The Wonderful World of Amazon Tree Boas:
An Introduction to the Jewels of the Rainforest
(You can download a PDF version of this article here)
Calico Jack, male Canopy Cane line red Calico.
If you’ve made it here it’s probably because you’ve been bitten by the Amazon Tree Boa (ATB) bug and you are eager to learn more! You are certainly amongst friends and thanks to their wide variety of colors and patterns, you can never really have just one. This guide will walk you through some of the basics of Amazon care and terminology so that you can better understand what they are, what they’re like, and what they’ll need in order to shine as the jewels amongst your collection. We will not go into breeding in this guide for this version, but should you be interested in that information, you are more than welcome to contact us at any time! We will be adding that section to the guide in the near future. Please note: Amazon Tree Boas are an advanced-level animal in terms of experience and husbandry needs, so this guide tries to be as thorough as possible and may seem somewhat lengthy. If you are not willing to read this guide in its entirety, you may want to rethink your level of commitment to this delicate and demanding species!
Amazon Tree Boas (Corallus hortulanus) have actually been in the hobby for quite some time but as more and more people are looking for exciting (or challenging) new ventures outside of the usual colubrids and constrictors, Amazons have been popping up as prominent members of the “other” category. Native to Columbia, Venezuela, Guyana, Surinam, French Guiana, Peru, Brazil, and most of the Amazonian River Territory, they are readily imported and becoming more widespread in captivity. They are relatively easy to breed, are beginner friendly/ forgiving for those new to arboreals, and are on the smaller side in comparison to other widely kept arboreals.
Adult specimens on average reach about 6ft in length, but unlike their heavy bodied distant relatives, the boa constrictor, or even their close cousins the Emerald Tree Boa, they remain very thin in comparison which allows them to be perfectly at home and agile in the trees. Other physical adaptations that aid in their arboreal lifestyle include heat sensing pits and very large eyes. As a result, once the lights go out these snakes become an entirely different animal that relies on pure instinct to survive and it’s those survival skills that make them so reactive, so aggressive, and so incredible to own.
Unlike most other snakes, and what makes Amazons so highly prized, they have the ability to come in a wide variety of naturally occurring color and pattern mutations which only adds to their excitement and mystery for both keepers and breeders alike. These color mutations are referred to as “phases” instead of “morphs” because they are naturally occurring and there is no true method of inheritance. In fact, red, orange, and yellow specimens are still referred to as “normal” unless they carry a true morph gene.
At this point in herpetoculture, there is still no way to predict the outcome of each litter. Two yellow parents may result in red, orange, yellow, or even “garden phase” (brown or grey) babies. Same with red x red, or garden x colored. The same two animals paired consecutively could also result in different colored offspring year to year! They even have variability in eye color with specimens known to have varying degrees of yellow, orange, red, green, brown, or almost black.
All that said, there ARE true morphs within this species. The true morphs available for ATBs at this time are as follows:
Yellow Hypo (co-dominant)
Photo courtesy of Amazon Eden
Blue Eyed Leucistic (super form of Yellow Hypo)
Photo courtesy of Amazon Eden
Orange Hypo (dominant for now, super form unknown)
Photo courtesy of Billy Leonard
Calico (many types, colors, and lines, all dominant)
If you’ve made it this far, you’ve probably heard quite a few things about the “personality” of Amazons- all of which are true. Like most arboreal species, these guys are highly reactive and usually turn into a different animal when the sun goes down. They are almost strictly nocturnal, very defensive, incredibly aggressive, and will not hesitate to bite. To them, biting first solves all of their problems: Either you’re food, or you’re foe. While a small number of specimens can be tamed, and an even smaller number of specimens start out tame, the vast majority will possess a temperament of typical arboreal fashion.
This is a key factor that must be remembered when owning an Amazon! It is entirely possible that through rigorous training and handling your Amazon may one day be considered “calm”, but you should always recognize the limits of each individual animal and understand that not all specimens can be tamed and efforts to persuade particularly reluctant animals usually result in unhealthy amounts of stress. Despite being a somewhat hardier species, Amazons are still arboreal (read: fragile) and can succumb to stress faster than their terrestrial counterparts. So for the health and wellness of the animal, some should simply NOT be messed with and instead left to be a “look but don’t touch”, yet breathtaking display animal.
Selecting Your Amazon:
A Note about WC vs CBB
There are two ways to acquire an ATB. 1) Import/WC and 2) CBB. There are still a large number of Amazons that are imported in large numbers every week, so finding one is relatively easy, HOWEVER, we at Biofauna want to outline the pros and cons surrounding your Amazon purchase in an effort to make sure everyone can make an informed decision.
- Easy to find
- Fresh blood for bloodlines
- Not a bad option for experienced ATB keepers
- LTC (Long Term Captive) specimens offer a “best of both worlds” between CBB and WC. These animals have been in captivity long enough that their previous owners can give you their history and can (read: should) be able to guarantee that the animal is free of internal/external parasites and pathogens. LTC specimens have been stateside and eating REGULARLY for a minimum of 3mo.
- No history on this animal!! This means you have no idea how old it is (although you can guess), what it is eating (you can ask, but be prepared to transition from live if necessary), or worse, if it is sick due to the stress of being packed with hundreds of other animals and shipped overseas.
- Potential risk of infection to your existing collection!! These are wild caught animals, and most of them arrive riddled with parasites or illnesses invisible to the naked eye. These animals will have to undergo EXTENSIVE periods of quarantine and will require medications and vet visits to ensure that they survive quarantine and don’t spread any of their pathogens to your healthy animals. Remember: These are illnesses that can potentially spread to ANY snake, not just other Amazons!
- Fragility! When reading around the web you may notice a wide range of temperature and humidity parameters for this species and that’s due to the large number of imported specimens. WC animals arrive sick, incredibly stressed out, and very fragile as opposed to CBB specimens that were born and raised in captivity. They will require a very delicate hand and strict care regimen to ensure their long term success! This is something that should only be attempted by experienced ATB keepers!
Calico litter 11/22/14 showing 3 types of calico.
Captive Born & Bred:
- In most cases, CBB specimens are much more hardy and tolerant of a wider range of temperature and humidity values. This makes their long term success easier to achieve
- In most cases, the complete history of the animal you are purchasing is known, and any breeder worth their salt will be able to tell you when it was born, what it is feeding on, and how best to approach the animal’s care in order to ensure that it lives to adulthood.
- As a general rule, these animals are much healthier than their freshly imported counterparts.
- More expensive. If you want a healthy, quality ATB (esp when you are looking at true morphs), you will have to be willing to pay for one. Breeders of this species go through a LOT of trouble getting neonates ready for new homes which is the basis behind CBB prices. This species is NOTORIOUS for difficult to raise neonates. However, if it is worth it for you to ensure that your Amazon is healthy, eating regularly, free of sicknesses that can spread, and has the best chance of survival to adulthood, then CBB is your best bet.
Once you have decided which route you would like to take in order to acquire your ATB, it is time to look for your new snake! If at all possible, it is best to purchase a snake that you can see and hold in person. Pictures are worth a thousand words, but nothing can compare to seeing the animal for yourself and determining the animal’s health and quality. Additionally, it is also important to meet the person with whom you are doing business!! When selecting a snake in person, you are looking for a vibrant animal on all accounts. When picked up, determine the following:
- Is the tongue actively flicking? Searching?
- Are the eyes alert? Clear? If the animal is in shed, this may be harder to notice since it is normal for the eyes to become cloudy/blue (hence the term “going blue”), but be sure that the eyes are clear of “debri” (stuck shed on eyecaps) and that they are not sunken in (the animal is dehydrated).
- Is the animal holding its head/body naturally? The boa should be able to hold its head and body with ease and grace. If you see wobbling/jerking/abnormal posture (upside down), this can be a sign of life threatening birth defects or contagious illnesses that could potentially affect your entire collection!
- What is the body condition of the snake? While Amazons are naturally thin, excessive visibility of the spine and ribs is cause for concern. Additionally, the high humidity requirements can result in stuck sheds and other issues if these needs aren’t met. It is essential that your snake is not wheezing, whistling, has any stuck shed, or is missing the tip of the tail (stuck sheds that have resulted in loss of circulation and necrosis). The snake should not appear to be gurgling, drooling, bubbling, or open mouth breathing. These are signs of potentially fatal and/or contagious illnesses.
Lastly, before you purchase your new boa, always ask the following questions from the seller. This is exponentially important if you don’t have the opportunity to see the snake in person (i.e. you found an ad online):
- Is this snake CB or WC?
- As stated above, the differences between the two could be costly and life threatening. You should always know what you are getting yourself into before you make the purchase to ensure the longevity of your new snake and the health of your existing collection.
- Probably most important for this species- What is this snake eating and when did it last eat?
- This information is INVALUABLE! The best breeders/importers will not only be able to provide this information, but they will be able to give you a complete copy of their “cage card” with all activity on that animal prior to the date of sale. This will ensure that your new snake is already an established feeder in captivity (with the best case scenario being f/t prey items). While it is certainly not a requirement for your potential new snake to be eating frozen/thawed, if you are not experienced in transitioning snakes from live to frozen, this can be an issue. Live food can do significant harm to your snake in its natural defense to fight back.
- Knowing when the snake last ate can tell you how reliably the snake is eating. If the seller claims that the snake is eating frozen mouse hoppers, but hasn’t eaten for a month, something is wrong. Either the snake is underfed, or the snake is refusing food for some reason- and it’s not YOUR job to spend hundreds of dollars to play detective.
- How long have you owned the snake?
- Knowing how long the seller has owned the snake will give you a good idea on the husbandry parameters for that animal. If the seller has had the animal since birth, or for an extended period of time (6mo+), they will be able to provide you with the temperatures and humidity levels the animal would be transitioning from, which would allow you to set your cage up properly in preparation for its arrival.
- If the animal is CB, it is important to know how long the seller has owned the animal to determine, if possible, where it came from. If it’s CB and they’ve owned it for years it is safe to note their specifications regarding their care. If not, it will be important to track down the original breeder/owner in order to make sure the animal is housed, fed, and cared for properly.
- If the animal is WC and has only been stateside for a few weeks, you will need to prepare for full quarantine procedure and make sure that it is eating regularly in captivity.
- In the case of LTC specimens, how long has the snake been in captivity and has it been treated for internal/external parasites? Has it been vet checked? While it may not be necessary to have a vet screen the animal before it is sold, it certainly builds
- How old is this snake?
- While this may be only an educated guess with WC specimens, you need to know how old the snake is in order to judge if it is being fed properly and, most importantly, if the snake is eating regular meals. Underfed or improperly fed Amazons will be thin and much smaller than their age should allow. For example, if you’re purchasing a yearling ATB and it is still eating mouse pinkies that should be a red flag (perhaps it is a picky eater? Late starter? Previous health issues?).
- You need to know how old the snake is if you intend to breed it.
- If the seller produced the snake and doesn’t know the snake’s DOB, they are not a trustworthy breeder. Top quality breeders have extensive and meticulous records for all animals produced by them every year.
- Where did the snake come from?
- It is preferable to purchase an ATB directly from the original breeder/importer, but if that is not the case, the seller should know who they bought it from. Knowing the original breeder/importer can help you determine the quality of the boa without even holding it in your hands. Certain breeders/importers are, unfortunately, notorious for unjust selling practices like selling sick animals, so you can save yourself a lot of heartache by knowing in advance.
- Knowing the original breeder/importer can also give you more insight into the snake than the seller himself might be able to provide. Some sellers simply don’t know if the animal is CB or WC because they never cared or thought to ask. Also, knowing this could mean an increase or a decrease in value for your ATB. Certain lineages are valued differently because of the quality of the colors, patterns, or morphs they will inevitably produce.
As an arboreal species, it is very important to make sure they have an ample amount of vertical space to utilize. Most adults require a minimum of a 2ft tall enclosure for them to be comfortable. Amazons adapt well to naturalistic and display type cage setups, but you will need to pay particular attention to your perches to make sure your snake will actually use them. ATBs require “Y-formations” for them to feel secure with a perch. They need 3 points of contact on their bodies from a perch or they tend to not use it (literally the shape of a Y or triangle). Most people who keep larger numbers of amazons have transitioned into using elevated ledges or hammocks with hides situated on the ground and above the resting areas to provided added security. The more secure your Amazon feels, the more you will see it, the faster it will feel safe, the better it will eat/thrive.
Substrate varies by location. Those in drier climates may opt for cypress mulch or a mixture of peat moss and coco bark for more naturalistic setups. These organic substrates can be seeded with tropical isopods and springtails to keep the substrate clean and smelling fresh, requiring less maintenance. Others opt for newspaper or paper towels. Keep in mind you may need to mist 1-2 times daily depending on your substrate choice, but again, because you set up your cage in advance, you will know exactly how to handle your humidity situation before your Amazon arrives. Right? Right.
Calypso, male confetti calico.
On that note, it is incredibly important that you purchase the caging for your snake BEFORE you purchase your snake! This will allow you to do a “test run” with your bells and whistles to make sure that your temperature and humidity levels are optimal for keeping these snakes. Your success as a reptile keeper for *any* species relies almost entirely on the environment you are creating for your pet. ATBs are no different!
Our Amazon Tree Boas are kept at an ambient temperature between 78-82 degrees Fahrenheit with a basking spot of about 90. Amazons should be maintained with a relative humidity of around 80% to ensure optimum shedding conditions. If temperature and humidity levels are not met, this *will* result in health issues for your snake including, but not limited to, upper respiratory infections and problems shedding or digesting meals. So again, having your caging set up prior to the arrival of your new boa will ensure a transition into your home with the least amount of stress for you AND your snake.
It is important to note that you will see a lot of variability when it comes to husbandry with this species. This is due to the large number of specimens that have been imported, and the fact that imported animals are more often than not fighting off illnesses that would require higher temps. I have seen some “old school” keepers that have kept Amazons in excess of 90 degrees AMBIENT. These animals do NOT need these extremely high temperatures and in fact, some CBB specimens may perish under the heat stress!! What works for one person in one region of the USA with one animal may not work for another person with another animal. This is why it is very important to have as much background information on the animal you intend to purchase as possible to make that animal’s transition to your collection as smooth as possible. We own several WC, LTC, and CBB specimens and they are all kept at the same, lower parameters mentioned above (and are even breeding) successfully.
Based on the above husbandry conditions, we at BioFauna Exotics STRONGLY argue against the use of glass aquarium tanks for your Amazon! It is very hard to maintain the proper levels of heat and humidity in an aquarium, and more often than not, they do not allow enough vertical space for the snake to roam. Purchasing PVC cages, the largest Exo Terra cages (and modifying it for humidity retention) or building a cage of your own are the best options for these snakes to make sure they are happy throughout their lives. Most adult Amazons are usually kept in 2’ x 2’ x 2’ enclosures to be comfortable. Heating can be supplied using Flexwatt, or radiant heat panels (RHPs). If building your own cage, ensure that your snake cannot burn itself! To prevent this, heat sources SHOULD NOT be used without a Rheostat (similar to a dimmer) or a thermostat. Again, having your cage set up in advance allows you to make these adjustments before endangering your snake. This can prevent dangerous thermal burns which could potentially kill your pet! It goes without saying that heat bulbs should not be placed on the interior of an enclosure housing arboreal species, especially.
As tempting as it can be, we STRONGLY advise against housing more than one boa together in the same enclosure unless they are breeding. There are countless stories of boas consuming each other or harming each other. Additionally, you want to be able to keep track of each snake’s day to day activities to know if they are acting abnormally. If you constantly house more than one snake together, and you notice blood in your cage, you want to immediately know which animal it came from and why. Furthermore, it will make feeding your animals significantly easier since you NEVER want to feed more than one animal in the same enclosure at the same time!
Feeding Your Amazon Tree Boa:
There is a lot of debate surrounding how often to feed and how large of a meal that should be fed. BioFauna Exotics will tell you how WE feed our animals, why we feed this way, and allow you to be the judge for yourself based on the quality of our animals if this is the route you wish to take.
male yellow tiger
We like to feed our animals 1 frozen/thawed prey item that is slightly bigger than the thickest part of the snake’s body every 7-10 days. For babies, we may feed every 3-5 days until we are satisfied that they are eating readily and are ready for new homes. Despite the small size of their heads and their insanely skinny necks, Amazons are completely capable of taking down and swallowing prey at LEAST as thick as the thickest part of their body. We have met several individuals that feed their Amazons according to the width of their heads and necks, and they wonder why they aren’t thriving. Like other arboreal snakes, these guys have a HUGE bite width. They can open their mouths to an almost complete 180 degrees which allows their long, slender teeth to get maximum grip. They can handle it, you need to trust them! We have never had a regurge as a result of prey items being too big by feeding with this method, and our babies are rock star feeders by the time they are ready for new homes.
Also, by feeding smaller meals on a weekly schedule we will know instantly if something is causing our animals to stop eating. For example, if an animal is only being fed a large prey item every 2-3 weeks and stops eating for 2 meals, that animal has gone almost 6 weeks without food and medical attention. If an animal that is otherwise healthy (and not sexually mature) and that is fed weekly decides to miss two meals, that animal has only gone 2 weeks without food and we can immediately seek medical attention knowing that this particular behavior is NOT normal for that particular animal. Again, the key here is that we are feeding smaller meals more frequently as opposed to larger meals less frequently. While this is less of a concern for arboreals, this is a practice we observe with every snake in our collection from Ball Pythons to BCC to Spilotes.
Sexing your Amazon Tree Boa:
This is probably the second most frequently asked question following closely behind “what morph is this?”. The truth is it’s insanely difficult to sex arboreal snakes and with ATBs, the only way to be 100% sure is to either see hemipenes or throw them together when they are ready to breed. It is this reason why Amazons are usually sold as male or “probable female”. The trick is to be able to become proficient at both probing and popping in order to have more than one way to confirm sex. In our experience, which method you choose (or are proficient with) will determine how soon you will be able to sex. We choose to use both methods to sex our Amazons so we can have much more certainty when they are sold.
ATBs will probe just like any other snake, but the difficulty lies in their prehensile tails and fragile frame as neonates. We generally wait until our neonates are at least 6mo of age before we attempt to probe and we almost always use two sets of hands because they are master contortionists that love to make it impossible to keep their tails straight for any decent length of time (another reason why we wait until they’re a little older).
With the popping method we usually wait until after they have had a few meals in them to make sure they are eating regularly and the stress of handling doesn’t deter them from eating. Amazons are notorious for their attitudes and how ridiculously hard it is to get neonates started on food, and the last thing we want is to give them another excuse to delay that process!
There is also a third, somewhat unreliable (by itself) method that veterans sometimes use to sex adults. As with most arboreals, once Amazons reach a certain age it is virtually impossible to do anything productive south of the border. They have highly refined muscle control in their tails that causes males to probe like females (if you can even get the probe in sometimes) and popping is almost out of the question since 1) They have too much control over those muscles at this age 2) We don’t like running the risk of causing irreparable damage to sexual organs if they have issues getting everything back in place. So the third method involves visual identification via the length and width of the tails. When comparing males to females, males will have longer, thinner tails starting at the cloaca. Females tend to have shorter, stubbier tails. Again, this method isn’t the most reliable, and should either be followed up with one of the previous two methods, OR the cloaca can be inspected when they musk (which they tend to do quite often, thankfully?), OR you can simply pair with a member of a known sex to see what happens.
In the case of two sexually mature males that are put together in the same enclosure during breeding season, we have witnessed “aggression” in the form of chasing, necking, and general bullying wherein one male will not rest until the other male is either gone from the area or (in the case of smaller cages) he has retreated to the bottom of the cage. Two females will do nothing, but you should give them some time. An adult, sexually mature pair should lock within 5 days of being introduced if all other conditions are met. If no activity is seen within 5 days, the “pair” should be separated and another attempt can be made after their next feeding day.
Thank you for taking the time and making a concerted effort to becoming a responsible reptile keeper! BioFauna Exotics thanks you, your animals thank you, and your hobby thanks you!
If you have any other questions, please do not hesitate to contact us directly at firstname.lastname@example.org
Chris & Abby Law