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Ball Pythons in the Wild: Habitat, Diet, and Behavior

Melissa holds a Bachelor's Degree in Biology and is a plant and animal enthusiast with multiple pets.

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The ubiquitous ball python, also known as the royal python, is a small to medium-sized constricting snake endemic to Western and Central Africa [2]. It is extremely popular in the exotic pet trade around the world, especially in Europe and North America [4], and is aptly named for its tendency to form a ball shape with its head in the middle when it feels threatened or when it is handled by pet owners [7].

While they are mostly brown, black and dark brown with blotchy patterns, there are unusual variants that are found in the wild with other patterning and coloration. Despite their immense popularity as captive animals, there is actually limited information about them in their natural habitats and their conservation status.

Ball Python Quick Facts

  • Countries of origin: West and Central Africa.
  • Habitat: Forests, grasslands, plantations
  • Lifespan in the wild: 10 years [7][13].
  • Diet: Appropriately-sized birds and mammals.

Where Ball Pythons Live

Ball pythons are found in a multitude of habitats in various sub-Saharan West African countries, including Togo, Ghana, and Benin, which are the most popular locations where they are exported for the pet trade [9]. They prefer savannahs, woodlands, and grasslands, but are also commonly found in areas disturbed by humans, including different plantations [5] where they may even be considered to be an invasive species [8]. Some have been found within 50 meters of human dwellings [8]. They can also occur in bushy and dryland rainforest patches and sometimes flooded habitats [13].

Despite their wide distribution, there is limited information on the densities of which ball pythons are found in various areas because most of the data concentrates on snakes that are collected for the pet trade. When “snake hunters” seek out ball pythons from the wild to rear in farms or for export, they are primarily sourced from rodent burrows, breaking termite mounds, and hollow palm trunks within forests, palm oil plantations, and farmland [2][3][5].

The snakes were also reportedly found in fallow land, rice fields, teak plantations, and cassava plantations [5]. These snakes are sourced during peak egg production periods [5], so females may prefer these locations when gravid. Some wild-living ball pythons have been caught in Florida, of which they have been introduced [6].

Countries Where Ball Pythons Live

Benin

Cameroon

Guinea

Togo

Central African Republic

Sierra Leone

Ghana

The Democratic Republic of Congo

Uganda

Niger

Côte d'Ivoire

Gambia

Nigeria

Guinea-Bissau

Mali

Liberia

South Sudan

Senegal

Ball python in a rodent burrow.

Ball python in a rodent burrow.

Behavior and Reproduction

Ball pythons are nocturnal, with males carrying out arboreal behavior at night and hiding in burrows during the day [9][13]. They are most active at dawn and dusk in general, and more active during the wet season [7].

Ball pythons have a fast reproduction rate, with their reproductive life reaching up to 30 years. Breeding occurs during the rainy season, which is mid-September to mid-November [7]. Males reach sexual maturity at 16 to 18 months while 27 to 31 months for females [13].

Ball pythons produce clutches that range from 4-15 eggs depending on the country they live in [3][13]. With a gestation period of about 40 to 50 days, their eggs are laid in the second half of the dry season, which is mid-February to the beginning of April. Females coil around their eggs until they hatch, and the hatchlings are immediately independent [7].

The Diet of the Ball Python

Ball pythons are opportunistic ambush predators [13]. There are significant differences between the diet and behavior of male and female ball pythons, which exhibit sexual dimorphism. Males are more arboreal than females, the latter which spends more time on the ground [10][11]. This affects prey availability and their dietary intake.

Ball pythons prey exclusively on birds and mammals, however, the males prey mostly on birds, while females, who are more terrestrial, prey mostly on mammals. In addition, smaller ball pythons under 70 cm have been found to prey almost exclusively on birds, while those larger than 100 cm gravitated towards mostly mammals [10][11]. In one population of ball pythons, they were also found to prey on a large number of bats and birds [12].

Ball pythons have been successful adapting to human-disturbed areas because they avidly prey on rodent pests, sometimes making their presence desired by farmers. Some of the rodents that occur in these areas that have been identified as preferred prey include the African giant rat, black rat, spotted grass mouse, shaggy rats, and rufous-nosed rats [7][8].

Predators

While adult ball pythons have few predators, Ghanaian trappers have reported that the snake-eating black cobra preys on smaller individuals. Birds of prey may also predate ball pythons [7].

Ball pythons are sometimes hunted for their meat in local areas [1]. Their patterns provide them camouflage, but when disturbed, they may bluff, flee, or threaten to bite [7].

Ball pythons captured for the pet trade.

Ball pythons captured for the pet trade.

Threats in the Wild

Ball pythons are the most traded African species listed under CITES (CITES Appendix II as of 2020) [2] that are legally exported live. There have been 1,657,814 living ball pythons exported since 1978, as recorded by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora [CITES] Trade Database. In Togo alone, they are the most exported species, and ranched-raised snakes comprise the majority [3].

While captive breeding has been very successful and has possibly led to a decrease of the demand for wild-caught animals, the interest in special coloration from recessive traits or "morphs" has renewed interest in exporting wild-caught ball pythons [13]

While they are exported in large numbers, many of these snakes are “ranch-raised” or “farmed”, utilizing the method of rearing wild-collected eggs, eggs from wild-caught gravid females, or younger snakes, of which a portion are released back into the wild [2].

Wild ball pythons continue to face threats from overcollection for the pet trade, in addition to their being hunted for illegal bushmeat, leather, frequent flooding from climate change, and illegal use for traditional medicine. They are also threatened by expanding agricultural mechanisation and pesticide use [3][9][13].

However, in 2010, the ball pythons were evaluated as least concern on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species [5]. Their status fluctuates for different countries and there is speculation that they are declining in Benin, based on reports from farmers and ball python hunters [13].

Their current population trend is unknown, as of 2020 [1]. Some researchers suggest that the conservation of ball pythons is a pressing issue that needs to be reassessed, and new, stricter regulations should be enforced to combat their apparent decline.

References

  1. Auliya, M., Schmitz, A. 2010. Python regius. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species 2010: e.T177562A7457411. https://dx.doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.UK.2010-4.RLTS.T177562A7457411.en. Downloaded on 24 August 2020.
  2. D'Cruze, Neil, et al. "A preliminary assessment of bacteria in “ranched” ball pythons (Python regius), Togo, West Africa." Nature Conservation 39 (2020): 73-86.
  3. D'Cruze, Neil, et al. "Betting the farm: A review of Ball Python and other reptile trade from Togo, West Africa." Nature Conservation 40 (2020): 65.
  4. D’Cruze, Neil, et al. "Dropping the Ball? The Welfare of Ball Pythons Traded in the EU and North America." Animals 10.3 (2020): 413.
  5. D’Cruze, Neil, et al. "Searching for snakes: ball python hunting in southern Togo, West Africa." Nature Conservation 38 (2020): 13.
  6. Corn, Joseph L., et al. "First reports of ectoparasites collected from wild-caught exotic reptiles in Florida." Journal of Medical Entomology 48.1 (2014): 94-100.
  7. Graf, A. 2011. "Python regius" (On-line), Animal Diversity Web. Accessed August 23, 2020 at https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Python_regius/
  8. Gorzula, Stefan, William Owusu Nsiah, and William Oduro. Survey of the status and management of the Royal Python (Python regius) in Ghana. Secrétariat CITES, 1997.
  9. Harrington, Lauren A., et al. "Snakes and ladders: A review of ball python production in West Africa for the global pet market." Nature Conservation 41 (2020): 1.
  10. Luiselli, Luca. "Why do males and females of Python regius differ in ectoparasite load?." Amphibia-Reptilia 27.3 (2006): 469-471.
  11. Luiselli, Luca, and Francesco Maria Angelici. "Sexual size dimorphism and natural history traits are correlated with intersexual dietary divergence in royal pythons (Python regius) from the rainforests of southeastern Nigeria." Italian Journal of Zoology 65.2 (1998): 183-185.
  12. The ball python: care, breeding and natural history. Kirschner und Seufer, 2003
  13. Toudonou, C. A. "Ball python Python regius." Case Species Rep, CITES (2015).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Melissa A Smith

Comments

Barb Johnson from Alaska's Kenai Peninsula on September 01, 2020:

Hi Melissa,

Although snakes have never been a favorite subject of mine, I'm always curious and willing to learn about how different animals on our planet are important to our environment and ecosystem. There are some things that we need to pay attention to. Very good information Melissa. Thanks for keeping us in the know.