Classification and Range
The ball python is one of about 26 python species placed in the subfamily Pythoninae, within the family Boidae, in the order Squamata and the class Reptilia. Two of the subfamilies of boids differ mostly in their reproduction. Boas give birth to their young alive, by incubating their shell-less eggs internally. Pythons lay eggs with leathery shells. Ball pythons range from Senegal to Togo in west Africa, and eastward to the Nile River in southern Sudan.
Ball pythons live in dry grassland, savanna and forest edges. Like most pythons, they are good climbers, but they are usually seen on the ground.
A ball python's head is flat on top, with no brows above its round eyes. It has a square, boxy snout, and heavy jaw muscles that make the sides of its head, behind the eyes, bulge outwards. It can securely hold prey with the 100-150 sharp teeth that curve towards the back of its mouth. Its neck is narrower than its head, but its stout trunk region can easily have a diameter of more than twice the width of its head. Its short tail tapers to a blunt end. It may be 3-6 feet (0.9-1.8 m) in length. Females are usually larger.
Ball pythons have alternating black and pale stripes along their face; these stripes partly mask the dark eyes. Their coloring includes large, asymmetrically lobed spots of medium brown, outlined in off-white, then in black. These spots mark the dark brown back and sides, and funnel down toward the off-white or pale gray belly. Many of the lobed spots contain smaller dark spots. Some individuals have light or dark, broken or solid stripes along the spine. The spots of young animal are often yellow or golden, and darken as they age. A rare genetic piebald form, with patches of pure white, is found in the wild in Ghana and Togo. Other rare color variations found in the wild include animals lacking yellow, black or red pigments, or whose dark markings fade with age.
They live 20-25 years in captivity. One specimen lived for 47 years at Highland Park Zoo in Pennsylvania.
In the wild: Ball pythons actively hunt rodents such as rats, gerbils and gerboas, following them into their burrows. Ball pythons kill prey animals by wrapping them in constricting coils or pressing them against burrow walls. At the zoo:Keepers offer the ball pythons one small or medium-sized rat per week
Like all boids, ball pythons have spurs near their cloaca; these are vestiges of ancestral legs. Males' spurs are longer, and stimulate the female during courtship. Ball pythons become sexually mature at about 5 years of age. Females breed every two to three years, after the cool season, usually December and January. When they're gravid (egg-bearing) the female colors darken. Most shed their skins about a month before laying four to 10 eggs in a humid mammal burrow. The eggs' parchment-like shells stick together as they dry.
Except for infrequent searches for water to drink, the females remain coiled around the eggs for the entire 75-80-day incubation period. If the temperature drops below the required 87°-90° F (31°-32° C) incubation temperature, the females rhythmically tense their muscles, burning energy to produce warmth. If the humidity in the burrow drops below 90-95%, the female may raise the humidity by taking a dip and returning while still wet. Most females eat little or nothing from the time they become gravid until their eggs hatch. The hatchlings are 9-17 inches (23-43 cm) long. If incubation temperatures are too low, young may die in the egg, or have birth defects or nongenetic color anomalies
Even when full-grown, ball pythons can be preyed upon or injured by wild pigs, wart hogs and leopards. Young ball pythons are vulnerable to many predators, including birds of prey and hedgehogs. During the cool season, ball pythons tend to fast and become inactive as temperatures in their environment don't keep their bodies warm enough for food to digest.
An Extra Sense
Heat-seeking missiles of the natural world, ball pythons can easily hone in on prey in utter darkness. Along a ball python's upper jaws, several scales cup inward, each forming a deep pit containing nerves that sense infrared, or body heat. The snake can tell which direction warmth is coming from because the pits open at different angles, like an open fan of folded paper. A temperature change of only 3/1000th of a degree sends a signal to the brain, alerting the snake to the nearby meal. These pits coupled with the ability to see well in darkness, spell doom for its mammalian victim.
Location at the Zoo
The ball pythons at Woodland Park Zoo are kept off-exhibit and used for educational programs. Other species of pythons, boas and anacondas are found at the Day Exhibit, Tropical Rain Forest and Trail of Vines. You may have to look carefully to find these well-camouflaged snakes.
Ball pythons are not an endangered species.** However, exportation of reptiles for the pet trade is lowering numbers of certain populations to the point where they may become extinct in the wild. In 1998, 45,000 ball pythons from Ghana and Togo were brought to the United States. If this continues, wild populations could become dangerously depleted. Anyone interested in owning a reptile should learn about its needs and be sure it was captive bred. Many more wild-caught animals die than ever reach pet stores. Those reptiles fortunate enough to survives are often stressed, malnourished, and untamable. Read more about keeping a pet reptile by www.kingsnake.com/ballpythonguide/pets.htm.
Ball pythons, and all reptiles, play an important role in nature's web of life. Worldwide, habitat destruction and hunting for skins to make tourist products or souvenirs contribute to the decline of reptiles. Each of us needs to take action to protect wild habitats so snakes and all animals can continue to perform the vital roles they play in maintaining the delicate balance of nature.
We need snakes! A few of the many benefits they provide are:
•Snakes eat insects and rodents that eat our crops or spread disease.
•By helping to control populations of these rapidly breeding animals, snakes keep their numbers at levels where natural habitats can support them.
•Snake venom is used in medical research on blood clotting and anesthetics and to make some medicines.
How You Can Help!
The effort to save endangered species requires cooperation and support at the regional, national and international levels. You can help in this cause. Join and become active in a conservation organization of your choice. Don't buy products made from wild animal parts. To learn other ways you can help, contact Woodland Park Zoo at firstname.lastname@example.org about supporting conservation programs at the zoo.
Discover more about ball pythons by contacting the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles at: 303 W. 39th St., PO Box 626, Hays, KS 67601; or the American Federation of Herpetoculture: AFH, PO Box 300067, Escondido, CA 92030-0067. Learn other ways you can help conserve wildlife and habitats they require for survival by visiting our How You Can Help page.
Reptiles as Pets
We do not recommend reptiles as pets for most people as they require very specialized diets and environments. We also receive hundreds of requests each year to take former pet iguanas, boas and other reptiles but we cannot accept these due to space, health and unknown backgrounds. If you need to find a reptile or amphibian a new home, we suggest you contact a local herpetological group in your area.
In the Puget Sound region, contact the Pacific Northwest Herpetological Society as a resource. If you do choose to get a reptile as a pet, please learn as much as possible about their care and the best species before making your decision and never accept wild-caught animals as pets or release non-native reptiles or amphibians into the wild.
Sources and Suggested Reading
Bartlett, Patricia and Wagner, Ernie. 1997. Pythons. Barron's, Hauppauge, NY. 96 p.
Bauchot, Roland, ed. 1994. Snakes: A Natural History. Sterling Publ. Co, Inc, New York, N.Y. 220 p.
Matero, Robert. 1993. Eyes on Nature Series: Reptiles. Kidsbooks, Inc., Chicago, IL. 29 p.