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 in these pages 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. As of July 2004 I have removed the "Difficulty" ratings because after feedback from a few keepers I decided that the ratings were rather subjective. Also, most people should be sensible enough to realise that a python of moderate size and good temperament with no difficult feeding requirements is likely to make an easier pet than one of very large size with an aggressive temperament.
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.
JULY 2004 UPDATE: In the United Kingdom, the RSPCA has long been trying to get boids, no matter how small their size or docile their temperament, included on the DWA (Dangerous Wild Animals) list. If anything their stance has become even more extreme and illogical, as they are now campaigning for any snake over 2m (6ft) to be placed on the list. This would include a large number of harmless colubrids as well. Since the system of licensing DWA animals in the UK is best described as inconsistent and at worst as allowing councils to act in an illegal or rapacious manner, one can't help suspecting that the RSPCA would be happy to see the licensing involved in DWA putting a great many keepers off keeping snakes altogether.
At one point I did think that it might make sense to include the four largest pythons on the DWA list. However, it seems to be the case that whatever may have happened in the USA, no person in the United Kingdom has ever been killed or injured by a boid. The history of legislation shows that the DWA Act was also passed not for the protection of the keeper (who was deemed to have accepted any risk involved by taking on an animal on the list) but for the protection of the public. Escaping boids in the UK are likely to fare less well than those in North America owing to the UK's cool and unpredictable climate, which would normally render any large reptile fairly sluggish in a short time. The RSPCA's proposals are illogical, nonsensical and quite possibly malicious, and should be opposed completely.
Pythons are almost entirely found in the Old World, with the exception of the New World Python Loxocemus bicolor, whose membership of the Pythoninae or even Boidae has in any case been much debated. Leaving aside this species, pythons are found in Africa, Asia and Australia.
Africa has relatively few pythons, although one of its pythons is a true giant (P. sebus) and another is a popular pet snake in the West (the Royal or Ball Python, P. regius). West Africa is home to the somewhat unusual West African Burrowing Python, Calabria reinhardtii.
Asia is home to the two giant pythons, P. molurus bivittatus (the renowned Burmese Python) and P. reticulatus (the infamous Reticulated Python). These two impressive snakes are found on mainland Asia, but most of the other Asian pythons are found on the Indo-Pacific archipelagos, especially Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.
Australia is home to the greatest number of pythons, although none of them could be classified as true giants. Many of them are popular in the herpetological hobby for their size and relative ease of maintenance (Carpet Pythons, Morelia spilota ssp) or stunning beauty (the Green Tree Python, Morelia [Chondropython] viridis). As with all Australian wildlife, the export of pythons from this country is illegal, so keepers elsewhere are dependent upon stock bred in captivity.
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:
|Antaresia||a group that includes Children's Pythons, four species formerly considered one species that used to belong to Liasis. These pythons normally have more teeth than their relatives and grow 2-6 ft long depending on species, although it is apparently not easy to tell them apart.|
|Aspidites||two species that are considered primitive, the Black-Headed Python and the Woma. Both are difficult and expensive for various reasons. Their main distinction from other pythons is that they lack facial heat-sensitive pits. |
|Morelia||a group of pythons, mainly Australian or New Guinean, that grow to 6-8 ft and number several popular species, including the Carpet Pythons and the Emerald- or Green Tree Python (formerly known as Chondropython viridis).|
|Liasis||Water Pythons. These pythons live in or near water, grow to an average of 6-8 ft (maximum 15 ft), and contain some of the "grouchier" species. Some, such as Macklot's Python, are however quite amenable.|
|contains the single species L. bicolor, the only python found in the New World (in Mexico). In fact experts cannot completely agree on whether this snake is truly a python, a boa, a xenopeltid (sunbeam snake) or something else. |
|Python||includes the largest snakes in Asia and Africa such as the Reticulated- and Burmese Pythons, but also some small ones, like P. regius (Royal Python).|
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.
Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia, Harold Cogger, 6th edition, Reed New Holland, Australia, 2000. Indispensable guide for an overview and identification details of all Australian herptiles.
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".
See also Periodical Index - Boas and Pythons for magazine articles relating to the various species listed here.
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