A Short Guide To Snake Selection Text & Images (except where indicated): Doc Rock
Australian Pythons: Southern Cross Reptiles
Since I can remember, the late summer and early autumn months have been traditionally the busiest time for python sales in Australia. It is a period when young newly-bred pythons are starting to feed and breeders are keen to reduce their cleaning and husbandry responsibility by selling the fruits of the last 12 months labour.
The aim of this article is to provide a timely and brief overview of the traits, husbandry quirks and personalities of the various types of python as a quick matchmaking guide when faced with the onslaught of options which are presented to the reptile shopper these days.
Types of Australian Pythons
Australian pythons can be split into a number of groups. The largest group is the genus Morelia which includes the carpet pythons, the green tree pythons, rough scales, the Oenpelli python and Australia's largest snake, the scrub python. Carpet pythons are the most popular Australian pythons in captives. They include the coastal, jungle, diamond, in-land, south western, and north western forms, as well as the centralian carpet which is a different species and often just called by its scientific name of "Bredli".
The second most popular type of captive python belongs to the Children's group which includes the spotted python pr maculosus, the large-blotched python pr stimsoni, and the Children's python or childreni. The taxonomy of these snakes has been in perpetual change for decades with various author's placing them in the genus Antaresia, Bothrochilus, and Liasis, so don't be confused if you see any of these names used as the snakes are still the same. These pyhtons are not large animals and include the world's smallest python, the ant-hill or pygmy python (also called perthensis) which is currently uncommon in captivity.
The third group of snakes belong to the genus Liasis which contains the popular olive and water pythons. these quite large and robust snakes are closely related to the Children's group (they used to belong in the same genus.)
The fourth group and final group occupies the genus Aspidites. This genus includes the spectacular black-headed python, often called BHPs for short, and the woma. They used to be uncommon in captivity because of the difficulties in keeping wild caught animals and then in getting them to breed. Today, having passed through a number of captive generations, they are bred in increasing numbers and their popularity is rapidly growing.
Australian Pythons: The Carpet Group
When considering how best to summarise the various forms of carpet pythons for this article, I decided to start with the ones that we have found the easiest to keep and then work through to the ones that can be more challenging to maintain and breed.
Without a doubt and by almost any yardstick, the inland carpet python (Morelia spilota metcalfei to some) is a stand out captive python among australian pythons. Typically found along the inland river systems and surrounds over the eastern half of inland Australia, they are a medium sized carpet which has a lovely placid nature once adult size and is extremely hardy in captivity. I have captured numerous inland carpets through my involvement in various research projects and I'm always amazed at how placid they are as wild caught adult animals.
We have kept the Murray-Darling form of inland carpet for the last two decades and have found nothing easier to keep and to breed. They handle cold well, not minding if their environment gets down at night to a few degrees in winter as long as they have somewhere to bask for an hour or two during the day. If their cage gets a bit hot, they don't seem to mind either. They are not very sensitive to humidity and providing they have something to drink and the cage is not soaking wet they seem to thrive.
Inlands are also excellent subjects when learning to breed snakes. They will mate with minimal fuss, their eggs are extremely resilient to ignorant abuse and their babies are generally quick to start feeding. About the only thing negative I could say is that they are snappy as babies (like most pythons), but they quickly settle down.
Australian Pythons: Coastal Carpet Python Morelia spilota mcdowelli
For many years, the most numerous Morelia in captivity were the coastal form of carpet python (Morelia spilota mcdowelli to some). This is probably because they are the most common non-venomous snakes encountered in the wild around densely populated areas and so were easy to source for captivity. Coastals live along the central to northern coast of Australia and can vary markedly in colour and size, but generally they are one of the largest carpets with animals in excess of nine feet not uncommon. In March of 2002, a coastal carpet was collected from the mid-north coast of NSW that had a total length of 3.47 metres (nearly 11.5 feet) and weighed in at 22.3 kilo making it the third heaviest snake caught in Australia!
We have kept many coastals and if I was to try and sum them up, I would have to say "highly variable." I have known some placid beautiful giants and some unattractive, weedy little so-and-sos. While some feed happily in captivity, I have known far too many that are patience-testing nightmares when it comes to being finicky. We have also found that they are less tolerant to extremes of temperature and humidity than their inland compatriots. Similarly, while temperament is highly individual, as a general rule they are also a more nervy and irritable snake. From a breeding perspective, they are not difficult and their eggs are fairly forgiving. One strong point in their favour is that they are about the least expensive pythons on the market.
A close second to the inland carpet for suitability in captivity would have to be the Centralian python (Morelia Bredli). These carpets tend to grow larger and to be a bit more irritable than the inlands, but on the whole they are a hardy, tolerant species. They can be a bit trickier than inlands to breed too, but still are by no means difficult and their eggs can survive quite a bit of mismanagement. I must confess that they are probably my favourite carpets not only because of their pleasant nature, but also because of their striking appearance with all the earthy colours which mimic their habitat in the red centre around Alice Springs and the McDonell Ranges.
Australian Pythons: Darwin Carpet Python Morelia spilota variegata
The north-western or sometimes NT or Darwin carpet (Morelia spilota variegata) is a medium to small member of the group that is quite slender to suit its arboreal nature. They have a reputation for being an aggressive snake and like many northern species they certainly are inclined to be quite highly strung and assertive in nature. We have kept numerous coastals and most have been willing to bite when given any provocation. The flip side to this coin, however, is that they are generally great feeders and are not terribly difficult to breed.
Darwin carpets like warm humid conditions and will not tolerate prolonged cold. One annoying habit shared by most is their love of soaking in their water bowl so that water is spilt everywhere and the cage is constantly wet. However, they do not handle ow humidity and will have trouble shedding if their cage becomes too dry. Some NT carpets can be very attractive with their bright orangey markings. Recently, we developed the albino form of this carpet which displays bright yellow/gold and white banding. For a reason completely unknown to me, these albino carpets generally have extremely placid natures, even more so than the inlands and Bredli.
Australian Pythons: Jungle Carpet Python Morelia spilota cheynei
When it comes to an irritable nature, few snakes can top a narky jungle python and gold jungle for natural good looks, they can be both the beauty and the beast all wrapped into one. We have been breeding jungles for 15 years now and have been selecting them for colour, pattern, and temperament. While the strain has definitely got more placid over time, it seems that the better looking the snake the greater the tendency for them to be stroppy with their keeper.
Like the NT carpets, jungles require a cage with reasonable humidity to do well. Unlike the NTs, they do not like their cages kept too warm and can become temperamental if not kept in conditions that allow them to escape the heat sometimes. For this reason, we keep all our jungles in the lowest and coolest cages in our main breeding room. To finish on a positive note, jungles are generally good feeders, quick growers and will breed in captivity.
Australian Pythons: Diamond Python Morelia spilota spilota
The last of the carpets I will cover is the Diamond Python (Morelia spilota spilota) which is kept in large numbers in Australia. Diamonds are a medium to large carpet. They are a challenge to breed indoors in captivity and keep healthy and even more of a challenge to breed indoors. Because of this, the majority of diamonds are kept and bred in outside aviaries, or at least in cages that have access to an outside enclosure. When kept inside they tend to suffer from a condition which has become known as "Diamond Syndrome". This syndrome can express itself as problems with feeding and/or shedding, a reduced immune system and in extreme cases neurological and muscular disorders which invariably result in death.
Many years ago, we kept diamonds in our main breeding room only to watch them die one by one. Since then, and after much research and experimentation, we learnt that they cannot handle constant warm conditions. You may hear that they need UV light or that they must live outside, but this is not our experience. As long as you keep them cool most of the time and only provide basking temperatures for short periods during the day, they can thrive. We have kept them for nearly 20 years and they now flourish indoors, although we have been selectively breeding our stock from animals that tolerate the indoor life best. Currently, we have a beautiful female that is 10 years old and breeds regularly indoors (we have a clutch of eggs in the incubator as I write). Needless to say, breeding diamonds regularly indoors is not an activity for the novice though.
Australian Pythons: Water and Olive Pythons
Olive Python Liasis olivaceus
Before describing Olive Pythons (Liasis olivaceus) in captivity, I must declare a possible conflict of interest and confess that my favourite pet snake in the world is my male olive called Brutus. He is big, powerful, alert, inquisitive and as gentle as a snake of his size can be. In my view, a large placid olive python is very difficult to beat as a scaly companion.
However, anyone contemplating buying an olive must allow for the fact that they grow very quickly (still a youngster at 2 metres) and that they can easily reach three to four metres and weigh over 15 kilo in captivity. My wife, Diane, is also fond of Brutus, but will not handle him unless I am within screaming distance just in case he makes a mistake and thinks she is food instead of a friend. Although he is yet to make that mistake, he can get very excited when hungry and he would be a handful if ever he wrapped around a human neck with thoughts of juicy rats on mind.
Not all olive pythons are gentle giants either. We have kept a number and one of them is particular considered that its role in life was to rip the face off anyone that came near its cage - and that's a lot of face ripping snake to control. So to some extent, it is a bit of a lottery when you buy a baby olive. Although by far the majority turn out to be gentle giants, the odd one that doesn't will be a snake to remember.
Unless you live in a place like Darwin, olives can be very challenging to breed, especially if you live in the southern half of Australia like we do. It took as many attempts before we were able to breed them consistently in Adelaide. When we questioned some of the most successful breeders of olives about how they did it, there seemed to be no commonly agreed method and most had little idea why individual snakes bred some years and not others. While I just love olives, they are not an ideal snake for the first time keeper, for a child, for a home without the room for decent cage or for someone to learn how to breed snakes.
Australian Pythons: Water Python Liasis Fuscus
I must also confess that I am rather fond of water pythons (Liasis Fuscus) too, although we don't keep any these days. Compared to other pythons, they are a medium length, heavy bodied snake and are often called "rainbow pythons" because their skin is highly reflective and has a prismatic effect on light. The first species we ever bred was a water python and that is a testament to just how easy they are to breed. We knew nothing at the time about any aspect of breeding and I shudder at the way we incubated the eggs, but in the end half the clutch hatched and we managed to raise a whole lot of baby waters.
Back in this dim, dark past, we learnt that there are two distinct types of water and that they are like chalk and cheese to keep. Firstly, there lovely bright yellow belly which come from Queensland. Then, there are the more brownie coloured ones with white bellies from the Northern Territory. The Queensland ones are usually quite well mannered. In contrast, our experience is that the NT waters are generally spawn of Satin and will bite and scent their keeper (i.e. smear foul smelling tail secretions on you) at the drop of a hat.
Often, I'm asked about python bites and which ones I think are the worst. Putting aside scrub pythons, I would say that for power and determination it's hard to beat a big BHP and for razor sharp teeth and deep penetration it's hard to beat a large GTP. However for all round deep penetrating power and tenacity, there is nothing worse than a large NT water python. I have caught many bites in my life, but remember my few big water python bites above all others.
I do not want to put the reader off his species by talking about bites. Water pythons can be beautiful, well-handling snakes which some argue are much more interesting and active than the Morelia group. However, bloodline is important when buying a L. fuscus, because as the advert goes "waters ain't waters."
Australian Pythons: The Children's Group
Australian Pythons: Spotted Python Antaresia maculosus
When it comes to describing the Children's group of pythons in captivity it is probably best to discuss the spotted pythons (maculosus, or sometimes just maccies) separately from the Children's and Stimson's pythons which are both very similar to keep and to breed.
Maccies are found in the wild from north-eastern NSW to the tip of Cape York Peninsula. Although relatively small compared to other pythons, they are the largest of this group and average about 75 to 90 cm with the biggest reaching well over one metre. On the positive side, spotted pythons are generally good feeders, breed easily, maintain their bold markings throughout their life, are hardy and can thrive in most cage setups. On the negative side, they are generally the feistiest members of the group and often can take quite a bit of work to quieten down sufficiently to stop them constantly snapping and scenting their keepers. However, once settled into their captive home, they can be an excellent snake for responsible keepers of any age or skill level to keep.
Australian Pythons: Children's Python Antaresia childreni
Australian Pythons: Stimson's Python Antaresia stimsoni
Children's pythons are found along the top part of Australia from the Gulf of Carpenteria though to the Kimberly district of Western Australia. Stimson's pythons are found from the West Coast of WA through central Australia to the area east of the Great Dividing Range. They are both small pythons with childreni averaging a slightly larger size than the stimsoni, but with either exceeding one metre often. The colourful patterns on childreni tend to fade more with age than those on stimsoni, so that as adults stimsoni are usually the more attractive snakes.
Both these snakes, and particularly the Stimson's pythons, are more challenging pets to keep and to breed than their maculosus cousins. Many varieties are extremely difficult to establish as feeders when babies. We have force fed non-feeding Stimsons for three years before finally giving up. If they are sold when too young and before they are feeding well, they can go off their feed and be almost impossible to start again. If they get a little too cool in their cage environment (because of the cage itself, or the place they choose to hide), they can stop eating too. So, vital pre-requisites when buying a young Stimson's or Children's python, are firstly to make your object of desire is feeding and growing well and secondly to take careful note of the cage conditions and temperature regime it is being kept under successfully. Providing this advice is taken, then these snakes are a joy to keep. Once grown up, they rarely bite and can become very relaxed even with frequent handling.
The Children's group do not like to bask in the open, but prefer to position themselves in a tight warm hideaway. For this reason, their cages are extremely easy to set up and all they need is thermostatically controlled heat tape, a water bowl and something to hide under which is a warm at one end and cool at the other. A plastic tub with tape under it and newspaper inside as a substrate and for hiding under is all they require to thrive.
One of the other great advantages of the Children's group is that, because they are small and thrive in compact vivaria, you can have lots and lots of them in a small area! These days there is an enormous variety of forms in captivity and a keen collector can have a dozen different forms from a range of habitats on a few shelves instead of the half a house that larger species would require.
Australian Pythons: The Aspidites Group
Australian Pythons: Black-headed Python Aspidites melanocephalus
Black-headed pythons Aspidites melanocephalus are found across the northern third of Australia and would have to be one of the most impressive looking pythons that our country has to offer. Their large size, shiny jet back heads and striped bodies look very imposing and to the average, snake-uneducated member of the general public they are safe, or that there is no food on offer, then they are generally pussycats.
However, the trick with BHPs is getting them into your hands without mistakes. One of their quirks is that they love to sleep on their basking site. When they are touched in this state, they almost jump out of their skin and can go immediately into a full defensive threat display. Once picked up they will usually calm down straight away. Alternatively, sometimes when they are touched, they assume food is on offering - and a hungry snapping BHP is a site to behold. One day I opened the cage of a very large female BHP and upon being woken from a sound sleep she decided that I was food and, rushing out of her cage at head height, she proceeded to try to grab me. She succeeded in forcing me back into the cages behind where upon she nailed my hand (which was protecting my face) and then set about hauling me back into her cage for digestive purposes and without having a say in the matter. "Diane,#$%@# .......Help me,%$#@!"
Research has shown that in the wild BHP prey consists of a high proportion of reptiles. Probably for this reason, frequently they can be nightmares to start feeding as babies. Like the Stimsoni pythons, my strong advice when buying a BHP is to make sure it has been feeding well and consistently for some time. We won't sell ours until they have been feeding well for at least two months and have shed a couple of times.
Summing up BHPs, while they are beautiful snakes and will handle well, they are not for the faint hearted and not to be taken lightly when approaching them in their cages. Once feeding well on rodents, they are easy to maintain in captivity, although they are one of the harder snakes to breed consistently. Also, being natural reptile feeders, they are not a snake you should keep with others of their kind if you wish to avoid accidents.
Australian Pythons: Woma Aspidites ramsayi
The final specie in this short guide to snake selection is the Woma (Aspidites ramsayi). My partner, Diane, adores womas. We have ended up with so many types and forms now that by number they are the most numerous type of snake we keep after carpet pythons.
Womas are found all over central Australia and the coastal region of the Pilbara in WA. They are wonderful captive snakes for many reasons; they are a stocky and compact terrestrial python with very simple cage needs; feeding problems are rare; they are not difficult to breed; they are inquisitive animals and put on great feeding displays with frantic caudal luring and head bobbing behaviours and; they redefine the concept of being laid back. Once they are more than six months old, womas become completely relaxed about captive life. They are a joy to handle and as long as they know there is no food on offer, they are safe in the hands of the whole family.
Diane loves them as babies because "they are so feisty with great threatening displays but don't bite and only head butt you say stay away". Sine Di does 90% of the husbandry care these days, she also likes them because they are amongst the most trouble free of captives.
An ordinary run-of-the-mill woma used to coast about $2,000, but recently they have dropped in price to somewhere between a half and two thirds of this price. This trend is opening up the species for more people to enjoy. The majority of State Authorities (not SA) classify them as specialist animals and place all sorts of restrictions on keeping them. This is understandable given that there were very few in captivity until eight or so years ago and their needs were poorly understood. However, today with 3rd and 4th generation captives readily available, they are one of the easiest and most enjoyable pythons to keep and are less of a specialist animal than BHPs, certainly less than many of the Children's group, and less than some of the Morelia species too. Hopefully, the authorities will catch up with advances in the hobby soon and let them take their rightful place in Australian herp society.
Australian Pythons: The Won't Bite; Cuddly Group
Snakes are predators and obligate carnivores. They don't live in a complex social structure and have had no need to develop affectionate behaviour. As babies most things eat them and so being handled by a human 3.2 million times their weight is not an experience they seek out. With careful attention and patience some pythons can become quite relaxed with captivity. However, there are no snakes that won't bite on occasion and certainly there are none that like to cuddle their keeper. At best, they become indifferent to their handler and enjoy the stimulation removal from their normal cage surroundings and exposure to new stimuli.
It is not uncommon for us to receive e-mails at Southern Cross Reptiles asking which snakes won't bite and would make a lovely pet. recently, a person told us that they had to sell their baby maculosus because it was too aggressive and scared them. They wanted to know if we thought their buying a young olive python was a good idea!!
Hells, bells if you want to buy a snake, but you want it to act like a cat on valium, then be honest with yourself and ask why do I really want to take on custodial responsibility for this animal. If you want a snake to be a cuddly little pet rather than enjoy it as a the magnificent predator for that it has evolved into over the last tens of millions of years, then I recommend you would better off keeping earthworms or sticking with non-biting and cuddly type pot plants.
Australian Pythons: Summary
Pythons can be fascinating and wonderful creatures to care for and observe in captivity. Each species has its own quirks and characteristics and each snake its own unique personality. When buying a new snake you should think carefully about your objectives and be honest about your skills and abilities too. I suggest you spend time doing research about a species pr form or interest so that you know what you are getting into. Many folk that contact us are in a blistering hurry to buy "a snake". Don't be. Part of the unique attributes of snakes is their slow metabolism and the very frugal way they approach life. If you want to experience the full benefit of owning them, you need to slow down when dealing with Australian pythons and take the time to enjoy the acquisition process.