REPTILES MAGAZINE - PUBLISHED ARTICLE
THE ANT-HILL PYTHON FROM WESTERN AUSTRALIA
BY RAYMOND HOSER, (THEN OF) 41 VILLAGE AVENUE, DONCASTER, VICTORIA, 3108, AUSTRALIA.
This paper first appeared in REPTILES MAGAZINE IN SEPTEMBER 1995, What follows is a text only version of the same article (no italics) and without the photos and other material that appeared in the original magazine. Please download the entire article if desired, however if the article is later referred to, please cite Reptiles Magazine as the original published source. Publication details are that it was published in Volume 3, number 5, pp. 10-16.
The article also had excellent photos of these snakes and their breeding in captivity. Similar photos can be found in the book Australian Reptiles and Frogs, by Raymond Hoser.
This is the small reddish coloured Python from the Pilbara region of Western Australia. It also known under the names of Pygmy Python or Western Children's Python. It's scientific name...well that's another story! Although it's species name is pretty fixed as perthensis, it has been recently placed in the genera Liasis, Bothrochilus and most recently Antaresia. The latter classification, Antaresia perthensis uses a genus name invented and adopted by Wells and Wellington in 1983 and followed on by others including Dr. Hal Cogger of the Australian museum and Barker and Barker in 1994. (For the purposes of this article, I'll use the genus name Antaresia, but this position is by no means fixed - nor am I intending to pass any judgement as to this name).
This small species occurs throughout the Pilbara region of north-west Western Australia, as well as adjacent areas of similar habitat. How far this species extends outside the Pilbara is largely unknown due to the mainly uninhabited nature of possible habitat coupled with an official discouragement by Australian wildlife authorities of research on much of our wildlife including snakes. To date the most accurate distribution information was that published by Laurie Smith in his 1985 paper reviewing the "childreni" species group. Smith noted and mapped locality information for all specimens of Ant-hill Pythons Antaresia perthensis, Stimson's Pythons A. stimsoni, Children's Pythons A. childreni and Spotted Pythons A. maculosus in Australian museums.
The Pilbara region is found south of the tropical Kimberley in Western Australia. It is essentially arid and includes the hottest parts of Australia, including the towns of Marble Bar (Australia's hottest town), Goldsworthy (unofficially hotter than Marble Bar), Port Hedland and Karratha (main ports) and the Hamersley ranges.
Typical of the Pilbara are rocky hills covered spinifex (grass) bushes (Triodia spp.). Where trees occur, they are usually stunted eucalypts, except along the relatively uncommon watercourses, where larger varieties occur. Watercourses are most common in hilly areas. Being arid, the Pilbara does not have formal wet and dry seasons, but most rainfall does occur in the so-called summer months, when the occasional tropical lows wander further south than usual.
The Ant-hill Python was first described in February 1932 by Olive Griffith Stull. He was mislead into believing the type specimen came from Perth, the capital of Western Australia, when in fact the snake had been collected elsewhere. This mistake was perpetuated in the literature for many years and worked to confuse many people about the real status of the species.
The original description was based on a 297 mm sub-adult female. Up to 1981 little was heard or seen of this snake in herpetological circles with a number of authors including Cogger (1979) and Glauert (1967) erronously regarding Ant-hill Pythons as possibly being a sub-species of the Children's Python, (See The Reptilian 1 (7) pp. 10-15, 20-21 for my article about the three species of snake all formerly known as "Children's Pythons").
Ant-hill Pythons average about 60 cm in adult length. Dorsally the colour is usually brick red, with or without pattern. Pattern usually fades in captive specimens. The reason for this is not known. The pattern is most pronounced in young specimens. It is usually in the form of a series of darker spots arranged in four more or less regular series, giving the general impression of a series of irregular crossbars.
Ventrally the snake is creamish white. The head is distinctly shorter and proportionately smaller than those of Stimson's Pythons found in the same areas. Also Ant-hill Python's heads are more triangular in shape. Stimson's Pythons are the only species likely to be confused with Ant-hill Pythons, but anyone familiar with both species would not misidentify them. Besides usually being more thick-set than Stimson's Pythons, Ant-hill Pythons are of reddish base colour whereas Stimson's are usually a yellowish or brownish base colour. Besides the differences already noted, the scalation of both species differs, (See the book Australian Reptiles and Frogs for scalation differences between Australian pythons and photos of Ant-hill and Stimsons Pythons from the same part of Australia). If misidentification were to take place, it would probably occur with younger specimens of either species, both of which may have similar patterns.
Ant-hill Pythons are common in the wild where they occur. Herpetologists usually locate specimens crossing roads in warm weather. At other times specimens are found under rocks, in spinifex (usually when torched with fire) and inside termite mounds. To catch substantial numbers within a short time, opening up termite mounds usually represents the easiest, most expedient method, although there are often logistical difficulties in getting a bulldozer or grading machine into an area of suitable habitat with large termite mounds present.
Large Pilbara termite mounds are used as resting sites by many species of reptile and mammal due to their numerous nooks and crannies and relatively even temperature. The even temperature in termite mounds is particularly important where Ant-hill Pyhtons occur, with daytime temperatures frequently exceeding 38 degrees celcius (100 farenheight).
Ant-hill Pythons may be found in the same termite mounds as Stimson's Pythons, Black-headed Pythons (Aspidites melanocephalus), King Brown Snakes (Pseudechis australis), Moon Snakes (Furina ornata), Broad-banded Sand Swimmers (Eremiascincus richardsoni), Pilbara Geckoes (Gehyra pilbara), Depressed Spiny Skinks (Egernia depressa) and other reptiles. Dunnarts (genus Antechinus), a kind of "marsupial mouse" are the most common mammal seen in Pilbara "ant-hills". I must stress that Ant-hill Pythons (and other Pilbara reptiles) are not dependent on termite mounds for their survival, also being found in other areas without mounds, However these mounds are often utilised as preferred habitat where they occur. (A similar scenario can be seen when snakes are found sheltering under man-made cover such as sheets of tin).
Diet in wild specimens is presumed to alter with age. It is assumed that young specimens feed primarily on reptiles such as geckos and small skinks with larger snakes tending to eat more small mammals when available. Cannibalism and snake feeding is unknown for Ant-hill Pythons.
Details of the first five Ant-hill Pythons caught by myself can be found in Litterature Serpentium, 12 (1), 1992. These snakes came from Shay Gap and Whim Creek in WA, and one allegedly came from near Katherine in the Northern Territory. Besides the five snakes documented in that paper, large numbers of other specimens have been caught by herpetologists at Shay Gap, places near Goldsworthy and Whim Creek. The two former towns were mining settlements and have now been dismantled. Whim Creek is a small township along the main coastal North-South highway between Port Hedland and Roebourne/Karratha. Although the local habitat has been severely disturbed by overgrazing with stock, Ant-hill Pythons are according to herpetologists, still common in the area, with large numbers being caught.
In line with other small Australian pythons, males and females are commonly found in close proximity (pairing behavior). It is presumed that this pairing behavior relates to males seeking females to mate and following them to do so. Male combat hasn't been recorded in this species, but may occur. The fact that so few of these snakes have been kept to date may well explain why such behavior hasn't been observed. In my own case, I only had two males for three months before one of them was stolen, not allowing me time to attempt to observe male/male interactions.
Melbourne snake breeder Simon Kortlang, has observed male combat in his captive Stimson's Pythons and Spotted Pythons (closely related species).
Although these are the smallest Pythons in the world, Ant-hill Pythons as Barker and Barker say, "100% Python". They are a tough and durable snake. They are usually docile, easy to handle and rarely bite. Like snakes in the childreni complex they are about as easy to keep as a snake keeper could ever expect. They are not known to be especially prone to any diseases or ailments.
A few West Australian keepers indicated difficulty in getting Ant-hill Pythons to feed, but such wasn't confirmed by myself, Brian Barnett, Chris Banks, Charles Acheson Jurgen Holzell and others who kept the species. It is probable that only a highly inexperienced snake keeper would have such troubles with these snakes. If/when there is difficulty in getting snakes to feed, "creative methods" will usually solve the problem. These "creative methods" include feeding at night and/or altering food offered, (e.g. mice to lizards or vice-versa).
Without describing in detail how I kept my own Ant-hill Pythons (See Litt. Serp. 12 (1) for this), it appears they will survive without problems in the same sort of facilities any other small python would require. In other words, what Kend and Kend (1992) called "standard Terrestrial husbandry". Brian Barnett has successfully kept a single Ant-hill Python specimen for 18 years in a shoe-box style of cage for 18 years without incident. His cage is a small plastic container with clear lid, with washed gravel as a substrate, a small water bowl and single cover (hiding spot), housed in a large temperature controlled snake room with hundreds of other similarly housed snakes. Kortlang keeps pythons in similar conditions, often minus hiding spot/s (cover) as he finds it doesn't affect their health and the snakes are not aggressive when he takes them out of cages and handles them, (he doesn't have Ant-hill Pythons however).
My own cage was a large tank with compacted dirt as substrate, rocks as cover and generally a more "natural-style" of setting. I am unable to state which is the superior way to keep this species. The common thread in all Ant-hill Python cages/keepers appears to have been the relatively dry conditions, which probably is essential. Bear in mind the arid areas these snakes come from. (Water in a bowl should always be available however).
These snakes have only been bred in captivity twice to date. Both times the breedings were apparently fairly standard python breedings. That there are only two breedings recorded to date is no doubt a reflection on how few there are in captivity rather than any particular difficulty in breeding these snakes.
I failed to breed my snakes the first summer season (1981-2), due to my not cooling the snakes prior. The following year (1982-3), I succeeded after I cooled the snakes during the winter period (mid 1992 in Australia). I did not separate the sexes prior to mating, although doing so may be advantageous in initiating successful mating.
This species lays unusually large eggs (between 2 and 5 eggs per clutch), although I can't accurately give an average clutch size due to the paucity of records. Incubation is standard for pythons and the recommended temperature is between 29 and 30.5 degrees celcius.
It is uncertain how often Ant-hill Pythons breed in the wild. Some Australian snakes only breed every second year (a few every third year). This is dependent in some cases on a genetic predetermination, while in other cases on the condition of the female at breeding time.
In Australia, there are very few specimens in captivity and it isn't likely that there will be any change in this picture in the forseeable future. Outside of Australia, the scenario is similar. Specimens are smuggled out of the country, although not all attempts to do so have been successful. Specimens are usually posted out of the country and most busts have been a result of data-matching and tip offs. Customs and wildlife officials have huge data bases of those who they think are likely to smuggle wildlife and devote vast resources to prevent such activities (except by themselves!), through surveillance methods. People caught smuggling wildlife from Australia are often fined and/or jailed.
Of the few specimens outside of Australia, only one collector in Germany has bred these snakes (once so far), so they are likely to remain rare captives for the forseeable future.
A bibliography of papers relating to husbandry of childreni complex snakes was provided by myself in The Reptilian Magazine 1 (7) 1993. Among two of the best books available on the subject are Barker and Barker's, "Pythons of the World, Volume 1, Australia" and Ross and Marzec's, "The Reproductive Husbandry of Pythons and Boas".
Fortunately Ant-hill Pythons appear to be widespread and common where they occur, occupying a range of many thousands of square kilometers (see map). There are large conservation parks in their range and most of the area they occur is little used by humans and likely to remain so for the forseeable future. The main human activities in the Pilbara are mining and tourism, both of which only have minimal localised impact.
However although this species appears secure in the wild, I need not remind readers of other Australian species, such as gastric brooding frogs of the genus Rheobatrachus, also formerly thought to be common and secure in their natural habitat and for reasons unknown are now extinct (See my book Endangered Animals of Australia for details about Rheobatrachus and other similarly fated species). Such a fate could conceivably happen to any reptile or frog.
It is for this reason that it is imperative that captive populations be established. Thus any unforseen calamity affecting wild populations need not spell the end of the species. Current government (CALM) policy is to ban taking specimens from the wild and a ban on keeping and breeding this and most other snakes/wildlife. The stupidity of the policy is highlighted when it is realised that hundreds of Ant-hill Pythons are killed on the state's roads without any apparent ill effects on local populations. Within Western Australia alone there are dozens of willing and capable people who would keep and breed this and other reptiles AT NO EXPENSE TO THE TAXPAPER. However to date CALM have licensed just four private snake keepers and severely restricted what they may hold. Breeding is actively discouraged.
Because Ant-hill Pythons are small, relatively secretive and essentially nocturnal in habit, they do not lend themselves to exhibitions such as seen at most public zoos. However these same features pose no difficulty to private keepers. Furthermore because Ant-hill Pythons are a tough, durable and docile snake, they are perfect for relatively large numbers to be held in captivity by large numbers of people. Such should be actively encouraged by Australian wildlife officials even though it would require a complete reversal of current policies.
Regardless of policies pursued by Australian state and federal governments and how many of these snakes are collected for captivity now or in future, the relatively slow reproductive rate (max. five eggs per female per year), these snakes are unlikely to ever be as commonly seen in captivity as other small Australian Pythons such as Children's, Stimsons' or Spotted.
Photos of Ant-hill Pythons and their breeding were published with this paper in Reptiles Magazine. Similar photos also appeared in the book Australian Reptiles and Frogs, by the same author.
Barker, D. G. and Barker, T. M. (1994), Pythons of the World, Volume 1, Australia, Advanced Vivarium Systems Inc, California, USA, 189 pp.
Cogger, H. G. (1979), Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia, A. H. and A. W. Reed, Sydney, Australia. 688pp.
Glauert, L. (1967), A handbook of the snakes of Western Australia, Western Australian Naturalist's Club, Perth, Western Australia.
Hoser, R. T. (1989), Australian Reptiles and Frogs, Pierson and co., Sydney, NSW, 238 pp.
Hoser, R. T. (1991), Endangered Animals of Australia, Pierson and Co., Sydney, NSW, 240 pp.
Hoser, R. T. (1992), 'Search for the Ant-hill Python Bothrochilus perthensis (Stull, 1932)', Litteratura Serpentium (English Edition), 12 (1), pp. 13-19.
Hoser, R. T. (1993), Children's Pythons and Lookalikes (the childreni complex).' The Reptilian Magazine, 1 (7), pp. 10-15, 20-21.
Kend, B. and Kend, S. (1992), 'Care and Husbandry of Some Australian, New Guinean and Indonesian Pythons', Reptile and Amphibian Magazine, Mar/Apr, 1992, runs 10 pp.
Ross, R. A. and Marzec, G. (1990), The Reproductive Husbandry of Pythons and Boas, Institute for Herpetological Research, Stanford, California, USA, 270 pp.
Smith, L. A. (1985), 'A revision of the Liasis childreni species group (serpentes: Boidae)', Records of the Western Australian Museum, Vol. 12 (3): 257-276.
Stull, O. G. (1932), 'Five new subspecies of the family Boidae.', Occasional Papers of the Boston Society of Natural History, 8: pp. 25-30, pl. 1-2.
Wells, R. W. and Wellington C. R. (1983), 'A Synopsis of the Class Reptilia in Australia.', Australian Journal of Herpetology, 1 (3-4), pp. 73-129.
KEY TO ANTARESIA.
1a Fewer than 37 Mid body scale rows, 250 or less ventrals...........perthensis (Ant-hill Python)
1b 37 or more mid-body scale rows, 250 or more ventrals............................2.
2a No pattern, or if pattern is present, it isn't bold and distinct........childreni (Children's Python)
2b Bold Pattern...................................................................3.
3a Pattern of distinct blotches or spots, which may join along the dorsal midline.....................................................................maculosus (Spotted Python)
3b Pattern of bold blotches or bars and a white ventrolateral stripe along the anterior part of the body..........................................................stimsoni (Stimson's Python)
Click here for a more recent (1999) paper on Ant-hill Pythons
Raymond Hoser has been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 150 papers in journals worldwide and nine books.
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