Pythons have a certain notoriety, both in folk legends and in more recent lore, whether tall tales of explorers ("it was forty foot long!") or in the contemporary setting of the urban West, where they are perceived as being the pet of choice of slightly unstable keepers who allow them to escape and strangle innocent members of the public. However, disappointing as it may be to some, the reality is far more prosaic. Pythons are a large family that cover snakes from the truly potentially dangerous thirty-foot giants to harmless creatures of three foot long. Because some pythons do make good pets, while others have difficult requirements in captivity or should only be kept by people mature and experienced enough to handle them safely, I offer below a rough guide to pythons that are seen for sale in the West. This is by no means an authoritative guide, simply a basic outline. If it steers a potential python keeper towards keeping a harmless Royal rather than an aggressive Reticulated Python then it will have done its job.
Many of the details in this account have been taken from Bartlett and Wagner, Pythons: a complete pet owner's manual, Barron's, 1997. If you are interested in keeping pythons then I strongly recommend their book, especially for breeding details. See also Bibliography at the bottom of this page. MARCH 2001 UPDATE: Potential or actual owners in the UK of large pythons and boas should also note that the RSPCA is currently proposing to include these within that group of animals requiring the owner to have a Dangerous Wild Animal licence. While this is unnecessary for the smaller boids such as Royal Pythons and Children's Pythons, it is probably a very good idea if it covers Reticulated, Burmese or African Rock Pythons, and could hopefully deter casual purchasers, as well as careless or greedy sellers who neglect to inform would-be keepers of the true adult size of these magnificent creatures.
Pythons belong to the Order Squamata (scaled reptiles), Suborder Serpentes (Snakes), Family Boidae (boas and pythons). There are several genera of pythons, especially after their classification was revised in 1993 and a few species taken from the genus Liasis (Water Pythons) and given their own genera. The present classification is as follows:
Pythons: A Complete Pet Owner's Manual, Patricia Bartlett and Ernie Wagner, Barrons, 1997, New York/Hong Kong. As mentioned above, a very useful and comprehensive guide to the principles of keeping and breeding pythons and with useful species accounts.
Breeding and Keeping Snakes, Dr Dieter Schmidt (translated by William Charlton), TFH, 1995 (originally published in German under the title Schlangen [Snakes] by Urania-Verlag, Leipzig). Although a more general book inasmuch as it covers other snake families besides the pythons, most books by German herpetoculturists are always worth a look. Schmidt does not cover many of the python species other than the most common or desirable ones, and even here the reader should be aware that some of the species listed are placed under older classifications than Bartlett and Wagner's book (eg the Diamond Python which is now Morelia spilota spilota is here listed as Python spilotus, while the White-Lipped Python Leiopython albertisi is listed as Liasis albertisi, and so on). Nevertheless the book does have some useful sections, including a table "Compilation of Breeding Dates in Pythons", plus Genetics and Hybridisation.
Snakes of the World, Chris Mattison, Blandford, 1986/1992, London. A good book with the only reservation being that applied to Dieter Schmidt's, ie some of the taxonomy/classification is now out of date. See also Mattison's Keeping and Breeding Snakes (Blandford) which is probably more immediately useful to snake keepers.
Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians, John Breen, TFH, 1974, Neptune City, New Jersey. Now rather outdated in many details but still a good introduction and with the odd useful bit of information.
Reptiles and Amphibians: Management in Captivity, Eric M Rundquist, TFH, 1994, Neptune City, New Jersey. Very good on general husbandry practices for herpetologists and with a section on the incubation (by the female, if possible) of the eggs of Morelia viridis (Green Tree Python). See also the article by Peter Schu in Reptilia no. 7: "Chondropython viridis, a jewel in the terrarium".
If you are interested in the taxonomy of the Australasian pythons, an interesting article is Raymond Hoser's "Revision of the Australasian Pythons", Ophidia Review, Issue 1 Autumn 2000.
See also Periodical Index - Boas and Pythons for magazine articles relating to the various species listed here.
Special thanks to Adam Cook who kindly pointed out that the usual size for the Scrub Python, Morelia amethystina, is 7-14' - not 14-27' as we believed! (A possible typo error on our part?). Adam also suggested that the largest Scrub Python found so far has been 18'.
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