The Royal Python (Ball Python)
The ball python, also called the royal python, is the smallest of the python family. It takes its name from its defensive behavior of curling itself into a ball, head in the center when frightened or stressed. The snake becomes so spherical that it could actually be rolled like a ball. Presumably this behavior makes it more difficult, and therefore less desirable, for a would-be predator to swallow.
Characteristics of the Ball Python
The ball python has a relatively small head, a muscular body and a tapered tail. It is adorned with a distinctive color pattern.
- Size and Weight: Typically, the adult ball python measures some three to four and a half feet in length, with the female usually a bit longer and heavier than the male. In good condition, the mature adult snake will weigh perhaps four or five pounds. Rarely, the ball python may reach six feet in length and weigh somewhat more.
- Head and Body: The ball python has a triangular-shaped head, and, like other snakes, it has a highly sensitive forked tongue that it uses to detect prey. Its body diameter increases from the head to the mid-section, then tapers to the tail tip. Its stocky body, said authority and veterinarian Holly Frisby, can measure four to six inches in diameter at the thickest point.
- Color Pattern: Overall, the snake, said Frisby, has a camouflaging brown and tan design. "The top of the head is characteristically a dark brown, and has yellowish stripes on each side from the nostrils, through the eyes, and to the back of the head." Typically, the ball python's back has an underlying dark brown or black color overlain with light brown or golden blotches outlined with narrow, lighter brown or golden borders. Its belly ranges from white to cream-colored.
- Anal Spurs: Both the male and female, said Frisby, have anal spurs, "which look like small claws on either side of the vent. These are actually vestigial hind legs."
Distribution, Habitat and Diet
According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), the ball python has an extensive range, which spans much of western and central Africa, from Senegal to Uganda. As authority Baptist Johnson said, the python prefers open forests, grasslands and agricultural areas, preferably with considerable humidity and warm temperatures. Although the snake can climb and swim, it spends most of its time in burrows or on level ground, where it preys on small rodents such as rats, mice, shrews, gerboas and, occasionally, birds. Sometimes, it may be found curling around the low-hanging branch of a tree or shrub.
Behavior and Life Cycle
According to Johnson, the ball python, as a nocturnal creature, seeks out darkness. It favors a burrow, where it often remains sequestered and inactive through the summer months.
When preparing to shed its skin, perhaps two or three times a year, the python takes to water, alternately swimming and sunbathing for several days. Then, it scrapes and rubs against rough, hard surfaces, for instance, a large rock or a tree, to loosen the skin. It then slithers free, shedding the old skin like an old sock.
Lying patiently in wait, the opportunistic ball python uses its forked tongue to sense approaching, unwary prey. When the prey draws within range, the python strikes and seizes it. The snake instantly coils its body tightly around its victim. It squeezes the animal so tightly it prevents breathing, inducing suffocation and death. Over perhaps the next hour, the python swallows its prey, starting with the head. The snake may not eat again for weeks.
According to Judith Jones, a science teacher at East Chapel Hill High School in North Carolina, the ball python breeds primarily in the fall -- the rainy season across much of its range. (Typically, the ball python reaches sexual maturity at a couple of years in age and two or three pounds in weight.) After mating, the female retreats to an underground burrow, where she usually will lay about four to six leathery eggs. While incubating, she curls her body tightly around the eggs to reduce desiccation and minimize yolk coagulation. Throughout the incubation period, the female does not eat.
After about 90 days, a hatchling -- 14 to 17 inches in length -- splits its shell and emerges. On its own immediately after hatching, the young snake, fortified by energy from the egg, can wait several weeks before it takes its first meal, which may be something like newborn rats or mice. It will likely shed for the first time about two weeks after hatching. If it reaches adulthood, it may live for about 10 years in the wild. It may live for several decades in captivity.
While the ball python, in some areas, is poached as leather or as meat and is captured for the pet trade, its major economic value lies in its role of controlling rodent pests. That may hold value in the range of millions of dollars per year just in the country of Ghana, according to Dr. Stefan Gorzula, Mr. William Owusu and Dr. William Oduro, "Survey of the Status and Management of the Royal Python (Python regius) in Ghana."
Ball Python as a Pet
The ball python -- "generally docile and easy to handle," said Frisby -- has become a favored reptile pet, and it can be bred in captivity. It does, however, require that an owner have knowledge and commitment. As Frisby says, "...read as many in-depth sources as you can."
For instance, the snake will need a large escape-proof aquarium or cage with temperature controls, good ventilation, a satisfactory substrate and light timers. It will require, in its cage, a "hide box" for a retreat, a water pool for occasional immersion and sturdy branches for shedding.
The young ball python will require feeding once or twice a week, said Frisby, and the older snake, once every one to two weeks. The young snake can be fed pre-killed baby mice, and the older, adult mice, rats or young chickens, which should be acquired only from reputable sources.
While the ball python will breed and reproduce in captivity, it requires special provisions, for instance, preparatory separation of the male and female, rigorous control of temperatures, a separate cage for the brooding female, and a period of force feeding of the hatchlings.
In the wild, the ball python, especially the young, may become a meal for a predator such as a leopard, hedgehog, warthog, raptor or cobra. It faces its biggest peril, however, in the international pet trade, according to the IUCN. In some parts of western Africa, "it is likely that repeated loss of clutches to the pet trade may be leading to local extirpation of the species..." While the losses do not yet warrant threatened status, "the trade of this species should still be carefully monitored and the numbers exploited should be reduced."
- In some parts of its range, the ball python is revered in traditional religions as a holy symbol of the earth. It is carefully protected should it wander into a village or a home.
- Among the Igbo people of southeastern Nigeria, if a ball python should be killed inadvertently, it receives a coffin and a ritual burial.
- In Ghana, according to Dr. Gorzula and his co-authors, should a ball python be killed by an individual, that person has his head and body completely shaved, and he is forced to carry the dead snake in a cooking pot atop his shaven head to a special site for a long and tedious purification and burial.
- According to legend, Cleopatra wore a ball python as an ornament wound around her arm, which may have given rise to the snake's other common name -- the royal python.
Written by Jay Sharp
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