royal python

Pythons are among the largest and longest snakes in the world. They are relatively common is some parts of Africa and Asia and islands in Indonesia and the Philippines. The largest pythons weigh over 150 kilograms, reach lengths of six meters and are as thick as a linebacker's thigh.

Pythons are Old World animals. They are found in Asia, Africa and Australia. Their New World equivalents are boa constrictors and anacondas (a kind of boa). They are found in Central and South America. Some smaller species are found on some Pacific islands and Africa.

The heaviest snake ever recorded, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, was an anaconda from tropical South America. A female killed in Brazil was 8.38 meters (27 feet, 6 inches), with a girth of 1.12 meters (44 inches) and weighed over 227 kilograms (500 pounds). The longest snake ever recorded was a 10-meter (32-foot, 9-inch) python killed on the island of Celebes (Sulawesi, Indonesia) in 1912. In 2008, a seven meter reticulated python named fluffy, kept at the Columbus, Ohio zoo, was said to be the largest snake in captivity. The python was as thick as a telephone pole.

Boas and pythons reproduce in different ways. Boas with the exception of one species (the Round Island boa) bear live young whereas pythons produce eggs. Relatives of boas include wood snakes, pipe snakes, and file snakes. Relatives of pythons include sunbeam snakes and aquatic file snakes.

Humans rarely see well-camouflaged pythons. “Someone could tell you there are 10 pythons in this area, and you could walk all day and not see them,” Brian Smith, a wildlife biologist, told the Washington Post. Still in many areas they endangered because they need large undisturbed areas to hunt and a good supply of prey and if they are seen they are relatively easy for hunters to catch because of their large size and sluggishness. Some species provide a useful service to humans by controlling populations of rodents that eat crops and otherwise are pests.

Suffocating Snakes

Snakes like boa constrictors and pythons seize their prey with their mouths, and wrap their coils around it so the prey can no longer expand its chest and breath. They kill through suffocation rather than crushing or choking. In most cases when a boa or python gets its coils around a victim it tightens its grip every time its prey exhales. Suffocation occurs when the victm cam no longer draw breath or the heart is unable to pump blood. Once the prey is dead the snake searches for the head. It swallows this end first and gradually rleaxes its hold on the rest of the body.

Pythons and boas rely on constriction to to kill their prey but a few other snake species, most notably some colubrids also use the technique. With large prey a python will grasp its victims with a large bite at the top of the head and then wraps its coils around the neck and suffocate it. Some children have been attacked this way. If they prey is killed it is swallowed head first.

Constriction is most effective killing birds and mammals because they are warm blooded and have to breath relatively frequently. Often something more than mere suffocation is also going on. A suffocated rat, for example, usually dies in four minutes. A rat killed by a constricting snake dies in one minute. Studies indicate that snakes disrupt the circulation of their victims, doubling their victims’ blood pressure so that heart can not pump sufficient blood to the brain, lungs and other tissues, killing with a heart attack or stroke.

Pythons are boas are regarded as relatively primitive, Their skulls are heavier and their jaws are more rigid than advanced snakes such as the colubrids, elapids and vipers. They also have retained several anatomical features from their limbed ancestors. These including a back-limb (pelvic) girdle and, in most cases, remains of back limbs in the form of small back claws or spurs.

Python Characteristics and Behavior

python skeleton

Pythons are among the most primitive of snakes. They don't have any eyelids and they don't produce venom but have very sharp teeth,. They are members of the boa and python family, which are characterized by their flexible jaws, the presence of vestigial hind limbs and a pelvic girdle, and a functional left lung (and sometime a right lung).

Pythons have heat-sensitive pits in their upper lips and within the scales. This trait distinguishes them from boas which have them between their scales. The heat-sensitives pits are used to locate prey in the dark.

Pythons are sluggish except when striking or wrapping their coils around prey. When pythons aren’t hunting they spend their time in their lairs, sometimes burrows of animals such as aardvarks or genets that were once meals. During the dry season, pythons coil up inside their burrows and lie dormant or lay eggs.

Pythons lay eggs and are one of the few snakes that shows parental care. Females coul around the eggs throughout the two to three month incubation period to protect them from predators. The reticulated python sometimes lays 100 eggs. The Burmese python lays between 25 and 60 eggs and rarely leaves them alone except to drink. The Indian python can raise the temperature of the clutch by coiling around it using a method that is not completely understood but seems to involve sustained twitching movements.

Pythons are good swimmers. They can remain submerged for half an hour or lie for hours near the bank, nostrils barely protruding above the water.

Feeding Pythons

Pythons are constricting snakes that squeeze their prey. They move very quietly and often are able to capture prey by sneaking up quietly on it. They mostly eat small birds or mammals which they surprise with their stealth.

Pythons can eat animals half their weight. They have been observed swallowing leopards and impala, sometimes stretching their victims as they swallow it. The diameter of their prey is usually the limiting factor. Generally though pythons avoid extremely large prey because they become grotesquely distended and have great difficulty moving and become vulnerable attacks by other predators such as crocodiles or humans. When they are distended like this and need to make a quick escape they can regurgitate their meal.

Pythons hunt both day and night and sense their prey using their facial pits. They seize their victims with their back-curved teeth and vice-like mouths, then wrap the animal in a suffocating embrace, and finally swallow it whole. They sometimes regurgitate the bones of their victims. Pythons are good swimmers. They sometimes enter water to ambush water birds and small mammals.

As for animals that prey on pythons, scientists say python meat is high in mercury and is a dangerous meal, so nothing benefits from eating them. In April 2005, a tourist who parked outside the Krabi Royal Hotel in Krabi, Thailand found the reason he couldn’t get his rented car to start was because a five-meter-long python was wrapped around the engine. Authorities needed more than an hour to extract the snake from the engine. The python was freed and released unharmed into a nearby forest.

Species of Pythons

rock python

There are over 50 species and subspecies of python, three of which are among the largest snakes in the world. the reticulated python, Indian python and Burmese python.

The Indian python is similar to the Burmese python. It is slightly smaller and a little lighter than the Burmese python.Sometimes Indian python and Burmese python are regarded as the same species. Another python species, the blood python, so named because some specimens are infused with orange or red, lives in humid regions of Indonesia and Southeast Asia.

The ball python is the smallest of the African pythons and is popular in the pet trade, largely due to its typically docile temperament. It is also known as royal python or ball python. The name "ball python" refers to the animal's tendency to curl into a ball when stressed or frightened. The name "royal python" (from the Latin regius) is based in part on the story that Cleopatra supposedly wore the snake around her wrist.

The green tree python, is a species of python found in New Guinea, islands in Indonesia, and Cape York Peninsula in Australia. Primarily arboreal, these snakes have a particular way of resting in the branches of trees; they loop a coil or two over the branches in a saddle position and place their head in the middle. This trait is shared with the emerald tree boa of South America. The green python’s diet consists mostly of small mammals, such as rodents, and sometimes reptiles. This snake, like the emerald tree boa, was thought to eat birds; however,

Reticulated Pythons

The reticulated python is the longest snake in the world (the largest is the anaconda). Measuring six to ten meters (20 to 33 feet) and weigh 200 kilograms (440 pounds), it lives in the forests of Southeast Asia and Indonesia and has smooth scales and yellow and tan spots with interlocking black markings..Its intricate patterns provide good camouflage in the shady, forested environment in which it lives.

Reticulated pythons mainly hunt birds and mammals. The female lays 30 to 50 eggs in hollow trees or underground chambers. They are considered very aggressive and do not make good pets. Although they are not poisonous, they usually bite their prey to immobilize it before wrapping themselves tightly around the prey to kill it. The snake is a good swimmer but it soends most of its time on land, seldom venturing too far from its den.

According to the Guinness Book of Records, the longest snake even found was 32-foot-9-inch (10 meter) reticulated python shot on Celebes (Sulawesi), Indonesia in 1912. In December 2003, villagers in Curygseweu on Java claimed they caught the world’s largest snake: a reticulated python measuring 14.85 meters (48.7 feet) in length and weighing 447 kilograms. The snake was display in a primitive zoo and was fed two or three dogs a month for food.

Burmese Pythons

Burmese pythons are native to Southeast Asia and can live to be 25 years old. Sometimes kept as a pet, they reach lengths of 6½ meters (21 feet) and achieve the thickness of a telephone poll. Burmese pythons are known to feed on almost any living creatures. They have been observed eating a full-grown deer and alligators

Burmese pythons are well camouflaged in the wild with patterns of interlocking, dark brown splotches on a buff or gray background. The coloration varies from area to area but the “arrowhead” markings on the top of the head are always present. In drier parts of their range the sometimes estivate (like hibernation except in a hot place).

Females are larger than males. They usually lay 20 to 55 eggs in tree hollows or burrows in the ground. They regulate the temperature of their eggs by trembling their muscles to generate heat. If necessary they do thise until the eggs hatch.

A full grown Burmese python feeds o mammals and birds and has no natural predators. Tigers, leopards and pythons all tend to leave each other alone Sometimes Indian python and Burmese python are regarded as the same species. Large numbers of Burmese pythons have taken over the Florida Everglades. Despite this these pythons are endangered in many parts of their home range in India and Southeast Asia.

Python Hunters

Pythons are hunted for their meat and skins and killed because they are regarded as danger to humans, especially children, and small animals. In the Sudan and Ivory Coast, pythons are sometimes caught by sticking a small child into a hole or hollowed out tree where the python is living. When the python grabs a hold of the child and tries to swallow it, the hunting team pulls the child out of the hole or tree, and then out of the snake.

In some places python hunters used to stick a heavily greased leg into python's den. After the python seized and swallowed the leg, sometimes up to the thigh, the leg was pulled out the hole. The hunter braced himself in such a way the python — which sometimes reach 20 feet — could not pull him in. When the python was pulled out of the hole its throat was slit and the leg was pulled from and the snake was skinned.

In Indonesia Lawrence and Lorne Blair fell in with a group of python hunters who captured the snakes live and sold their skins to Chinese traders. The hunters took the two brothers to small python-infested island where only a year before a 16-year-old girl had been swallowed. The largest snakes are left alone because the quality of the skin begins to deteriorate after the snake is fifteen feet long. [Source: "Ring of Fire" by Lawrence and Lorne Blair, Bantam Books, New York]

The pythons made their lairs in limestone fissures that dotted the island. Pythons have foul-smelling breath and hunters locate promising lairs by cautiously sniffing the limestone fissures. Lights were used to lure them out during the nighttime hunts.

"The hurricane lamp was placed about twenty feet in front and pumped up to maximum brilliance," Blair wrote. "As we watched, a leathery doglike head began extending from the fissure...When it was fully clear of the cave, three of the hunters then simultaneously seized it by head. tail and center and held it straight enough to feed head-first into an open sack held by a forth man. It was only 12 feet long — a baby by local standards,”but it hissed and barked and thrashed and stank until finally converted into a writhing sack of potatoes."

Python Hunters in Cameroon

In the sparsely populated Adamawa Plateau in Cameroon, hunters from the Gbaya ethnic group crawl headfirst into the holes of rock pythons up to 20 feet long, grade them barehanded and pull them out by their heads. Gbaya python hunters begin their hunt by killing a chicken and apply some of its blood to a knife or spear as an offering to ancestors. Gbaya tribesmen believe that pythons were produced by dragons at the beginning of creation. They begin their hunt in the November-to-March dry season by killing a chicken and apply some of its blood to a knife or spear as an offering to ancestors.[Source: National Geographic, May 1997]

To locate the pythons the hunters set fires and burn off the undergrowth that cover an area with python burrows and then look for trails left by the pythons in the ash. With their bodies lubricated by sweat, the hunters crawl into the burrows with burning straw as a torch, being carful they don't crawl into a passageway in which they will get stuck or that they can’t maneuver out in reverse. If the tunnels is too narrow or twisting, the hunters dig vertical holes in an effort to locate the chamber that houses the snake.

"In the hole we are like soldiers going after the enemy; we always feel in control," one hunter told National Geographic. Inside the snakes' chamber, the hunter holds the burning straw in the snake's face which he believes keeps the python from striking. He then throws a piece of antelope skin over the snakes eyes while grabbing it behind the head. The snakes rarely strike but when they do their teeth can rip open flesh like "like saw blades." During this process they snake remains calm for reason that are still not understood by scientists. A python hunter named Adamou told National Geographic that a hunter has to "prove he was a man and had no fear." His friend Sambo said on his first hunt at the age of 15 his father blocked the exit and would not let him out until he grabbed a snake.

After subduing the python the hunter crawls backwards through the holes pulling the python in a very slow, relaxed manner so the python remains subdued and doesn’t fight back. Once they are out their holes, the pythons begin resisting. They writhe and try to crawl back in their holes or wrap their asphyxiating coils around the hunter. The fights ends when the snake is dispatched with a slight slash to the throat the leaves the snakeskin undamaged.

The hunter then dries the skin, smokes the meat and boils the eggs of their victims. Traders pay up to $60 for the meat and skin of a large python. "If you were to bring this meat to an elder, he would hold your hands and spit on them as a blessing," one hunter told National Geographic. The number of Gbaya python hunters is dwindling as a result of an international ban on the python skin trade and a lack of interest by their the younger generation to learn about hunting from their elders.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: National Geographic, Natural History magazine, Smithsonian magazine, Wikipedia, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Top Secret Animal Attack Files website, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, The Economist, BBC, and various books and other publications.

Last updated November 2012

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