover.
The biggest threat to sunbeam snakes in captivity is stress. Excess stress can be avoided by adhering to the guidelines of this care sheet.
🔑 Sunbeam Snake General Health Information Key Takeaways: Just like with most snakes, sunbeams are prone to issues like mites, respiratory infections, and other common issues that 99% of the time can be avoided by minimizing stress and proper husbandry. However, if your snake is unwell for a period of time OR you see blisters on their skin, a trip to the vet will most likely be worth the hassle and stress it may cause them.
Is a Sunbeam Snake Right for YOU?
Be honest with yourself about your expectations and desires about having a pet sunbeam snake.
Is it simply because they’re cool looking and you want to have a snake to show off? OR are you actually serious about caring for one, even if it means respecting boundaries (i.e. minimal handling) that you wish didn’t exist?
If you’re up for the challenge and recognize the potential drawbacks, good luck in your next adventure of caring for this iridescent black beauty of a snake!
If you’re exceptionally skilled and lucky, you may even be able to uncover the secrets required to successfully breed them in captivity – reducing the need to take them out of their wild habitat in the future!
But above all else, make sure you have the resources and tools in place to ensure a proper enclosure as this will be your BEST bet at keeping your pet happy and healthy.