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Burmese Pythons in the Wild – the Natural History of a Giant Snake

Burmese PythonHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  The Burmese or Asian Rock Python, Python molurus bivittatus (or Python bivittatus, see below) is one the world’s longest snakes, and vies with the Green Anaconda for the title of heaviest. Florida’s introduced Burmese Pythons are often in the news these days for causing ecological havoc and occasional human fatalities.  However, not much attention is given to this massive serpent’s life in its natural habitat.

Description

Matched in size only by the Reticulated Python and Green Anaconda (the heaviest of which I’ve encountered tipped the scales at 215 lbs.), this stoutly-built snake may reach 25 feet in length, although animals of 18-20 feet are considered large. 

“Baby”, a huge female in residence at Illinois’ Serpent Safari Park, is said to measure 27 feet in length and weigh 403 pounds (please check out this video).  A specimen under my care at the Bronx Zoo exceeded 300 pounds in weight and consumed 30-40 pound pigs with little difficulty.  The large albino python has been on exhibit at the Brooklyn Children’s Museum for over 20 years.

The ground color is yellowish-buff or tan fading to cream along the flanks, with large chestnut-brown blotches throughout.  There is an arrow-shaped mark on top of the head.  A variety of color morphs are common in the pet trade.

Most taxonomists now classify this snake as a distinct species, rather than as a subspecies of the Indian Python.

Range

The Burmese Python ranges widely throughout South and Southeast Asia, including northeastern India, Myanmar, southern Nepal, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and southern China (including Hainan and Hong Kong).  Introduced populations are established in Florida and Puerto Rico.  Records from Sumatra and Borneo are likely misidentifications.

The closely-related Indian Python, Python molurus, is found in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal.

Habitat

This snake is extremely adaptable, but requires the presence of a permanent water source.  It inhabits wooded grasslands, swamps, open forests, river valleys and rocky foothills.  Farms, suburbs and the fringes of urban areas are frequently colonized.

Natural Diet

Albino Burmese PythonAll pythons have thermo-receptive sensory pits along the upper jaw that assist in locating warm-blooded animals at night.  Prey is killed by constriction, with death resulting due to compression of the lungs and heart failure (via pressure on the heart and blood vessels).

The range of animals taken is vast.  Adults usually concentrate on monkeys, deer (Muntjac, Chital, Hog Deer, Sambar Fawns) wild pigs, Peafowl, Red Jungle Fowl, small cats and other carnivores, and large rodents.  Toads, fishes, porcupines, pangolins and monitor lizards are listed as prey in several older field reports.

In his classic book The Giant Snakes (a “must read” for all snake fans!), Clifford Pope reports that a Leopard measuring 4’ 2” long was taken by an 18 foot Burmese Python and that a young captive consumed 61 pounds of rats in one year, thereby adding 34.5 pounds to her weight.  The largest meal of which I’m personally aware is a 50 pound pig taken by a captive in theUSA. 

Humans and Domestic Animals as Prey

Burmese Pythons, Reticulated Pythons, Green Anacondas and African Rock Pythons are the only constrictors known to have killed people.  The reported cases concerning Burmese Pythons involved large pets attacking their owners; in several cases, escapees have attempted to consume children.  The other species mentioned have, on rare occasions, preyed upon people in natural (free-living) situations. 

In addition to such tragic encounters, pythons also run afoul of people by feeding upon domestic animals.  I was once called to Prospect Park, Brooklyn to deal with an escaped pet snake that had consumed a cat (much to the horror of a large crowd of onlookers!).  Some years ago, an article in Herpetological Review recounted the story of a python that ate 2 chickens on a farm in China.  Upon capture, the snake regurgitated the chickens, which were promptly carted off by their rightful owner.  Domestic geese, ducks, goats, sheep, pigs and dogs are also taken on farms and in suburban areas.

Burmese Pythons in Florida are known to take endangered species such as Key Largo Wood Rats.  One now famous photo taken in the Everglades depicts a massive individual trying to swallow a large alligator.  In Puerto Rico, it is feared that introduced Burmese Pythons will out-compete and prey upon the endangered Puerto Rican Boa.

Please see my article Giant Snake Meals http://blogs.thatpetplace.com/thatreptileblog/2008/04/11/big-snake-meals/ for some personal and recorded observations on this topic (130 pound Impala, Siamese cat belonging to king of former Siam, etc.)

Status

Despite its wide range and adaptability, the Burmese Python is threatened in some regions by habitat loss and by over-collection for the leather and traditional medicine trades. Huge numbers were collected for sale as pets in years past, but most are now captive-born. 

Alligator and Burmese PythonBurmese Pythons are bred in Vietnam for release as rodent control agents, but are killed for preying on domestic animals in other countries.  The species is listed on Appendix II of CITES and protected by the government ofIndia. 

Longevity

Captives have lived for over 34 years; unknown in the wild.

Reproduction

Pythons possess a pair of vestigial legs (“spurs”) alongside the cloaca.  These are larger in males, and are rubbed along the female’s body during courtship.  Mating occurs from January through March, during periods of slightly reduced temperature.

In common with all pythons, the female protects and incubates her eggs.  Females engage in a “shivering” motion that can raise their own core temperatures and that of the egg clutch.

Female Burmese Pythons lay 18-100 eggs after a gestation period of 60-150 days.  The eggs hatch in 55-75 days.  The hatchlings are 18-24 inches long (large enough to consume adult mice) and become sexually mature at a length of approximately 10 feet (males) to 13 feet (females).  Under captive conditions, sexual maturity can be attained in 3 years.

Please check out my posts on Twitter http://twitter.com/#!/findiviglio and Facebook http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000972624553.  Each day, I highlight breaking research, conservation news and interesting stories concerning just about every type of animal imaginable.  I look forward to hearing about your interests and experiences as well, and will use them in articles when possible.

Please also post your questions and comments here…I’ll be sure to respond quickly. 

Thanks, until next time,

Frank Indiviglio

 

Further Reading

Giant Snake Meals

Video: capture of huge python in Florida

The Giant Snakes (Clifford Pope, 1965); don’t miss this classic!

The Green Anaconda: Natural History of the World’s Largest Snake

Range information for all Pythons (40 species)

 

Burmese Python image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Mariluna
Albino Burmese Python image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Mike Murphy

New Ancient Animals Found – Tiny “T Rex” and a Saber-Toothed Vegetarian

Dawn RunnerHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Paleontologists have recently uncovered the fossils of two small creatures that defied some basic “dinosaur rules”, and which have provided unique insights into the evolution of both carnivorous and plant-eating creatures.  Eodromaeus, christened the Dawn Runner, resembled a pint-sized Tyrannosaurus, and likely gave rise to the most ferocious predator of ancient times, T rex.  Tiarajudens eccentricus, on the other hand, ate plants yet was equipped with long, pointed fang-like teeth – a “saber-toothed cow” of sorts.

The Dawn Runner, Eodromaeus,

This 4-foot-long, 10-15 pound fellow likely made up in ferocity what it lacked in size.  Pondering its image (please see photo of skeleton and artist’s recreation in article below), I can’t help but think that “prehistoric herpers” would have surely made a pet of this one!  Of course, dinosaurs and humans did not inhabit earth at the same time, but if we had… Read More »

Black Soldier Fly Larvae (Calciworms) as Food for Reptiles and Amphibians

Black Soldier Flies MatingHello, Frank Indiviglio here. The larvae of the Black Soldier Fly, Hermetia illucens, have recently attracted a great deal of interest as a food item for herps, birds, fishes and invertebrates. Also sold as “Phoenixworms”, “Calciworms”, “Reptiworms” and “Soldier Grubs”, they are reputed to be superior to other insects in nutritional value. However, much of what has been written about them is confusing and contradictory. Today I’ll review the available research and my own and other’s experiences and attempt to sort fact from fiction, science from opinion.

Nutritional Analysis

There has been some work done on the nutritional value of Black Soldier Fly larvae, and the reports are promising. In fact, a number of zoos now use them regularly.

Most importantly, their Calcium:Phosphorus ratio is approximately 1.5:1 – very close the 2:1 ration that is generally accepted as ideal for most reptiles and amphibians (a poor Calcium:Phosphorus ratio is the main reason that calcium supplementation of crickets is recommended). Also, the actual calcium content of Soldier Fly Larvae is extraordinarily high – up to 8,155ppm as opposed to 20-135ppm in mealworms and crickets. Read More »

Caution – Female Turtles, even if Unmated, Must be Provided with a Nest Site

Blanding’s Turtle Laying EggsHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Spring weather often brings me questiond concerning aquatic turtle nesting behavior. As temperatures warm (and sometimes before, as indoor turtles may be “ahead” of schedule) pet female turtles should be checked for signs that they are carrying eggs. While Red-Eared Sliders, Painted and Snapping Turtles and other largely aquatic turtles are among the hardiest reptilian pets, providing for gravid (egg-bearing) females can be very difficult…failure to do so, however, can result in the turtle’s death.

I’ve written about the problem of Dystocia, or retained eggs, in the past. Today I’d like to dispel a commonly-held belief concerning turtle reproduction, and add a few cautions. Read More »

Using Undergravel Filters in Reptile and Amphibian Aquariums and Terrariums

Eastern NewtHello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Undergravel filters were considered to be indispensible pieces of equipment when I first began setting up marine aquariums decades ago.  Encouraged by success in using them with creatures ranging from seahorses to octopuses, I began to experiment with herp enclosures.  I eventually came to rely heavily upon undergravel filters in my own collection, and for large zoo exhibits.  Though now out of favor, this highly effective tool deserves a second (or first!) look by herp-keepers.

Getting Started

I’ll refer you to a great article on That Fish Blog, Using Undergravel Filters to Their Full Potential (please see below), for details concerning set up and maintenance.  The points raised there are essential to understand if you are to successfully use an undergravel filter.  I’ll focus here on my experiences and some fine points I’ve picked up along the way. Read More »

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