In this post we’re going to take an introductory look at Dragon Snake Care. Given how tricky they are, I’ve had to call in Scarlett Nightshade – one of the few people to be able to establish this species in captivity.
Last updated on February 1st, 2023 at 09:40 am
The Dragon Snake (Xenodermus javanicus) is one of the most unique snakes on the planet. Its heterogeneous scalation forms rows along the dorsum, conferring a Dragon-like appearance. It also has unusual habits, being shy and nocturnal. This makes for a stunning pet but one that is hard to care for.
In case you aren’t familiar, Scarlett Nightshade is a reptile breeder and, alongside Abel Nightshade, the owner of Creatures of Nightshade. Their website offers a range of care articles on snakes and chronicles Scarlett’s efforts to establish the Dragon Snake in captivity.
You’ve probably seen a lot of care sheets on Dragon Snakes popping up online. For my part, I’m not comfortable doing a care sheet for an animal I have no real-life experience with. In these cases, I like to call in an expert…
Fortunately, Scarlett was happy to help! In fact, when you finally start to see captive-bred Dragon Snakes available they will almost certainly be from her.
Instead of the regular care sheet layout, we’ve done this as a Q & A. This will help you to understand how Scarlett cares for her Dragon Snakes and why she uses the methods she does.
Why Dragon Snakes?
Ball Python Breeder UK: What made you interested in Dragon Snakes in the first place? Was it just their appearance – or did a challenge appeal to you a little bit too?
Scarlett: I have always been drawn to mysterious creatures. The cryptic nature of Dragon Snakes piqued my interest, and the more I studied them, the more attached I became.
Upon discovering their high mortality rate in captivity, I eventually decided to take the plunge and attempt to establish a group of Dragon Snakes with the long-term goal of captive reproduction.
Imported Dragon Snakes
Ball Python Breeder UK: Dragon Snakes are known for being fragile. That’s why my advice is for people to avoid buying wild caught unless they have a lot of experience with this kind of thing.
Just how difficult is it to establish a wild-caught specimen? Where do you even start?
Scarlett: Keeping any wild caught reptile is always a gamble, especially with species that are as fragile as the Dragon Snake. However, once they are healthy and established, Dragon Snakes are relatively easy to keep if you have a good understanding of husbandry; unfortunately, they rarely arrive in good enough health to immediately thrive in captivity.
It is crucial to build the knowledge and experience working with more resilient wild caught imports prior to keeping a more advanced and fragile species such as the Dragon Snake.
Establishing a good relationship with a qualified veterinarian is the first step — you want to be able to diagnose and treat the plethora of illnesses they often succumb to at home to avoid stressing the animal further with an office visit.
Ball Python Breeder UK: What is the Dragon Snake temperament like? Are they “handleable”?
Scarlett: To avoid unnecessary stress, I limit handling all wild caught imports as much as possible. However, in my short interactions with them over the years, they have proven to be one of the most docile animals I’ve ever worked with — even their defensive mechanism is passive.
When they feel threatened, Dragon Snakes stiffen their entire body in whichever position they were in when they spotted the threat. Sometimes I pick them up and it’s like picking up an oddly-shaped stick. I hypothesize that this is exactly what they aim to do to fool their predators, because no carnivore wants to eat sticks.
Dragon Snake Diet
Ball Python Breeder UK: What do these snakes eat? Have you found a staple diet that they do well on?
Scarlett: Dragon Snakes do not dine on traditional feeders such as rodents. They inhabit rice paddies near rivers and streams where they hunt for fish, tadpoles and frogs. I keep large colonies of live guppies, mollies and platies as well as tree frogs specifically for my Dragon Snakes.
Some of them are more picky than others; most of mine are content with fish, but I have one female that will only eat frogs exclusively. For this reason, it is important to have established feeder fish and frog colonies before keeping Dragon Snakes. Once you find their favorite food though, they have a ravenous appetite!
Dragon Snake Temperature
Ball Python Breeder UK: What seems to be the ideal temperature for this species and how do you achieve this? How sensitive are they to changes in temperature?
Scarlett: Heat is one of the leading causes of death for Dragon Snakes in captivity. They are most comfortable in temperatures ranging between 72°F (22°C) and 75°F (24°C). If they are exposed to temperatures at or above 80°F (26°C), they could suffer serious neurological damage within an hour.
As a resident of the northern United States, it is easy for me to maintain temperatures below this threshold; however, those geologically closer to the equator where temperatures frequently rise above 90°F (32°C) may have a more difficult time doing so.
For those residing in such areas, it is crucial to ensure you can consistently manage a safe temperature gradient year-round before keeping Dragon Snakes.
Humidity and Water
Ball Python Breeder UK: One thing that can be tricky with tropical species is getting the humidity right. Rainbow Boas, for example, like it very high whereas Boa Constrictors can obviously deal with greater variation.
Just how damp do Dragon Snakes like it? Is substrate humidity or dampness as important as air humidity?
How hard is it to keep them humid enough and give them some air circulation?
Scarlett: As a tropical species, Dragon Snakes thrive between 85-90% RH (relative humidity) and do not tolerate much fluctuation. Due to their prominently keeled scales, they must have high humidity in order to shed properly and stay healthy.
If kept in a dry environment, they will not only struggle to shed, but their delicate mucous membranes will dry out, leaving them even more vulnerable to infection. There is little room for husbandry mistakes with this species.
Ball Python Breeder UK: And for water – should they have a large bowl available? Do they need this to hunt/feed properly?
Scarlett: Dragon Snakes hunt live prey, which includes fish and tadpoles. Therefore, you must provide a water dish that is large enough to comfortably contain them. Depth is especially important to prevent fish from jumping out.
After trying several different varieties of water dishes, the best that I have used thus far is simple plastic food storage containers. I use the “deep rectangle” containers in particular, as they provide sufficient depth for the feeders to live comfortably.
While the fish and tadpoles serve as food for the Dragon Snakes, I never disregard the value of life, feeder or otherwise. I always aim to keep all my animals as happy as possible, especially in their final hours.
Ball Python Breeder UK: being nocturnal, Dragon Snakes obviously don’t need UVB. In fact, I’m wondering if too much light would actually harm them?
Scarlett: I advocate for UVB for almost all reptiles, but Dragon Snakes are definitely the exception. In addition to being nocturnal, they are a semi-fossorial (underground) species with an exceptional sensitivity to heat.
Therefore, minimal exposure to light is best for Dragon Snakes, especially at night. I allow a little bit of ambient light to peek in through the window during the day, but at night they are kept covered under a sheet so that I do not disturb them should I have to enter the room and turn on the lights.
Dragon Snake Substrate
Ball Python Breeder UK: most people agree that these snakes are semi-fossorial, but not true burrowers like Blind Snakes.
What substrate is best for Dragon Snakes? How loose does it need to be for their semi-fossorial habits?
Scarlett: Dragon Snakes are semi-fossorial, but not in the same nature as burrowing snakes. They do not dig underground into soil, but rather under dense piles of vegetation.
I prefer to use an organic potting soil blend with lots of leaf litter and twigs scattered on top. When I tend to my Dragon Snakes, I sift their substrate to keep it looser and more well-ventilated.
Dragon Snake enclosures
Ball Python Breeder UK: So far, what have you found to be the best enclosure for this species? I’m guessing making things too complicated could be a bad idea?
Scarlett: When it comes to keeping reptiles, there are always several ways to achieve the same goal, and this applies to Dragon Snakes, as well. However, as wild caught imports, they are not the species to test new husbandry experiments on.
They stress easily and will not adapt well to an environment that is constantly changing. As long as you are able to provide them with their basic requirements — good husbandry, plenty of cover, and live, healthy food to eat — established individuals will thrive.
I prefer to keep fresh imports in 32qt. plastic tubs until they have settled in well, after which I upgrade them to 106qt. tubs. Once I produce a stable population of captive bred offspring, I plan to advance my husbandry with a more naturalistic, enriching environment for them.
For now, though, I will continue using the same methods that have kept them thriving over the last few years.
Captive bred Dragon Snakes
Ball Python Breeder UK: You’ve obviously just shared a wealth of knowledge with us so I’m only going to ask one more question!
I know it’s a long way off right now, but most species can eventually be bred in captivity on a regular basis. How confident are you that this will be true for Dragon Snakes? Is it just a matter of time?
Scarlett: I anticipate that I will produce captive bred Dragon Snakes within the next year or so. I have been studying this species for several years and am still learning more about them as time progresses.
It has taken a lot of trial-and-error, but I am always adapting my methods with every little accomplishment and each big mistake. Patience and determination is key. I am very dedicated to my Dragon Snakes and look forward to building a future for them in captive herpetoculture.
This hasn’t been the kind of straight-forward care sheet we’re used to, has it? Well, there’s a reason for that, namely that there is still a lot to be learnt about keeping and breeding this species. That’s why I decided to collaborate with someone who is gaining first-hand experience with the process.
Dragon Snakes are awesome, but still not widely available captive bred. Fortunately, if anyone can achieve success with this it will be Scarlett. In my experience, the difference between captive bred animals and wild caught can be as great as night and day.
Green Tree Pythons and Solomon Islands Skinks, for example, are usually a nightmare when wild caught, or hardy and docile if captive bred!
What Scarlett is doing with this species is important. It will eventually allow hobbyists access to this beautiful species without having to buy them wild caught.
At a time when we are all trying to be more responsible towards the natural world, it’s certainly an example for other herpetoculturists to follow.