Python - Pythonidae
Pythons are a family of giant, nonvenomous constrictors that can be found in Australia, Asia, and Africa. There are currently 8 genera, 26 species, and more than 50 subspecies of Python that have been described. Some of the most well known species of python are the Burmese python, the green tree python, the diamond python, the ringed python, the Indian python (on the endangered list), the ball python, and the black-headed python.
Some of the largest snakes in the world are pythons. The size of a full-grown python can vary greatly according to its species, but to give you an idea of the sheer size of these animals consider this: the Children’s python is considered to be “very small,” as far as pythons go, growing up to just 4 feet in length and remaining relatively light-bodied. The only smaller species of python is the Anthill (also called pygymy) python at 2 ½ feet.
On the other end of the spectrum you’ll find the reticulated python. Not only is the reticulated python the longest species of snake on Earth, reaching lengths of 33 feet (10 m) in the wild, it’s also one of the heaviest, weighing in at 350 pounds.
The world’s largest (meaning longest) snake, as recorded by the Guinness Book of World Records, is a 10-year-old reticulated python named Medusa. Medusa is owned by Full Moon Productions, Inc., and works at The Edge of Hell Haunted House in Kansas City, Missouri. Medusa measures a whopping 25 feet and 2 inches (7.67 m) in length and it takes 15 men to hold her. She’s also been known to eat deer whole.
Pythons are a long-lived, hardy species; maximum average lifespan will depend according to species. On average, if you’re planning on getting a python as a pet, you should plan on making a commitment of anywhere between 15 and 30 years.
The record for the oldest documented snake is a ball python that lived to be 48 years old. Here are the maximum-recorded lifespans for several of the most commonly kept species of python:
- Children’s python – 25.7 years
- Sumatran short tailed python – 27.8 years
- Green tree python – 20.6 years
- Reticulated python – 29.4 years
- Carpet python – 19.6 years
Pythons are impressive specimens. From the six rows of razor-sharp teeth and independently moving jaw to the prehensile tail that can launch ¾ of the snake’s body at prey during an attack, pythons are amazing creatures.
As you can imagine, there are hundreds of different colored and patterned pythons, ranging from solid (also called patternless) to two-toned, striped, ringed, speckled, spotted, and even rainbow. The appearance of many pythons is a result of their native geographic region.
Python Care Level
Most people who buy giant pythons simply shouldn’t. Because of their extreme size, weight, housing, and care requirements, pythons should only be kept by the most advanced herpetoculturists. Even then, you’ve got to ask yourself if you’ll be able to secure an abundant, permanent food source for your python and if you’ll always have someone who’s willing and able to help you move a giant snake, should the need arise.
Responsible herpetoculturists know that a second experienced keeper should always be present when moving and/or feeding a snake that is longer than 6 feet.
What Do You Feed A Giant Python?
Even giant pythons start out small and cute, but they grow quickly and will require a steady food supply. All pythons, even giant ones, are carnivorous and feast on “appropriately sized” mammals or birds.
What does “appropriately sized” mean when we’re talking about giant snakes? For baby pythons this means feeding on a couple of adult mice or rat pups, but as the python grows, so does its need for larger food items. Captive-bred pythons eat appropriately sized rats until graduating to larger prey like rabbits and chickens. Especially large species of pythons need even larger food animals, like pigs, goats, hogs, and deer.
One good rule of thumb to follow is that a python’s meal should be about 10 percent of its own body weight. That means if you’ve got a 200-pound snake on your hands you should be feeding it a 20-pound meal. As for feeding frequency, that all depends on the species of python you have. Generally, the bigger the snake, the less frequently they need to eat.
How to Safely Feed Your Python
A couple of tips when it comes to safely feeding a python: don’t attempt to handle it while it’s eating, and always give it plenty of time to digest a meal before handling it. A good rule of thumb is to wait at least 24 hours after the snake has finished digesting its food before you handle it. With larger snakes, wait at least 48 hours. If you mess with a snake that’s just eaten, it may regurgitate the meal.
No matter the type of snake, there is always the possibility of health concerns. Some species of python are more susceptible to disease than others, so always check with a reputable python breeder or pet shop before making a purchase.
The following is a short summary of python diseases and disorders.
Blister Disease and Scale Rot (Necrotizing Dermatitis)
The Pythonidae family is susceptible to a condition called blister disease, and scale rot often appears together with blister disease. Blister disease primarily occurs due to severely inadequate hygiene, and scale rot is caused by a breakdown of the immune system.
Snake scale infections can have symptoms that range from mild hemorrhage to severe blistering and ulceration. The result looks almost like a chemical burn in the form of blisters and can take several weeks to heal.
The most common causes for blister disease are a habitat that is too humid, and/or a habitat that is extremely dirty.
Inclusion Body Disease
Inclusion Body Disease (IBD) is a serious and fatal neurological disease that is seen in constrictors. This disease is seen mostly in snakes in the boa family, but Burmese pythons are also frequent carriers. The condition that is referred to as Burmese Disease (BD) is, in fact, IBD, but the symptoms seen in pythons vary to some degree from what is seen in boas.
While Burmese pythons are the main species in the python family to be affected by Burmese Disease, it has also been seen in Borneo short-tailed pythons, African rock, and blood pythons.
Pythons with IBD will often present neurological signs. The most common signs are tremors, seizures, vision loss, loss of tongue control, head tilting, abnormal body positioning, holding the head up for long periods (stargazing syndrome), arching of the head, and the inability to right itself when turned upside down. You may notice the snake holding its tongue out longer when flicking it. A loss of muscle tone throughout the body may also be seen, with progressive loss of motor function. Pythons usually do not show the same digestive signs that boas do, like regurgitating, but they may show signs of bloating and constipation related to the loss of muscle function.
IBD is a retrovirus infection similar to AIDS. It is not contagious to people but is highly contagious to other snakes. Historically, Burmese who are exposed to the virus suffer a dramatic death within a matter of weeks. IBD is a slow, progressive disease characterized by recurring bouts of respiratory infections like pneumonia and involvement of opportunistic bacteria.
There is little to no definitive information about the causes or methods of transmission of IBD, but the common snake mite, Ophionyssus natricis, is believed to be one of the main modes of transmission. There are many similarities between BD and IBD, but researchers are unsure of whether BD is a new strain of the retrovirus or something new.
Unfortunately, affected snakes may be contagious before clinical signs are seen, which puts all other snakes that are in contact with it at risk. This is why all new snakes should be quarantined for several months before being added to a collection. Once clinical signs do present, affected snakes should be immediately and strictly quarantined. IBD can be treated to some extent, but it is incurable; euthanasia is frequently the only course of action.
Aside from IBD, reptile respiratory disease is another problem to be on the lookout for. Thankfully, most reptile respiratory diseases are caused by inadequate heat gradients or poor husbandry practices and can be easily remedied.
If you notice your python wheezing while breathing or displaying other signs of a respiratory infection, like holding its head up for extended periods of time, check the temperatures in its enclosure. Sometimes all it takes is more heat to cure a respiratory infection, but seek professional advice if your snake is experiencing labored breathing, nasal discharge, or loss of appetite. Chronic pneumonia that is not responsive to antibiotics may actually be IBD.
Infectious Diseases and Parasites
The Pythonidae family is particularly susceptible to parasites. Mite infestations on snakes can look like lots of white, red, or black dots that, upon closer inspection, move around. Mites come out at night to feed on the blood of snakes and can cause serious stress in snakes, and in some cases death.
Mites to snakes are exactly like fleas to dogs and cats. Mites often hide in the grooves between snake scales on the underside of a ball python’s jaws, as well as other snug places like the eyes and corners of the mouth. The infested reptile’s eyes may be swollen due to mites beneath the scales surrounding the spectacle.
Pythons with heavy mite infestations often will lie in their water dishes in an attempt to drown the mites or feel some relief from them. In order to get rid of a mite infestation you’ll need to eliminate them from your python and from its enclosure.
Mites reproduce at an alarming rate. If left unchecked, mites can cause your python to stop eating; smaller python are at risk of dying from severe anemia due to blood loss. In addition to being suspected of transmitting the fatal IBD infection, mites are suspected of transmitting many other blood-borne diseases as well. If you find a mite infestation on your snake, a thorough exam by an experienced reptile veterinarian is advised.
Despite what you may have seen in the movies and on TV, pythons as a whole are gentle giants. That being said, exceptions do exist. A captive-bred python that comes from a line of captive-bred pythons will probably be calmer and more adapted to captive life than the hatchling of a wild python. Likewise, hatchlings and baby pythons tend to nip more than their adult counterparts. Most snakes will get calmer with regular handling, but it can be hard to handle a giant snake, which is why it’s crucial that you thoroughly evaluate the “personality” and temperament of a python you’re considering buying.
Supplies for the Python’s Environment
Aquarium Tank or Terrarium Setup
To keep a member of the Pythonidae family, you’ll need some essentials, like an adequately sized enclosure that’s well ventilated and has secure locking mechanisms to prevent escapes. The size of your python enclosure will depend on the species of python, but to give you a good idea, many proper python enclosures take up an entire room, or at least half of a room. So if you’re attached to keeping your guest room for human guests, you may want to rethink your choice of pet snake.
For python substrates (bedding) you have some choices, but your decision should depend on the species of python you have. Some pythons are native to grasslands and would prefer a mix of mosses and wood chips, while others do fine in a mix of vermiculite, aspen shavings, and commercially developed blends.
When housing any type of giant snake, it’s wise to utilize a floor drain whenever possible to make cleanings easier.
Branches and Shelters
Pythons are heavy, but they like to climb in trees to ambush their prey. Many keepers do not keep live plants in their enclosures because the pythons easily destroy them with their immense weight. You can buy specially made branches and perches for giant pythons that will support their weight, but it may not be necessary depending on the species you select.
Pythons are quite elusive in the wild and enjoy hiding and burrowing. It is important to provide a log or some other sort of hiding place where your python can go to take a breather or it will get stressed and develop health issues. The “burrow” should be large enough for the snake to curl its entire body within.
Heat and Light
Pythons are ectothermic—they require external heat sources to regulate their own body heat—so they require a range of temperatures, or temperature gradient, throughout their living environment so they can regulate their body temperature and digest meals easier.
Every giant snake enclosure needs multiple electronic thermometers, with their sensor prongs placed strategically throughout. Some herpetologists advocate a laser heat gun so you can monitor temperature in different parts of the environment. Room heaters and portable heaters can be used to help keep the right temperature but should never be placed inside the actual enclosure.
One of the best options for heating a giant snake enclosure is with sub-floor heating. Luckily, there’s a good variety of commercially produced sub-tank/sub-enclosure heaters made specifically for large reptiles. “Pig blankets” are without a doubt the best commercially produced heating units for large reptiles. These are giant heating pads enclosed in rigid plastic; they emit high surface heat over a broad area and are controlled by thermostats. Pig blankets can only be special ordered through reptile specialty or feed stores.
The other component to providing temperature gradients is a cool area of the enclosure where the python can escape to take a break. The exact temperature requirements vary depending on the species of python and a couple of other factors like the location of the enclosure, etc.
Pythons do not require the full spectrum lighting that other reptiles like turtles and lizards do, but they can be used for periods of time to help enhance the natural beauty and coloring of a snake.
Humidity (Air Moisture)
Pythons require humidity, the exact level of which is dictated according to species. Features like bathing pools can help achieve some levels of humidity in an enclosure, but there should always be a hygrometer present to ensure proper levels are maintained. In addition to a hygrometer,
Pythons like to soak and bathe, so if you have the space to add a pond or snake pool, that is ideal.
Pythons are slow movers, as should be expected with giant snakes, but they are quite good swimmers. In the wild, pythons use water to help support their immense weight; in captivity they enjoy going for a dip and soaking. Keeping a bathing pool or pond in a python enclosure is a good idea but can be messy since they’ve been known to defecate in their water bowls.
Python Habitat and History
Pythons sure get around, as far as giant snakes go. The Pythonidae snake family’s range spans four continents, though it is native to just three countries: Asia, Australia, and Africa. Some species have invaded wilderness areas in North America, such as the environmental crisis occurring in South Florida, but they are not native to those regions.
Different subspecies of pythons live in different habitats. There are water pythons, tree (arboreal) pythons, pythons that love arid deserts, and pythons that call tropical rivers and marshes their home.
So how exactly did a species of giant snake like the Burmese python make it all the way across the Pacific Ocean and into the American south, specifically south Florida? One of the ways this occurred is when overwhelmed pet owners intentionally released their pet pythons into the Everglades National Park, no doubt believing they were doing the best for their voracious pets. There have also been accidental releases. When Hurricane Andrew made landfall in 1992, a number of zoos, breeding grounds, and wildlife refuges were destroyed, allowing a large number of animals to escape. The pythons that were released thrived in the natural aquatic habitat and with few natural predators to keep the population in check, have since established a large population that continues to grow.
This Burmese python epidemic is causing major problems within the South Florida ecosystem, as the Burmese are an invasive species that feeds on young crocodiles, birds, small mammals (some of which are already endangered) like marsh rabbits bobcats, raccoons, opossums, and foxes. There is a valid growing fear that Burmese pythons will soon hunt some native species, like marsh rabbits, into extinction. There have been known attacks on much larger animals as well. In 2006, Florida wildlife researchers found a 13-foot Burmese that had died in the process of attempting to swallow a 6-foot-long alligator, which also died.
The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has responded by holding annual snake removal programs to cull the numbers of pythons and other invasive reptile species, as well as issuing hunting permits to qualified applicants. However, Burmese pythons have been very successful in hiding themselves away in the neutral-toned Everglades that so closely matches their own skin. Of the thousands that are believed to be living in the Florida Everglades, the numbers of pythons caught by trappers and hunters only amounts to hundreds each year.
On the opposite extreme, pythons have been highly sought and hunted for centuries to be used as food, for their prized skins, and for use in various local medical remedies. This overexploitation has landed some species and subspecies on the endangered species list, namely the Indian python and the Burmese python. Despite the Burmese python being listed as protected in Hong Kong, China, and Thailand, it is still extensively and illegally hunted.
This article was verified and edited for accuracy by Dr. Adam Denish, VMD.