The Natural History of the Ball Python, Python regius: Ball Pythons in the Wild – Part 1

Ball Pythons in the Wild

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

As recently as the early 1990’s, the now popular ball python was considered a troublesome captive, due largely to the prevalence of wild caught adults in the trade.  Today it is widely bred in captivity, but certain of its natural traits continue to affect how we go about keeping it as a pet. We’ll take a look at some of those traits, and then go on to captive care in future articles.

Physical Description

Although small as far as pythons, go, this species is very thickly-built.  Ball pythons average 3-5 feet in length, with occasional (and now only rarely encountered) specimens reaching 6 and even nearly 7 feet.  It is the smallest African representative of the genus Python, but not the smallest African python per se.  That title goes to the West African burrowing python, Calabaria reinhardtii, which rarely exceeds 3 feet in length.

Ball pythons are dark brown to nearly black in color and marked with numerous, generally oblong blotches of tan, light brown, reddish-brown or yellow-orange.  The color of wild specimens varies tremendously among different populations, with pied and even albino individuals reportedly being encountered more frequently than is usual among other snake species.  This may account for the ease in which captive color morphs are produced, although incubation temperature seems to affect the color pattern as well.  The savannahs of Ghana are known for their predominance of yellow-orange ball pythons, which are much favored in the pet trade.

Range

Sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal on the west coast northeast through Mali to western Sudan and southeast through Guinea-Bissau to the Gulf of Guinea, then east to the Central African republic, possibly Zaire, and Uganda.

Although typically described as being native to “Tropical West Africa”, the ball python actually has a fairly wide distribution across central and into parts of east Africa.  In addition to the aforementioned countries, ball pythons have been recorded from Niger, Chad, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Benin and Cameroon.

Most of the parent stock of today’s captive population apparently originated in Toga and Ghana.

Habitat

Ball pythons are snakes of open, often arid habitats – savannahs and other grasslands, sparsely forested woodlands, overgrown fields and the borders of agricultural areas.  They typically shelter in mammal burrows, termite mounds or hollow logs.  Although largely terrestrial in some habitats, ball pythons will climb, and often occupy tree hollows where such are available. 

Where undisturbed, they frequent barns, tilled fields and village outskirts, drawn by large rodent populations.   Ball pythons do not occur in forests or thickly-wooded habitats, but will colonize such areas when they are cleared for agricultural use.

Click: The Natural History of the Ball Python, Python regius:  Ball Pythons in the Wild – Part 2, to read the second part of this article.

Until than,

Frank

The Yellow-Spotted Sideneck Turtle (Terecay, Yellow-Spotted Amazon River Turtle), Podocnemis unifilis, in the Wild and Captivity – Care in Captivity

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

 Please see Part I of this article for a discussion of this turtle’s natural history.

General

As mentioned in Part I of this article, I expect sideneck turtles of various species to become more common in the pet trade in the future.  The information provided here is largely applicable to all 6 species in the genus Podocnemis, but please write in for further details concerning turtles other than the yellow-spotted sideneck.

Please bear in mind that yellow-spotted sidenecks grow quite large, and are best kept by those with the space for a very large aquarium or outdoor pond.  If it becomes available at some point, the smaller red-headed Amazon sideneck, P. erythrocephala, would be more easily managed in the home.

Enclosure and Physical Environment

This turtle spends most of it’s time in the water, leaving only to bask or lay eggs.  An adult male or smaller female (some females top out at 12 inches, while others attain 18 inches in length) will require an aquarium of at least 100 gallons in capacity, but a larger enclosure would be preferable.  Turtles kept in aquariums should be afforded the opportunity to swim and forage in larger, temporary quarters, such as a child’s wading pool, when possible.  Large females will require a custom aquarium or outdoor pond.

A sturdy, dry basking platform must be provided.  Adult sidenecks are quite vigorous, so you may need to attach a piece of driftwood or cork bark to the tank’s side with aquarium silicone in order to hold the platform in place.  This will leave the area below the platform free for swimming – rock piles take up too much space, and can be rough on turtle plastrons.

Hatchlings and juveniles can be raised in smaller aquariums, with Zoo Med Turtle Docks or R-Zilla Basking Platforms used as land areas.

Filtration

Filtration is best accomplished with a strong canister filter, as internal filters will be moved about or broken by these active turtles.  Be sure to choose the most powerful model suitable for the particular enclosure that you maintain.

In common with most aquatic turtles, sidenecks are messy feeders.  They should be offered meals outside of their aquarium, in a plastic storage bin that can easily be dumped and cleaned.  Doing so will go a long way in maintaining water quality and clarity, and will extend the time between filter medium changes.

Light and Heat

Yellow-spotted sidenecks are heliothermic (sun-basking) reptiles and require a source of UVB light in order to produce Vitamin D3 (which is required for calcium metabolism).  The Zoo Med Power Sun UV Mercury Vapor Bulb provides UVB and will help maintain a basking site temperature of 90-95 F.  For smaller aquariums housing young turtles, the Zoo Med Reptisun 10.0 High Output UVB bulb will likely be preferable, as the mercury vapor model is designed for larger enclosures.  Be sure to add an incandescent spotlight for warmth as well. 

Yellow spotted sideneck turtles bask frequently in the wild, and require prolonged exposure to UVB in captivity.  If your turtles are nervous and drop into the water when disturbed, consider housing them in a quiet location until they adjust, lest their basking time be compromised.

Water temperature should be kept at 76-80 F.  You may need to protect your submersible heater from the turtles’ attentions with a piece of PVC pipe into which holes have been drilled.

The day/night cycle should be maintained at 12 hours daylight, 12 hours darkness.  If the room’s air temperature falls at night, use an R-Zilla Infra-red Ceramic Heat Emitter ….leaving the basking light on all night will disrupt the turtle’s normal activity patterns, and should be avoided.

Feeding

Young sidenecks of all species lean towards an animal-based diet, becoming more herbivorous as they mature.  Offer as wide a variety of foods as is possible. 

Zoo Med Aquatic Turtle Food is specifically formulated for sidenecks and turtles with similar nutritional requirements, and can be the base of the diet for both growing and adult animals.  It is low in protein, which is an important consideration for older sideneck turtles.  When fed to growing animals, this food should be alternated with Tetra Repto-Min Food Sticks and Suprema Food Sticks.

Hatchlings and young turtles should also be offered regular feedings of whole animals, including earthworms, fish, mealworms and their pupae, waxworms, butterworms, crickets, crayfish and small snails.  Canned grasshoppers, snails, shrimp and caterpillars are now available, and, along with freeze dried prawn, should be used to increase dietary variety.

Be sure to include plant material (see below) in the diet of growing sidenecks…animals refusing to switch to a vegetable-based diet as they mature is commonly encountered problem.  Acclimating turtles to all foods while young will help to avoid this situation.

Adults do best on a wide variety of vegetables, including kale, romaine, endive, dandelion, bok choy, cucumber, mustard greens, collard greens, yams and carrots.  Fruits should be offered sparingly, although apples are fine on a regular basis.  The composition of their diet should be varied with seasonally available greens.  Spinach, which binds calcium, should be avoided. 

Provide your turtles with the tough stems of kale and bok choy, as these will help to keep the cutting edges of the jaws trimmed.

Captive Longevity

Captive longevity exceeds 20 years.  Please see Part I of this article for notes on a long-lived group of giant sideneck turtles (P. expansa).

Miscellaneous

Sidenecks are ideally suited for outdoor ponds.  Please see A Survey of Amphibians, Reptiles and Insects Suitable for Maintenance in Outdoor Ponds – Part II, the Red-Eared Slider, Chrysemys scripta elegans for general considerations.

Please write in with your comments and questions.  Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

You can read about current Turtle Conservation Funds projects focusing on sideneck and other turtles at:

http://www.turtleconservationfund.org/previously-funded-grant-awards/

Image referenced from Wikipedia.

The Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis carolinensis) in the Wild and Captivity – Care in Captivity – Part 4

Click here to view Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this article. If you’re looking for information on Green Anole Natural History, click here.

Candidates for the Mixed-Species Terrarium

I have kept green anoles with 5 lined skinks, house geckos, brown anoles, green, gray and squirrel treefrogs, southern and spadefoot toads, DeKay’s (brown) snakes, various millipedes and land snails (…and water moccasins, but that was at the Bronx Zoo.  As they say “don’t try this at home“!). 

I once established a group of green anoles in the upper half of a 300 gallon aquarium housing tropical fish – they take readily to such situations if provided ample branches and live plants upon which to climb.

Captive Longevity

Captive longevity approaches 10 years, but averages 5-7.

Handling

Green anoles are high strung and do not take well to handling.  They are fast moving and make long, seemingly reckless leaps, so be careful when opening their terrarium.  Let them see you open the enclosure, and do so slowly – in time, the anoles will move to safe, elevated locations as opposed to coming towards you.  They will, however, watch you closely and may take an opportunity to flee if you turn your back, so close the lid or door when reaching for tools, etc.  A small net might be useful to have on hand.  Green anoles shed their tails readily when grabbed forcibly.

Breeding

Please see also “Reproduction”, in Part I of this article, for notes on distinguishing the sexes.  Captive breeding has occurred spontaneously, but is most consistently achieved when the animals are exposed to cyclic changes in temperature, light and humidity levels.  Watch for young animals, as undetected eggs may hatch within the terrarium.

Green anoles originating from the northern portions of the range require longer and cooler “winters” than do those from the south.  In fact, southern-range animals are different, physiologically, from those in the north.  Experiments have shown that anoles living in south Florida are killed by the winter-time temperatures routinely tolerated by those native to northern Florida.  You can assume that pet trade animals are from the more southerly portions of the range (usually central/south Florida and Louisiana).

Cooling off periods of 60 days or so may stimulate reproduction.  Nighttime temperatures should be allowed to dip to 60-65 F for animals originating in the northern sections of the range, and 62-68 F for those from the south.  Daytime temperatures can rise to 81-83 F.  The daytime light cycle should gradually be reduced to 9-10 hours from the usual 12-14 (cover the cage during the day if it is located in a well-lit room).  Misting should be reduced to once daily.

Potted plants make ideal egg deposition sites.  Eggs incubated in vermiculite (1:1 vermiculite:water by weight) at 82-86 F will hatch in 32-46 days.

I’m very interested in mixed-species exhibits and terrariums.  Please write in with your own experiences.  Thanks…until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

An interesting article on anole reproductive and social behavior, as well as a review of this species’ 100-year history as a laboratory animal, is posted at:

http://dels.nas.edu/ilar_n/ilarjournal/45_1/pdfs/v4501lovern.pdf

The Green Anole (Anolis carolinensis carolinensis) in the Wild and Captivity – Care in Captivity – Part 3

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.  Please see Part I and Part II of this article for further information on Green Anole care. For Green Anole Natural History, Check out here

Social Grouping

Keeping Several Males Together

Male anoles usually establish territories of at least 4 ft x 4 ft x 4 ft in captivity, so “one male only” is the rule in most home situations.   However, establishing 2 males in a suitably large enclosure is a worthwhile undertaking if at all possible.  If enough space is provided so that each can establish a territory, the males will display vigorously but will largely avoid physical contact (if crowded, the dominant animal will attack the other).  The presence of a competitor for female attentions may spur the males to breed as well. 

 

Be sure to keep at least 3-4 females per male when attempting multi-male exhibits, as their presence may divert attention from aggressive displays and combat.  Another key to success lies in providing a complex environment filled with escape routes and sight barriers.  Vines, hanging plants and inter-twined branches will go a long way in increasing the effective size of your enclosure.

The Value of Smaller Pets and Zoo Animals

Observing anoles in colony-type situations will provide you with insights not possible in single-animal terrariums.  I have always preferred to keep smaller animals that could be well-provided for in captivity, as it is from these that we can truly get a feel for how life is conducted in the wild.  

In a zoo or at home, one can more easily provide a “complete environment” for an anole than for an alligator.   Surrounded by creatures from all over the world during my years working for the Bronx Zoo, it was to those creatures most able to carry out a full range of behaviors that I was drawn.  I learned far more sitting in a greenhouse watching a colony of nearly “free-living” green anoles than I did in  front of multi-million dollar exhibits that, for all their good qualities, provided rhinos, bears, gorillas and other large mammals only a minimal replication of their wild habitats.

Female Dominance

Female green anoles will also establish a dominance hierarchy, based largely upon size. Those at the top may inhibit others from feeding and basking, so be sure to offer numerous basking and feeding opportunities and sight barriers.

 

Immature males are difficult to distinguish from females.  Watch smaller animals as they mature and remove any males, as these will be attacked by the adult male (please see Part I of this article for tips on distinguishing the sexes).

Compatible Species

Anoles, if given enough room, are ideally suited for community terrariums.  In the wild, they dwell in “edge habitats” (areas where 2 distinct habitat types meet) such as meadow-forest borders, and in the ecologically similar overgrown fields and gardens.  Habitat borders and edges usually support a greater variety of animals than do the interiors of either associated habitat. 

The moderate temperatures and humidity levels favored by green anoles are suitable for a wide range of other interesting creatures.  It is often difficult to house amphibians and reptiles in the same enclosure, due to the great differences in their requirements, but green anoles uniquely span this gap.

Mixed-Species Considerations

When maintaining a mixed group of animal species, always provide more space than would be required for the same number of individuals in a single-species terrarium.  Be sure also to keep in mind the different feeding strategies of each.  For example, American toads will likely gobble up all non-climbing insects before anoles even begin to feed. On the other hand, anoles will leave no food for nocturnal hunters, such as green treefrogs, if all feeding is done during the day (the solution is to add a portion of the diet after the lights have gone out).

Check back on Friday for the conclusion of this article.

Happy New Year to you and yours!

Frank Indiviglio

The Green Iguana (Iguana iguana) on the Venezuelan Llanos – Notes from the Field

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

green iguana on Venezuelan LlanosI grew up “knowing” green iguanas to be largely arboreal lizards of thickly-forested habitats.  In time, I was able to confirm that impression by observing them high in the canopy of a Costa Rican rainforest, and in the tall trees of Tortuguero Island, Costa Rica…where, in accordance with what I had read, they dove into the river when disturbed.

So I was quite surprised, upon arriving in Venezuela’s flat, largely treeless llanos, to find these flooded grasslands well-stocked with the huge lizards.  I was there to study green anacondas (also a surprising find, given my past impressions, but we eventually tagged over 500) but found it impossible to limit my attention to them, so overwhelming was the diversity of wildlife.

The green iguanas grazed on the flat, treeless terrain like so many cows…in fact, they were often among cows, as much of our work was on a cattle ranch.  When threatened (i.e. by me trying to catch one), they took off at incredible speeds and dove into the water. 

Anaconda surfacing on Venezuelan LlanosOne stout brute of 5’11” in length (please see photo showing side-view) absolutely refused to enter the water when he reached its edge.  He held his ground, thrashing his tail (please see photo showing cut left on my arm by a smaller animal’s tail) and lunging at me.  Once subdued, I was able to see that he had numerous old wounds that had likely been inflicted by piranhas, and was missing several toes.  Perhaps his stretch of the river had a particularly aggressive piranha population, and he preferred a battle on land to another swim!

Venezuelan LlanosI’ve included a photo of typical iguana habitat in Venezuela’s central llanos country, to perhaps show you why I was so surprised to find the lizards there (the creatures in the foreground are capybaras, world’s largest rodent).  Also included is a photo of another reason that an iguana might choose to run or fight rather than swim – a huge green anaconda basking at the surface.

Today we can see ample evidence of the green iguanas’ adaptability right here in the USA – feral animals live in areas ranging from beaches to suburban gardens throughout south Florida!

Please write in with your questions and comments.  Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

Detailed information on green iguana behavior and typical habitats is posted by the Green Iguana Society at:

http://www.greenigsociety.org/inthewild.htm

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