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Ball Pythons

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Introduction to Ball pythons

Python regius (Royal python, aka: Ball python) is one of the most popular and well known species of snake in the world for the hobbyist collector. They are easily handled, stay a manageable size, and prevalent throughout pet stores almost anywhere you go. While they require specific care in regards to temperatures and humidity those are readily provided with minimal effort. Price wise they are among the most affordable of snakes both in terms of initial acquisition and long term cost.

They get their most recognized name (Ball python) from the fact that they tend to curl up into a protective ball when startled or when they are feeling threatened. It is believed they got their other name, Royal python from African royalty wearing them as jewelery. This is believed to have been particularly true of the women. They would simply drape the snake around their wrist or neck where it would curl itself tight enough to hold on and then snake and lady would be on their way. The name Ball python is most commonly used in the US while the loftier sounding Royal python is used in European nations.

Natural range and habitat

The Ball python is found from central to western Africa. Typically they are imported into the US from Benin, Ghana, and Togo. These snakes provide great benefit to African farmers as they help to control rodent populations which can devastate crops in already blighted regions.

Typically the Royal python is found living in rodent burrows where food is plentiful and the climate is well suited for them. Because these snakes are nocturnal you won’t normally find them moving around except at night.

Common characteristics of Ball pythons

Females of this species generally grow to be larger than males. Typical size for females is 3.5 to 5 feet (1.06 to 1.5 meters) and from 2.5 to 4 feet (0.8 to 1.2 meters) for males. By no means is this a “hard and fast” rule. Males have been known to get much larger than females though it is not common. These are heavy bodied snakes generally having a “short fat” appearance. They have long slender necks and in comparison their heads can appear quite large. Except while shedding these snakes are normally very docile and will almost never strike at anything except food.

These are often considered the best snake you can get for beginners due to their natural disposition and the fact that they are typically easily cared for. As mentioned before they do require specific temperature and humidity ranges, but those are readily provided. One thing to note is that during the colder winter months Ball pythons have been known to go “off feed” for 2 to 6 months at a time. This can be disconcerting for an owner but as long as your snake maintains its weight and is otherwise healthy it is a good indication that they have entered a natural state known as brumation wherein they slow down their metabolic activity to nearly nothing.

Ball pythons can live up to 40 years (maybe a little more) in captivity, but typically 20 to 25 years is more common. Either way you should plan for a long term housemate when you get a one of these snakes, especially if you get a baby.

Husbandry overview

As has been mentioned previously Ball pythons typically require fairly exacting temperatures and humidity levels in order to prosper in captivity. The size of their enclosure and diet are also important aspects of their nature.

Temperatures for Ball pythons
Ball pythons require two different temperatures to be maintained in their habitats. The first one is the basking temperature. It is an area of the enclosure they seek out to raise their core temperatures. This area should be kept consistently between 88 to 95 (31.1 to 35 Celsius). The second gradient is the cool side temperature where the snake is able to retreat to from the basking side. During the day it should be 80 to 85 (26.6 to 29.4 Celsius) and 78 to 80 (25.5 to 26.6 Celsius) at night.

Temperature should be monitored on a regular basis using a digital thermometer and a probe. When taking the readings make sure you take them where the snake is. If you try to probe the temperature even an inch higher it could have significantly different readings than at the pythons level. You can buy a nice dual thermometer/hygrometer (for humidity) setup for around $15.00 at Wal-Mart in the United States.

Humidity for Ball pythons
Keep the humidity between 50 to 60 percent under normal circumstances and raise it to around 75 percent when the snake enters into the shedding phase. This will help the skin to more easily slough off of the snake and help promote single piece shedding. Because the typical household rarely has humidity levels that are constantly (and that’s the key word, constantly) appropriate for Ball pythons it is important to regulate them carefully. The problem usually arises when it comes to the higher 75 percent humidity required for shedding. There are a few methods you can employ to raise the humidity levels in the enclosure.

    Ball python snake

  1. Provide a humidity hide: Typically it is a plastic container that has been stuffed full of sphagnum (peat) moss. An entrance hole is cut into the container, the moss is wet down, wrong out, and then placed inside of the container. The lid is then replaced and if all goes according to plan the snake will start using it as a hide box so it can be exposed to higher humidity levels. It is important not to remove the normal hiding spot during this time. The snake will regulate when and if it needs the humid hide. Your job is simply to offer it.
  2. Provide the right substrate: Certain ground coverings offer better humidity options than others. One of the more popular is Cypress mulch. It retains water easily, and it is not hard to tell just by looking when it needs more moisture. If you are using a glass tank and your python is on display I highly suggest using cypress mulch as a substrate. It is perfect both in the sense that it looks “good” and that it helps with the humidity
  3. Misting: You can buy a small clean water bottle, put some tap water in it, and from time to time spray the sides of your enclosure down with it to help raise the humidity. Most people tend to find themselves misting twice a day so if you aren’t inclined to stay on top of things this probably isn’t the method for you.

Whatever method you choose make sure it works and that you can repeat your success with it. Also remember that the enemy of humidity is evaporation. The less airflow (while still allowing air exchange) there is the less evaporation there will typically be. To this end try to cover up some air holes with tape or the top if you are using a tank with a wire-mesh top. A damp towel covering all but a corner will help greatly.

Enclosures for Ball pythons
A Ball python does better in a smaller enclosure than a larger one. This is likely due to their natural state in which they frequent rodent burrows and termite mounds. Size wise a 10 gallon is more than enough space for a neonate to juvenile snake. The average adult will do quite well in a 20 to 30 gallon tank. You can also make your own cage using appropriately sized plastic tubs. Whatever method you use be certain to provide fresh water on a daily basis, maintain the temperatures and humidity, and give the snake two hides. The hides should fit the snake as tightly as possible while allowing it the freedom to enter and exit. Place one hide in the basking area and one in the cooler area. This will allow the snake to regulate its temperature and have a place to feel secure.

Since Royal pythons are terrestrial snakes there isn’t really a reason to give them things to climb on other than decoration for their tank. That’s not to say they won’t ever climb, because from time to time they will, but it’s not a regular thing.

Your final consideration in setting up an enclosure is ease of maintenance. That’s why I’m a big fan of plastic tubs. The ease of maintaining them compared to a glass tank is astounding. Also consider that a plastic tub is usually much easier to regulate the temperature and the humidity levels. Glass is extremely difficult to regulate as it easily loses heat to the outside air. You’ll also need to deal with humidity loss through the top of the enclosure.

Health issues of Ball pythons

Royal pythons are generally hardy creatures, but they should be checked out by a vet upon purchase of the animal. Be sure to collect a sample of stool in a clear plastic container for your vet to examine for worms and other infestations. About once a week you should give your snake through visual examination keeping an eye out for ticks and mites. Mites are tiny and may or may not be seen with the naked eye. The best thing to do is to soak the snake in a tepid bath and watch for little black dots in the water. If you see evidence of them you should begin treating your snake for mites. Another place you will often see mites is around the eyes so be careful to examine there.

While mites and ticks are certainly nothing to ignore by far the most prevalent health issues are found in the wild caught populations. These are often imported in very poor condition and sold to pet stores that really don’t care nor do they have the knowledge to care about the snakes. With the number of Ball python breeders across most of the world there is really no reason to import them anymore.

Feeding Ball pythons

While not voracious eaters Royal pythons are more than capable of eating their fair share of rodents. Neonate should be started out on pinky mice and then move up in size from there depending on what your snake is willing to eat. A word of caution: Sometimes Balls can be a bit difficult to entice to switch from mice to rats and at some point rats are going to be your best bet in terms of hassle and cost.

It is important to feed the right sized meal to your snake. A good rule of thumb is that the creature being fed to the snake should be no larger at its widest spot (typically the hips) than the snake is at its widest spot. In fact in my experience many snakes won’t even strike at something that is too big except in a defensive manner.

Finally you must chose between feeding live and feeding frozen. No one ever seems to agree on the issue, but for my money frozen is the way to go. It’s more humane to the rodent and much safer for the snake. If you decide to feed live prey please don’t ever leave it unattended with the snake, even for a second, and do not leave it with the snake more than 20 minutes. If the snake hasn’t eaten it in that amount of time it isn’t going to and will likely be the one getting eaten itself. Yes, rats and mice have been known to eat snakes when left alone with them.

Breeding Ball pythons

Ball pythons are the most common constrictor snake in captivity due in large part to very successful breeding program developed over the years. Due to the fact that their natural presence is so diminished it never hurts to have more breeders whether amatuer looking to get their feet wet or professional and established.

A Ball python is ready to breed between 18 months and 4 years of age. This is a wide range, but sexual maturity varies as with any other snakes. There’s really no way to easily tell if they are ready except to try. In captivity the best breeding times are between November and March. When it is time to breed you should stop feeding the snakes and drop their night time temperatures to 73 to 75 degrees (22.7 to 23.8 Celsius). You also want to give them 8 to 10 hours of daylight and the rest in darkness to help mimic what is found in nature. They will lay somewhere between 4 to 12 eggs in most cases and incubated at 88-90 degrees (31.1 to 32.2 Celsius) these eggs take 55 to 60 days to hatch.

This is just a brief overview of breeding. Before you begin please take some time to do an indepth study of the subject. There are plenty of online resources to help you out.

In conclusion

Ball pythons make great pets and are easily cared for with a little bit of effort. They don’t do nearly as well with people who need to handle them all the time as it stresses the snake. Same is true of all snakes to one degree or another. There are dozens of morph programs going out there with various breeders trying to manipulate their genetics to get special patterns and coloration. For a first time snake a Ball python can’t be beat.

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