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Ball Python (Python regius)

West Africa

Thanks to the great success of captive breeding by hobbyists, the ball python has become one of the most popular of all snakes kept as pets. For those wanting a pet snake, it has much to recommend. Ball pythons are attractive, moderately sized (interestingly in the same size range as corn snakes), docile, easy to care for, and available in a variety of color and patterns.

Size

Like corn snakes, between 4-5 feet as adults, with the record around six feet.

Sexing

Juveniles can be sexed by experienced hobbyists using the method of manually everting (popping) the hemipenes. Subadults can also be sexed through probing of openings to the sides of the vent, using a sexing probe. In males these opening are deeper/longer than in females because they lead to the inverted hemipenes. Adult male ball pythons have larger cloacal spurs (claw-like structures to the sides of the vent).

Longevity

The ball python may be the longest lived of all snakes. Well cared for captives will regularly live 20-30 years and the record is 47 years for a specimen initially obtained as a young adult.

Selection

The ball python is one of the many species that will fare much better in captivity if obtained as a juvenile. Unlike wild-collected adults, which can be a challenge to get feeding, juvenile ball pythons whether captive-bred or imported will readily feed on commercial- bred mice and rats of the appropriate size. The problem with imported juveniles (versus U.S. captive-bred) is that some lots come in sick, showing either signs of respiratory infections or gastro-intestinal disease (a sign is regurgitation).

Housing and Care

Enclosures

All snakes need to be kept in secure enclosures, ideally with a locking system. The most readily available are all glass tanks with a sliding screen top and pin type lock. Another popular type is made of molded plastic with sliding glass doors. We recommend an enclosure with a perimeter at least twice the length of a snake, ideally three to four times the length of a snake. Juveniles initially do best when kept in minimum size enclosures (perimeter= approximately twice the length of snake).

Vivarium Design I: Bare Bones Method

This is also known as the laboratory or breeder method which consists of a system that allows maintaining animals in a space and labor saving environment that meets the minimum requirements of a species. As with laboratory rodents the substrate is typically wood shaving or chips. A shelter and a water dish are added. A heat gradient is provided by a subtank heat pad or heat tape, usually regulated by a thermostat. Maintenance consists of weekly spot removal of fecal material and biweekly or monthly replacement of substrate. Snakes will live long and healthy lives in such systems but keepers will not benefit from the enjoyment of observing a wide range of behaviors or from having an attractive display in one's home.

A common problem when using the bare bones approach to keeping ball pythons is the failure to shed properly a single everted skin and to have the shed adhere and come off in sections. Offering a sizeable water bowl when a snake is entering the shed cycle (eyes appear opaque and clouded) and partially covering the screen top will help raise humidity and can help facilitate shedding. Another approach is to place the bottom of a plastic storage container with moist moss or a coir substrate under the shelter or a plastic container with lid filled with a moist substrate and with a hole cut out the side to allow access.

Vivarium Design 2: Naturalistic EE* method

In our experience, ball pythons thrive in naturalistic setups but make poor displays because they spend the day in hiding and are only active at night, usually when hungry or during breeding activities. They are an extremely energy conservative species.

Although we haven't done it, an interesting experiment would be to keep a ball python with a species of colubrid active during the day such as some of the rat snakes. In any case, you can keep a ball python in an attractive setup with raised basking areas of cork or wood, a cork shelter and sturdy plants such as Ficus, Dracaenas or Scheffelera. At night ball pythons can be observed with dim lights or red incandescent lights cruising the vivarium and even climbing on branches or other raised structures.

Substrates

A key component of naturalistic systems is to use a 2-3 inch layer of soil-less substrate, such as coir, peat moss, or special mixed formulas that are kept moist, with the upper layer allowed to dry as in nature. Maintenance consists of scooping out fecal material weekly, then stirring the upper layer of substrate such that any trace of waste matter or urates are driven into the moist sublayer. In time this moist sublayer will become bioactive and develop a bacterial flora that will break down residual waste matter. To keep the system active the substrate should be lightly watered or misted once or twice weekly to maintain a moist sublayer. The substrate should never be allowed to become soggy, which will kill beneficial bacteria and cause it to smell bad. This approach will require little to no additional maintenance other than addition or partial replacement of substrate every 6-12 months. A healthy bioactive substrate will remain odorless for years except for a rich fresh earth smell. Another benefit of a moist bioactive substrate in contrast to dry wood shavings or chips is that they can be kept moist when snakes are in shed to provide the humidity required for problem-free shedding. When kept on a moist substrate it is common for snakes in shed to burrow in the substrate until a shed is completed. Make sure to moisten the substrate when your ball python is in shed.

Landscaping

The key factor to designing a vivarium that enriches the life of reptiles and provides an attractive display is landscaping. At the onset you should realize that this requires a careful balance of open space and landscape components. A common error is to fill available space with decorative items such as wood or plants as if one was decorating a plant terrarium. This may be visually appealing but will not meet the needs of a ball python. For snakes, at least 2/3 of the floor area should be open ground, allowing them space to move freely on the surface.

For ball pythons essential landscaping will be to include some form of shelter. Curled cork bark is attractive, lightweight, natural looking and ideal for this purpose. The other landscape components can be thick woods or cork bark sections that can climbed. Two to three sturdy plants can be added such as Ficus benjamina, Dracaena, Star of India (Pleomele) should be rest and basking areas.

Water and Feeding

Water

Clean water in should be available at all times. Water should be replaced at least twice weekly and whenever fouled. Containers should be washed with a dish detergent when fouled and thoroughly rinsed before refilling.

Feeding

Ball pythons should be offered one or two prekilled mice or rats of the appropriate size (girth of rodent about equal to the widest midbody girth of the snake) biweekly for juveniles and weekly for adults. Some animals will prefer feeding on live prey. Adult snakes should be allowed to fast for 2-3 months when brumating (resting) during the cool weather months.

Handling

Like many snakes, ball pythons, will tolerate brief periods of handling.. Unfortunately their docility and low level activity compared to many other snakes has made them the subject of handling abuse that will stress and eventually kill a captive. As a rule no ball python should be handled until it is established, meaning feeding regularly and showing signs of weight gain and growth. Once established they can be briefly handled, 5-10 minutes at a time no more than a couple of times a week. Remember, these are nocturnal, mostly secretive and energy conserving snakes. Taking them out during the day for hours at a time, as we have commonly witnessed, will stress and exhaust them. Handling-abused ball pythons can develop a generalized weakness (limp) and listlessness, signs of stress and exhaustion that will eventually lead to their death. No snake can be recommended for hours of handling during the course of a day.