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DateLine Sunday, 11 May 2008





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Government Gazette

Pythons, big and small

How many of you have been frightened merely looking at the pictures of the pythons we’ve been featuring over the past couple of weeks in Nature Trail? Well, we certainly hope your aversion (dislike) to snakes didn’t deter you from learning about these huge members of the reptile family.

Today too we feature a few more of these slithering reptiles including the world’s smallest python.

Black headed python

Belonging to the genus (class or group) Aspidites meaning ‘shield bearer’ because its head scales are enlarged symmetrical scales. The black headed python is found mostly in the northern third of the mainland but not in every arid region in Australia.

It has many habitats such as rocky outcrops, hollow logs beside waterways, burrows and clumps of grass. Though it’s a good swimmer it is not seen much in water.

This non-venomous python has no subspecies. It is considered to be a ‘burrowing snake’ which is dramatically coloured. On a background or base colour of green to cream, it has black and dark grey, brown and gold stripes or a brindled(brown or tawmy with streaks of another colour) pattern.

The belly is light coloured with darker spots. Its head however is covered with shiny black scales giving rise to its name. It is believed that as this snake is a ‘burrowing’ snake which often hides its body inside the burrow, and keeps only its head out, the black colouration may be helpful as camouflage. It may also serve as a ‘heat absorber’.

The black headed python grows to a maximum length of three metres (9 ft). Its body is muscular with a flattened profile. The tail tapers to a thin point while the head is not so well defined because it’s almost the size of the neck.

Its small black eyes too are hardly visible due to the black colouration of the head. The dorsal scales are smooth and glossy; it has 506 rows at mid body, 315-355 ventral(abdomen) scales and about 60-75 mainly single subcaudal(clear part of body) scales on the tail.

It is believed that since this python’s primary diet is reptiles such as lizards and frogs its heat sensing pits are not present or prominent on the upper lip like in other pythons. However, its diet is not strictly reptiles; it also feeds on small mammals and birds.

This snake is also reported to resort to cannibalism(eat its own kind) in the wild. In captivity it has shown a very docile nature and is highly desired as an exotic pet due to its nature and also its dramatic colouration.

In fact, even though it’ll hiss and open its mouth as if to bite, it does so very rarely. The female lays 5-10 eggs and protects them in typical python fashion. The black headed python has no natural predators other than dingos and humans.

Pygmy python

This species of python which is also known as the ant hill python, is considered to be the world’s smallest python because it does not grow more than two feet! Native to Australia’s Pilbara region mostly, it is found under rocks and inside termite mounds.

The dorsal (back) colour of this python is brick red with or without a design on it. Even though a pattern on the skin is pronounced when the python is young, it sometimes fades away as the python grows older and sheds its skin.

The pattern is usually a series of spots in a darker colour than the base colour, arranged in four or more, less regular series. It gives the impression of a series of irregular crossbars.

The head is more triangular in shape than that of most snakes. This small python is usually docile(manageable or submissive) and is a rarity in captivity. The female lays between 2-5 eggs in a clutch.

The neonate (new born) weighs just four grams and is no more than eight inches long. When it’s one year (an yearling) it weighs about 25 grms. Adults cover 3 years weigh about 210 grams. It has a lifespan of 20-25 years. No subspecies are currently recognised.

African rock python

This non-venomous python is considered to be the third largest snake in the world, reaching lengths of about 30 feet and weighing over 250 lbs!

Found mostly in sub Saharan Africa, this species of python is typically associated with grasslands and the Savannah and is highly dependent on water. It is brown in colour with olive green and tan, irregular blotches fading to a white underside.

At a glance, it is often mistaken for the Burmese python even though it is not closely related to each other. The African rock python is bulky and has a dark arrowhead shape on its head.

An opportunistic feeder, the African rock python consumes almost any animal it could overpower. An adult python is capable of attacking large prey such as crocodiles, goats and gazelles.

The female python lays a clutch of about 100 eggs and incubates them for about 2-3 months. Like all pythons, the female protects the eggs throughout this period and keeps them warm, until they hatch. The hatchlings are 45-60 cm (18-24 in) in length.

The African rock python appears to be slimy, but is dry and smooth to the touch.

The scientific name of this python is Python sebae sebae (Genus species and subspecies)

Olive python

One of the largest species of pythons found in Australia (northern territories, west Australia and West Queensland). Two sub species have been recognised so far. The two species differ however by the number of scales. They also live in two different regions. They are Australia’s second largest snake species.

The non-venomous olive python is found mostly in arid environments hiding in rock crevices, termite mounds and also hollow logs. It is olive green or chocolate brown in colour with a creamish underside. The lips are also creamy white and have brown or light grey freckles.

The small scales and a high, mid-body scale count give it a softer appearance than most other pythons. The scales can reflect sunlight at different angles causing a rainbow sheen. This phenomenon (unusual occurance) is known as iridescence. This is most evident in the Pilbara Olive python which grows to about six metres in length.

On average, the olive python ranges between 8-12 ft (2 1/2 - 4 mts) in length and has a well defined head. It is often mistaken for the venomous king brown snake and killed as a result.

Even though it is mostly nocturnal and hunts during night it could be observed basking during the daytime too. This ‘ambush hunter’ survives on small mammals such as fruit bats and rock wallabies, birds and other reptiles like monitors.

It is a semi-aquatic snake adept (skilled) at swimming. The female lays 12-40 eggs in the late spring and protects the eggs until they are hatched like all pythons do for a period of about 50 days.

We’ll introduce you to more members of the Bovidae family in our future issues.

Fact file

* Pythons use sight and smell to locate prey. They are carnivorous (meat-eating) animals.

* They move by travelling forward in a straight line. This is known as ‘rectilinear progression’. The pythons shift the ribs to provide, support and lift a set of ventral (on the belly) scales which enable them to move forward. The lose ends grip the surface.

* Pythons can’t move fast on open ground; they can move one mile per hour.

* Contrary (opposed) to popular belief, some researchers say that pythons do not crush their victims to death. Instead they tighten the coils around the victim until they cannot breathe and die due to lack of oxygen.

* All python species are non-venomous.


Gamin Gamata - Presidential Community & Welfare Service
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