AUSTRALIAN PYTHONS (PART THREE)
RAYMOND T. HOSER
1981 Address: 60 Eastern Arterial Road, St.
Ives, N.S.W. 2075 Australia.
1998 Address: 41 Village Avenue, Doncaster, Victoria, 3108, Australia.
Originally published in HERPTILE (UK)
6 (4), December 1981, pp. 3-12.
In the last article I discussed Liasis childreni and Liasis
perthensis. In this article I intend to discuss the other four members
of the genus Liasis occurring on the Australian mainland. These
are: The Water Python Liasis fuscus (= Liasis mackloti),
The Olive Python Liasis olivaceous, The Scrub Python Liasis amethystinus
(kinghorni) (=Python amethystinus) and Liasis oenpelliensis
(= Python oenpelliensis) to be discussed in that order. According
to McDowall (1975) one of the important distinguishing features between
the genera Liasis and Python is the fact that the snakes
he groups into genus Liasis do not have highly prehensile tails
whilst those he groups into the genus Python do.
Using this criterion and others given by McDowall (1975) Liasis amethystinus
and Liasis oenpelliensis should be classified as Python amethystinus
and Python oenpelliensis. However the four snakes described
in this article all fit Cogger's 1979 definition of the genus Liasis.
Although I shall arbitrarily class all four discussed snakes in the genus
Liasis, this is only an arbitrary classification and can be readily
opposed with certain arguments. I stress that this article is not intended
to be one about the finer points of Python taxonomy but rather a generalised
discussion about four Australian pythons.
THE WATER PYTHON (LIASIS FUSCUS)
The Water Python is a robustly built snake, with a long head slightly
distinct from the neck. Dorsally its colour is a uniform irridescent dark,
blackish brown with the ventral surface being dull to bright yellow, with
the yellow colour extending onto the lower few rows of lateral body scales.
The underside of the tail is a dark blackish brown. The throat is cream
The scalation is smooth, with 47-51 mid-body rows, 270-300 ventrals,
a single anal and 60-75 paired subcaudals.
This snake averages about two metres in adult total length but occasional
specimens may reach three metres.
This snake is found throughout the monsoonal belt of northern Australia,
encompassing parts of Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.
It does not occur in permanently arid regions.
Water Pythons are generally nocturnal in habit and most specimens are
captured moving across roads at night in areas adjacent to water. Gow (1976)
records one 'specimen moving round at midday in the extreme heat'. If captured
during the day this species is usually found in hollow logs, down holes,
in vegetation, or under creeks and river banks.
The Water Python is, like many pythons, an opportunistic feeder, eating
a variety of vertebrates. Because of its habitat preferences Water Pythons
often take large numbers of young crocodiles. Crocodiles occur throughout
the range of this snake. Water Pythons themselves are occasionally taken
by crocodiles as well as other predators such as feral cats, foxes and
dingoes. Water Pythons tend to have a docile nature, rarely attempting
to bite. Two Water Pythons I photographed were fast moving and very restless
and thus it was much harder than usual for me to obtain suitable photos
of them. These habits along with the superficial resemblance to the Taipan
lead many people to kill Water Pythons by accident.
In the wild Water Pythons presumably mate in the cooler months, producing
roughly a dozen eggs in spring. These hatch in early summer to give young
measuring roughly 30cm in length. This species does carry out maternal
care of its eggs by coiling around them, but it appears unable to raise
its body temperature by rapid muscular constrictions when doing so (Ross
This species is not nearly as widely kept as some other species of Australian
Python both within Australia and in other countries. This is not due to
the rarity of the species but rather the relative remoteness of its habitat.
Where the Water Python does occur other species of Python are usually found
in greater abundance, particularly Children's Pythons.
Because of their relative uncommonness in captivity and their high price
in any market, specimens held in captivity tend to be kept well. Like most
pythons, the Water Python is also very easy to keep. It is moderately prone
to mouthrot, pneumonia and other common python diseases, and specimens
have been known to survive heavy mite infestations.
Like all the larger Liasis discussed in this article, the Water Python
may be successfully kept in relatively small cages with few furnishings.
A Mr. G. Johnson of Sydney has maintained one adult Water Python for a
number of years in a 1.3 metre aquarium furnished with gravel on the floor,
a couple of logs, a retirement box and a water dish. Other Sydney herpetologists
successfully keep their Water Pythons in similar conditions. In all four
pythons discussed in this article, perhaps the most important single factor
for success in keeping them in captivity is never to let temperatures get
too low (i.e. below 15 degrees Celcius). If temperatures are lowered too
much then canker and pneumonia may apparently spontaneously appear (Hopgood
Although the Water Python has not been bred as frequently as Liasis
childreni, and pythons of the genus Morelia, it does not appear to be a
hard species to breed. The slight paucity of cases is probably due to the
very small number of specimens in captivity and not to the difficulty in
breeding. Like the Black-headed Python (Aspidites melanocephalus) this
species commonly mates without producing eggs. Separation of the sexes
prior to a planned mating is strongly advised for the Water Python. The
need for significant cooling of males prior to successful breeding in this
species may not be necessary.
When eggs are produced they should be incubated at 30.5 degrees celcius.
Humidity should be kept high.
In 1974 the Royal Melbourne Zoo produced hybrid pythons from a Liasis
fuscus (female) and a Morelia spilotes variegata (male). Some of the hybrid
young (now adult) are still alive.
THE OLIVE PYTHON (LIASIS OLIVACEOUS)
The Olive Python is one of Australia's largest snakes, being exceeded
in length only by Liasis (=Python) oenpelliensis and Liasis amethystinus
(The Scrub Python). It has a long head distinct from neck, body long but
robust and loose-skinned, (Gow 1976). Dorsally its colour is generally
drab olive green to pale fawn or rich brown, merging on the lower scale
rows with the creamy white ventral surface. The lips are cream in colour,
finely dotted with pale grey or brown.
The scalation is smooth with 65-75 mid-body rows, 345-370 ventrals,
a single anal and 95-110 mainly divided subcaudals. The Olive Python averages
2.5 metres in length but specimens over four metres have been recorded.
The Olive Python is found throughout monsoonal Australia west of the
Great Dividing Range (in Eastern Australia). Its distribution extends more
than half-way down the coast of Western Australia and includes arid areas
in that state. Kinghorn (1969) calls this snake the Olive Rock Python,
a near-perfect description as it adequately describes this snake's colour
as well as the habitat it most commonly frequents. In many rocky parts
of Western Australia such as the famous Wittenoom Gorge (Lat. 22 degrees
151 minutes, Long. 118 degrees 18 minutes) the Olive Python is the most
commonly seen species of snake, often being seen active during the day.
This snake may be found in rock crevices, caves, hollow logs, and termite
mounds. Large population densities of this species occur in extremely rocky
areas such as in the rugged mountains near Shay Gap W.A. (Lat.20 degrees
15 minutes, Long.120 degrees 25 minutes).
Although often day-active the Author has only found Olive Pythons active
at night in the wild. Most specimens are caught on roads at night in suitable
This species feeds mainly on mammals including Wallabies (Hoser 1981a).
Monitors also feature in its diet.
Little is known of the breeding biology of this species except that
it lays from 12 to 40 eggs in late spring, which hatch after a period of
approximately 50 days (Kinghorn 1969). Young measure around 35cm in length.
Olive Pythons tend to have a docile temperament, only biting if greatly
In many parts of Australia this species is commonly confused with the
Brown and King Brown snakes, but may be distinguished by its very distinct
head. (Hoser 1981). Unfortunately it seems not enough people in the Australian
bush will go to the trouble to learn how to correctly identify local snakes.
Natives of the central north (Newcastle waters to Katherine) believe
the Olive Python to be the Goorijalpongo, the earthly form taken by Bollong,
the mythical rain serpent, creator of all material things (Worrell 1951).
Excluding Liasis perthensis and Liasis (=Python) oenpelliensis the Olive
Python is the least commonly kept Australian Python in captivity. This
species has been kept successfully in conditions identical to those described
for Liasis fuscus (the Water Python) and thus the recommendations for keep
Water Pythons would apply to this species. Obviously a drier cage for Liasis
olivaceous would probably have some advantages as this is a snake that
often inhabits dry places. This species appears to have only been bred
once and that case was a number of years ago (1973). Unfortunately the
details of that particular case are scanty.
Procedures for successfully breeding this snake are probably somewhat
similar to those of other pythons, (i.e. separation of sexes prior to a
planned mating, possibly some cooling of the males, etc.). A 100% hatch
rate for eggs of this species was obtained with an incubation temperature
ranging between 25.5 degrees C and 30 degrees C and moderate to high humidity.
Medical problems associated with this species are also virtually unknown
but presumably similar to those of other pythons.
AUSTRALIAN SCRUB PYTHON LIASIS AMETHYSTINUS
(=PYTHON AMETHYSTINUS (KINGHORNI))
The Scrub Python is Australia's largest snake, with specimens up to
8.5m in length known.
Scrub Pythons (Liasis amethystinus) have a large broad head,distinct
from the long thin neck and body. The build is light and the tail is long
and tapering. The colour is irridescent olive-yellow to brown dorsally
with numerous dark brown to black irregular and transverse bands often
connected along the lower flanks to form one or more longitudinal latter
lower 'stripes' (Cogger 1979). The head is usually a uniform light brown
in colour although it occasionally carries spots or streaks. The dorsal
pattern usually becomes obscure posteriorly. Ventrally the snake is creamy
The scalation is smooth with 35-49 mid-body rows, 279-344 ventrals,
a single anal and 80-120 mainly divided subcaudals.
This snake averages 3 to 4 metres in length. 'Australian' Scrub Pythons
may usually be distinguished from other scrub pythons (Liasis amethystinus
amethystinus) by the presence of one or more interparietal scales, higher
average number of ventrals and midbody rows, and generally more distinct
markings (Stull 1933).
The Scrub Python (Liasis amethystinus) is found only in Northeast
Queensland and adjacent islands in Australia. Scrub Pythons also occur
in New Guinea (and adjacent islands). Although its range coincides with
that of the tropical rain-forest habitat in the Australian region, Scrub
Pythons are found in a variety of habitats, from rain-forest to open savannah
woodland, monsoon forest and scrubby vegetation on coral cays (Cogger 1979).
Scrub Pythons are particularly abundant in some river gorges and around
swamps behind sand dunes adjacent to the sea. Scrub Pythons are known to
occur in rnangrove swamps although Carpet Pythons (Morelia spilotes variegata)
and Water Pythons (Liasis fuscus) are more common in this habitat.
This mainly nocturnal species is usually caught either sunning itself
by day or moving about at night. Because of the numerous good roads in
North Queensland many herpetologists capture Scrub Pythons by night spotting
rather than by day. This species where it occurs is often very common (Cogger
pers. comm.). In the Song of the Snake by Eric Worrell (1958) he cites
a case of a day he went looking for Scrub Pythons in a Queensland Gorge.
He said 'By dusk we had caught thirteen pythons, one nice black snake and
a green tree snake'. A fairly reliable place for finding Scrub Pythons
in the wild is around fruit bat colonies in swamps and forests. The snakes
feed on bats whenever necessary. For an average 3.5 metre specimen, that
may mean only a dozen bats per year, out of a colony numbering perhaps
The diet of this species includes any large endotherms, but Scrub Pythons
seem to be particularly fond of domestic fowls. This results in many farmers
killing Scrub Pythons.
Mating occurs around the end of the wet season (April-May) and eggs
are laid three months later. They take roughly ten weeks to hatch with
fifteen eggs constituting an average clutch. On hatching the young measure
between 45 and 60cm (Gow 1976).
Most Scrub Pythons are of very unpredictable temperament and due to
its size, bites can be painful, particularly if the snake's teeth break
and remain in the wound inflicted. The author held one adult male Scrub
Python for 2 and a half years in which time it never attempted to bite
Within Australia this species appears to cause great husbandry problems.
Specimens kept at Taronga Zoo, Sydney and The Australian Reptile Park have
died. It is a well-known fact that Scrub Pythons are highly prone to the
ravages of worms, mouthrot and pneumonia. This species has an excellent
resistance to mite infestation, although if mites are left on the snake
for too long, death will result. G. Johnson (pers. comm.) knows of specimens
dying directly or indirectly as a result of excessive heat or cold, and
has postulated that the inability of this species to tolerate temperature
excesses has prevented its range from extending south where it is cooler
or west where it is generally hotter. More evidence for a high degree of
heat sensitivity in this species is given by Hoser (1981b). The specimen
held for 2 and a half years by the author (which was later stolen) never
had any major husbandry problems. It was housed in a large cage with natural
furnishings and of sufficiently high and stable temperature. Other Scrub
Pythons have been kept successfully in very small cages with nothing more
than newspaper on the floor and a water dish for a number of years.
To breed this species, separation of the sexes is advisable (for a period
of several weeks) before a planned mating. Although Scrub Pythons will
maternally incubate eggs, because of the high risk of crushing eggs during
maternal incubation in captivity, I would advise artificial incubation
of the eggs. A temperature of 30.5 degrees C and near 100% humidity should
produce hatching success.
A few years ago the Royal Melbourne Zoo produced hybrid pythons from
a Liasis amethystinus kinghorni female and a Morelia s. variegata male.
The young hybrids are still alive.
THE NORTHERN TERRITORY ROCK PYTHON
(L1ASIS (=PYTHON) OENPELLIENSIS)
This is the most recently described Australian python and probably the
Liasis oenpelliensis has a largish head, distinct from neck,
and is of slender build with a long tapering tail. Dorsally it is fawny
brown becoming pale grey on the sides (Cogger 1979). It has a series of
irregular dark brown blotches along the length of the back and sides tending
to be aligned in four or five longitudinal rows. There is a dark brown
temporal streak on each side (Cogger 1979). The pattern becomes reticulate
on the tail. Ventrally the snake is white. The scalation is smooth with
70 mid-body rows, 429-445 ventrals, a single anal and 155-163 mainly divided
subcaudals. An interesting feature of the scalation of this snake is that
about 50% of the central scales correspond to double not single rows of
dorsal scales. (Gow 1977). This snake averages 3.5 metres in length but
larger specimens certainly occur.
This snake is little known, but appears to be associated with the sandstone
formations of western Arnhem land (Gow 1977), (Cogger 1979). It is believed
that this snake is not rare where it occurs and that the lack of specimens
caught to date by herpetologists (less than 20) is due to the lack of fieldwork
by herpetologists in the area and not its rarity. Specimens caught in the
past may have been overlooked as other species (such as Liasis childreni,
Morelia s. variegata). The breeding biology of this species is effectively
unknown, although it is presumed to be similar to that of the other three
large Australian Liasis. Feeding behaviour is also unknown. This snake
appears to be at least partially diurnal in habit. (Begg and Martin 1980).
The Northern Territory Rock Python appears to always have a docile nature.
This is probably Australia's least kept python. Within Australia, very
few specimens have been kept in captivity. A specimen held at Taronga Park
Zoo, Sydney, died of obscure causes. It has been suggested that that snake
might have died due to neglect. It is believed that some herpetologists
in Canada hold large numbers of Liasis oenpelliensis and have also
bred them. I cannot verify the reports I have had stating this, however.
For keeping and breeding this python I can simply recommend general
python-keeping procedures, similar to those recommended for keeping the
other three larger Australian Liasis.
CHRISTIAN, T. (1979) Book Review: The Python Breeding Manual. I.H.R.
1978. Victorian Herpetological Society Newsletter. No.15 pp 3-7.
COGGER, H. G. (1979) Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia. A.H. and
A.W. Reed, Sydney.
GOW, G.F. (1976) Snakes of Australia. Angus and Robertson, Sydney.
GOW, G.F. (1977) A new species of Python from Arnhem Land, Australian
Zoologist 19(2) pp 133-139.
HOPGOOD, J. (1981) Canker and its effect on a Water Python Liasis
mackloti. Herpetofauna 12 (2) pp 15-16.
HOSER , R.T. (1981a) Snakes and Lizards of
the Pilbara region (Western Australia) Journal of the Northern Ohio Association
of Herpetologists. Vol.7 No.l. pp. 12-32.
HOSER, R. T. (1981b unpublished) Head-body
temperature differences in an Australian Scrub Python (Liasis amethystinus
KINGHORN, J. R. (1969) The Snakes of Australia. Angus and
McDOWALL, S. B. (1975) A Catalogue of the Snakes of New Guinea and
the Solomons. With special reference to those in the Bernice P. Bishop
Museum. Part II. Anilioidea and Pythoninae. Journal of Herpetology.
ROSS, R. (1978) The Python Breeding Manual.
Institute of Herpetological Research, California U.S.A.
STULL, O. G. (1933) Two new subspecies of the family Boidae. Occasional
Papers of the Museum of Zoology. University of Michigan, Number 267.
WORRELL, E. (1951) Classification of Australian Boidae. Proceedings
of the Royal Zoological Society of N.S.W. pp 20-25.
WORRELL, E. (1958) Song of the Snake. Angus and Robertson,
On 20.7.81, Mr. Laurie A. Smith published two articles in Records of
the West Australian Museum, dealing with Australian pythons. One new species
(Python carinatus) and two new subspecies (Liasis olivaceous barroni
and Python spilotus imbricatus) were described. Python carinatus
(which is related to Python (=Morelia) spilotes variegata but is
more rugose) and Python spilotus imbricatus will be discussed in Part four
of Australian Pythons (see next Herptile or one after).
The use of the generic name Python by Laurie Smith and Graeme
F. Gow in recent publications point towards the discarding of use of the
generic name Morelia for some Australian pythons. (Although Morelia
will be use in Australian Pythons Part four).
Briefly, Liasis olivaceous barroni is the Pilbara region race of the
more widely distributed Liasis olivaceous olivaceous and Liasis olivaceous
barroni appears to grow larger than Liasis olivaceous olivaceous from which
it is distinguished by having fewer mid-body rows (58-63 vs. 61-72) and
more ventrals (374-411 vs. 355-377). Liasis olivaceous barroni is reasonably
common where it occurs.
SMITH, L.A. (1981) A Revision of the Python Genera Aspidites
and Python (Serpentes: Boidae) in Western Australia. Records of
the Western Australian Museum. 9 (2): 211-226.
SMITH, L.A. (1981) A Revision of the Liasis olivaceous species group
(Serpentes: Boidae) Western Australia. Records of the Western Australian
Museum 9 (2) 227-233.
Photos published with paper. (All photos
by R. T. Hoser)
1/ Liasis fuscus (= mackloti) MALE, Water Python, Northern Queensland
2/ Liasis amethystinus MALE Scrub Python, Cooktown, Queensland
3/ Liasis amethystinus MALE, Cooktown, Queensland. Close-up of head
to show large scales.
Australian Pythons of most species have been bred in substantial numbers
since publication of this paper in 1981. Brian Barnett in Victoria has
bred most species including Olive, Water, Scrub, Children's (all three
variants) and others. He uses similar husbandry methods for all and his
egg incubation methods. The recipe (specific details) is published in the
paper by Raymond Hoser called 'Reptile
Keeping in the Australian State of Victoria', which was
published in The Reptilian (UK) Magazine in 1994. (Barnett has published
similar information elsewhere). A number of Australian species of Python
are also regularly bred by other well-known herpetologists both within
Australia and elsewhere. In 1997, the world's largest breeder of Pythons
was David and Tracy Barker of Bourne, Texas, USA.
Liasis fuscus is now taken to be the Australian Water Python. Liasis
mackloti is a name reserved for a snake found to the north of Australia
on one or more islands. A photo of this form can be found in the book Pythons
and Boas, by Peter J. Stafford.
Some publications in the early 1990's have implied that the Pilbara/West
Australian Olive Python, namely Liasis olivaceous barroni is rare and/or
endangered. This is not so. A photo of this species has been published
since in a book by Dave and Tracy Barker of the USA, called 'Pythons of
the World, Part 1, Australia'.
Liasis oenpelliensis has since been bred in captivity by Peter Krauss
of far North Queensland. Krauss, one of Australia's foremost reptile keepers
has also bred other relatively little known and/or high profile species
including Woma Pythons (Aspidites ramsayi). Following
his breeding success of the Oenpelli Pythons, all his stock was taken from
him by officers of the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service in
a deliberate attempt to prevent the species from becoming established in
captivity. There have been papers and books published which detail
Krauss's breeding parameters with this species as well as relevant photos.
Click here for Australian
Pythons part 4 - Carpet Pythons and relatives as well as Australian Python
Click here for Australian
Pythons part 2 - The Smaller Liasis (=Antaresia).
Click here for Australian
Pythons part 1 - The Genera Aspidites and Chondropython (=Morelia
- (Green Python only)).
Click here for a taxonomic review of Australasian
Pythons. (published in 2000)
Raymond Hoser has
been an active herpetologist for about 30 years and published over 100
papers in journals worldwide. He has written nine books including the definitive
works " Australian Reptiles and Frogs
", "Endangered Animals of Australia"
and the controversial best seller "Smuggled
- The Underground Trade in Australia's Wildlife".
Click on the text below for details about his latest book that is of major
interest to herpetologists everywhere.
Click here for details about a new book
that all aviculturists and herpetologists should get hold of ASAP - Smuggled-2.
Click here for a recent review of the
blockbuster book Smuggled-2 printed in an Australian newspaper.
Papers about reptiles and frogs
- list of over fifty papers that can be downloaded via the internet.
Australians Against Corruption
Non-urgent email inquiries via the Snakebusters bookings page at:http://www.snakebusters.com.au/sbsboo1.htmUrgent inquiries phone:Melbourne, Victoria, Australia:(03) 9812 3322 or 0412 777 211