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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

10 comments

  1. avatar

    Would a male burm stay below about 13 feet? Or could managing the diet keep it smaller. I know of some people who have purposefully underfed snakes to keep the small, which ultimately makes them have bad temperaments and not be good pets. I just mean not feeding the snake the normal every week to make it obese, as many captive snakes are.

    Also, if it stayed below about 13 feet, could it stay in a 6′ x 2′ cage. Could that cage be 1′ high, or would it have to be 2′. I know that they dont need to climb, and i dont have the space to provide it with a huge enough enclosure to climb, but most people have simple 4x2x2 cages for large burms, which do just fine.

    Also, with normal handling, most burms are relatively tame, correct? I know you can never really completely prevent an attack, but significantly lower it by normal handling.

    -Jeremy

  2. avatar

    Hi Jeremy,

    Males tend to top out at that size, but captivity alters things somewhat; I’ve seen some unusually large males of several species in zoos and with private breeders. No reasonable way to control size by feeding.

    Snakes can get along in relatively small enclosures, but I can’t see the reasoning for doing so, other than commercial breeders who are trying to save space and money. A 13 foot long snake in a n arrow, low cage 1/2 it’s length would be more “in storage” than anything else. No way to provide a temperature gradient, and cleaning would be very difficult. Burmese, being very hardy, may get by but not advisable. A more serious concern is the safety factor..it is very difficult to work around large snakes in cramped quarters. Handling helps, but it remains a wild animal operating primarily upon instinct; every entry into the cage represents a major intrusion, given that the snake would have no ability to retreat, stay out of your way, etc. throw in health problems or other factors that could render even the calmest specimen aggressive, and you have the makings of a difficult or dangerous situation. In a large collection, consider also that you’ll need to be able to work effectively, time-wise and safety-wise. Burmese are treated as “pets” by many, but I’ve had the sad task of investigating several deaths cause by long term captives; one involved a 12 foot animal and a strapping 19 year old man who had at least some experience. In zoos and at home, I always opt for the smallest animal in the largest exhibit possible. In my opinion, only room sized, professionally built cages are appropriate for large constrictors. All responsible zoos require 2 well-trained people on hand when cages of large constrictors or venomous snakes are opened, and panic buttons are always available. Lots of nonsense out there, re these animals, but they really should not be taken lightly. Sorry again…not want you wish to hear, but this is the most responsible advice I can provide.

    best. Frank

  3. avatar

    Hey no problem man. If its not going to be the right snake for me, then I’m not going to get it. I wanna stay safe and keep the animal’s needs in mind. I’m kind of liking the bull/pine snakes. I think a male would fit pretty well in the 4×2 cage because they shouldnt get to the over 6 foot size like the females, correct?

    -Jeremy

  4. avatar

    Oh yea, im assuming that a male African Rock Python or Retic would be the same situation. Too big and dangerous.

  5. avatar

    Yes, and many of both sexes stay smaller; breeders often have a good idea of how their lines generally turn out. Interesting natural & captive color phases, some rare species as well, i.e. the Black Pine Snake . Add some height to the cage if possible.

    Best, Frank

  6. avatar

    Hi Jeremy,

    Yes, even worse due to their generally “short fuses”.

    Best, Frank

  7. avatar

    Aight, yea im thinking about the black pine, as i originally wanted to get some sort of larger “black” snake just for the look.

    I think im going to rethink all of the cage sizes and I’ll get back to you with the new measurements when I finish.

    Can you just give me more suggestions on any snakes, lizards, inverts, or amphibians that you think i “need” haha.

    Thanks

  8. avatar

    Hi Jeremy,

    I look forward to hearing from you; I’ll give other species some thought and get back to you, Best, Frank

  9. avatar

    THanks, It will probably be after about a week, becuase im going on a cruise this week and will thinnk about it then.

    -Jeremy

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Being born with a deep interest in animals might seem unfortunate for a native Bronxite , but my family encouraged my interest and the menagerie that sprung from it. Jobs with pet stores and importers had me caring for a fantastic assortment of reptiles and amphibians. After a detour as a lawyer, I was hired as a Bronx Zoo animal keeper and was soon caring for gharials, goliath frogs, king cobras and everything in-between. Research has taken me in pursuit of anacondas, Orinoco crocodiles and other animals in locales ranging from Venezuela’s llanos to Tortuguero’s beaches. Now, after 20+ years with the Bronx Zoo, I am a consultant for several zoos and museums. I have spent time in Japan, and often exchange ideas with zoologists there. I have written books on salamanders, geckos and other “herps”, discussed reptile-keeping on television and presented papers at conferences. A Master’s Degree in biology has led to teaching opportunities. My work puts me in contact with thousands of hobbyists keeping an array of pets. Without fail, I have learned much from them and hope, dear readers, that you will be generous in sharing your thoughts on this blog and web site. For a complete biography of my experience click here.
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