PYTHON AND LOOKALIKES.
In 1985 Laurie Smith of the West Australian Museum published a paper (Smith 1985), dividing what was formerly regarded as a single species, the Children's Python Bothrochilus childreni into three geographically exclusive species. Although there is debate as to the validity of this division (see later), I will for the time being treat these snakes as three similar but separate species. These are:-
1/ Children's Python Bothrochilus childreni of tropical Northern Australia west of Cape York, Queensland including some offshore islands.
2/ Spotted Python Bothrochilus maculosus of coastal Queensland and nearby areas, including offshore islands, nearby highlands and slopes and north-east New South Wales.
3/ Stimson's Python Bothrochilus stimsoni of most other parts of Australia, including arid areas. Not found in most parts of the far south of Australia, the far south-east and Tasmania. Found on at least some islands of the W.A. coast (Maryan, 1984).
(Ant-hill Pythons Bothrochilus perthensis found in the Pilbara and nearby parts of Western Australia, are substantially different to the above snakes and are not the main subject of this paper. See Hoser (1992) for a detailed account and bibliography of the species).
(Also see distribution maps).
Although Hybrids of the above three snakes are known to exist in captivity and possibly in the wild, the following keys (below) can be used with a high degree of success and certainty to separate the above snakes from all other pythons. Although the keys may appear technical, persons experienced with the relevant snakes will not usually have to use them to identify the snake in question.
KEY TO PYTHONINAE GENERA (EXCLUDING CALABARIA)
la Labials wihout pits.......... Aspidites
lb Labials with pits 2
2a Premaxilla with teeth Chondropython
2b Premaxilla with teeth 3
3a Postorbital bone extends downward to meet the maxillo-
ectopterygoid joint 4
3b Postorbital bone fails conspicuously to reach the maxilla and ectopterygoid Bothrochilus
4a Minimum of more than 47 scale from on neck Python
4b Intercostal arteries arise from the dorsal aorta in groups of three to four in the anterior trunk....Morelia
KEY TO BOTHROCHILUS
la Single loreal 2
lb Two or more loreals 3
2a Less than 257 Ventrals boa (Bismark Ringed Python)
2b More than 257 Ventrals albertisi (White-lipped Python)
3a Fewer than 37 mid-body scale rows, 250 or less ventrals ...................................... perthenis (Ant-hill Python)
3b 37 or more mid-body scale rows, 250 or more ventrals 4
4a Not much pattern or not bold……. Childreni
4b Bold Pattern 5
5a Pattern of distinct blotches or spots, which may join along the dorsal midline maculosus (Spotted Python)
5b Pattern of bold blotches or bars and a white ventro-lateral stripe along the anterior part of the body stimsoni (Stimson's Python).
See photos - this article for typical examples with locality information (as published in The Reptilian Magazine). Also see Hoser (1989) for further photos of these snakes and habitat photos.
Biology in Wild.
Snakes of the childreni complex (and the Ant-hill Python) all tend to have similar requirements and preferences in the wild. In the wild these snakes are found in almost all types of habitat where they occur ranging from very arid to very wet, from flat areas to hills. Having said this, there are some types of habitats that are most favored. Hilly (and especially rocky) areas are preferred over flat and un-rocky areas. Essentially these snakes appear to prefer well-drained areas with lots of ground cover. Preferred vegetation is varied, but in arid areas, ‘spinifex' Triodia sp. is a most favored ground cover, compared with most other types of plant. It is a highly impenetrable but flammable type of grass that grows outwards in a circle and is common in many arid areas. In it's own right, 'Spinifex' provides excellent cover for reptiles, even in the hottest of places. For example, I retrieved a resting adult male Ant-hill Python from a small exposed 'Spinifex' clump at 12.10 PM (ten past noon), by burning the bush. This was 6 km west of Shay Gap (WA) when the air temperature was 34 degrees celcius and cloud cover was 40 per cent. The 'spinifex' was surrounded by bare dirt and so there was effectively no risk of starting a grass fire.
Large termite mounds are also preferred habitat of these snakes, particularly when no other cover is available. In the Shay gap (WA) area, I recovered Stimson's and Ant-hill Pythons from these mounds in a flat area that had recently suffered a bush (grass) fire and therefore had little ground cover (in 1983) and from mounds on a low rocky hill with plenty of 'spinifex' (in 1981).
Termite mounds are desirable cover due to the relatively constant, warm and humid temperatures maintained inside them by the insects. Small mouse-sized mammals such as Antechinus sp. and lizards burrow into these mounds, leaving large numbers of access holes which can be used by snakes. The snakes in turn enter the mounds for shelter and tend to feed on the small mammals and lizards. In Shay Gap alone, the following snakes were found inside 46 termite mounds in 1981 and 1983: King Brown Snake Pseudechis australis (1), Brown Snakes Pseudonaja sp. (3), Orange-naped Snake Furina ornata (adult pair in one mound), Black-headed Python Aspidites melanocephalus (one adult), Ant-hill Python (8) and Stimson's Python (10), plus numerous lizards and small mammals.
Although Desert Death Adders Acanthophis pyrrhus appeared to be by far the most common snake in the area based on accounts of local Herpetologists Shem Wills (Newman (WA)) and Val Bagshaw (Shay Gap (WA), and the number of snakes found both in total and on roads at night by myself on two trips to the area, NONE were found inside any mounds inspected. ('Spinifex', preferably in hills, is by far the preferred habitat of that snake). See Hoser (1981) for further details of Pilbara (WA) reptiles.
In Tropical Australia, Children's Pythons are most numerous in hilly rocky areas which have 'spinifex' cover on rock outcrops. Such areas include the Kimberley ranges and the Arnhem Land escarpment, where huge numbers occur. In Queensland, Spotted Pythons are most common in hilly rocky habitats and not dense forests, which appear to be dominated by Carpet Pythons Morelia spilota. In Western New South Wales and adjacent parts of South Australia arid Queensland, Stimson's Pythons are usually confined to rocky hills. They appear to be absent from most of the flat rockless country that intervenes, regardless if the intervening soil is 'red' or 'black'. In warmer parts of Australia and during summer, most specimens are found crossing roads at night. Contrary to popular misconception, these reptiles do not appear to be basking on the road.
Specimens can be taken from ant-hills at all times of year, although getting into these rock-hard structures always poses difficulties for the reptile collector. In cooler parts of Australia and during cooler months, most specimens are found during daylight hours under ground cover such as rocks and in crevices. Unlike Carpet/Diamond Pythons, which are frequently observed basking during the day in cooler periods, wild pythons of the Childreni complex have not to my knowledge been observed doing this.
In the wild these snakes are presumed to feed an all vertebrates small enough to be taken. Preferences probably vary somewhat depending on locality and food availability, Captive specimens are usually fed mice or small rats.
These snakes are very easy to keep and breed in captivity. I have kept and seen kept all snakes of the childreni complex in widely different cages and conditions, usually without incident. The snakes are extremely hardy and in a few words 'hard to kill'. Kend and Kend (1992) accurately suggest 'standard terrestrial husbandry'.
Cage designs usually involve minimal furnishings and/or cover, fairly dry, fresh water in unspillable container and a mechanism for regulating temperature. Although, like all pythons, childreni complex snakes are prone to diseases, parasites and so forth, they are so hardy as to be more resistant to these than most other snakes'. They make excellent snakes for the 'beginner', although Stimson's Pythons and sometimes to a lesser extent Children's Pythons, may be of snappy disposition. Spotted Pythons are the most even tempered of the these snakes (Ant-hill Pythons are also even tempered). Ross and Marzec (1990), detail keeping methods used for keeping and breeding these and other similar species. They noted different methods successfully used to keep, breed and hatch eggs of the childreni group.
When I kept a number of these snakes together during the period 1977-84, no cannibalistic tendencies were noted, other than the fact that two snakes may occasionally go for the same food item (mouse or rat). However Maguire (1990) noted a case of accidental cannibalism.
There are a number of published reports or, breeding childreni complex snakes, including Barnett (1979, 1987), Chiras (198'.'), Dunn (1979), Heijden (1988), Hoser (1991), Kortlang (1989), Mattison (1988), McLain (1980), Ross (1983), Sheargold, T. (1979), and Williams (1992).
However for simplicities sake I suggest intending breeders of these snakes consult Barnett (1987) for the perfect 'formula' for successfully breeding these snakes and Ross and Marzec (1990) for a more wide ranging account on keeping and breeding these and other pythons. There are also innumerable 'general' texts on keeping and breeding reptiles available.
Although specimens of these species have been bred without separation of the sexes, doing so probably enhances chances of success, provided the keeper is aware of the correct time to re-introduce snakes. Cooling of snakes (10 weeks approx.) is indicated, (from a normal 27-29 degrees celcius to 21-23), with mating activity peaking at the end of this period, (Barnett, 1987). For those that separate sexes, palpatation (feeling for enlarged egg follicles) will indicate when re-introductions and matings should be attempted. Over winter (Southern Hemisphere) mating periods for captive snakes correlates with location of resting pairs of adult Spotted Pythons during cooler months in the wild. These include the following:
Myself (Charters Towers (Qld) 1979), (Dalby, Qld 1978), Robert Croft (Dalby (Qld) 1974 and again in 1975), Bill Saunderson (Dalby (Qld) 1974), and John Baker (Bingarra (NSW) 1974), see Hoser (1990) for details.
Combat between males has been noted by a number of authors and although some such as Ross and Marzec (1990), have stated that this combat is ‘non-injurious', a few keepers have indicated that males caged together should be monitored in the early stages of cohabitation before a well-established 'hierarchy' is established.
Simon Kortlang (Vic, Australia), has a dominant male Spotted Python sourced from Townsville, Qld, that actually killed another male when held in a 'bachelor' cage and discovered the same dominant male attempting to 'strangle' another snake at about the same time the dead snake was found. For obvious reasons, that snake is now housed alone. Interestingly, the male that was saved from being strangled by the more powerful snake still had a strong sexual urge and mated with the first female it was presented with. Pelvic spurs (moving), are used by fighting males and substantial injuries were noted, in particular in ventral areas among Kortlang's fighting Spotted Pythons. Males kept with males were also recorded as sometimes attempting to copulate with one another for extended periods (in the absence of females). Kortlang has also regularly observed spurs being used by males when mating with females.
Incubation is usually achieved by most successful breeders removing eggs from the female as soon as they are laid. They are placed in a medium of 50-55 per cent vermiculite to a depth of about 3 cm in a container with 50-45 per cent water (by weight) with the container nearly totally sealed (Barnett pers comm and 1987). The eggs are about 80 per cent buried in the vermiculite. 30 degrees celcius appears to be the optimum temperature for incubation, although some variation from this figure while not necessarily meaning failure, should be avoided by those hoping for maximum success. With an average incubation temperature of just under 30 degrees, Barnett (1987) recorded incubation times of 46-61 days for Spotted Pythons. Other published accounts for childreni complex snakes (see bibliography) had similar results. (Iower temperatures = longer incubation times).
Although hatchlings appear to prefer lizards as food, most keepers attempt to 'trick-feed' them into taking mice at the earliest of opportunities. Various degrees of 'force-feeding' are sometimes employed with difficult specimens, (usually 'assist-feeding') although raising these snakes appears to pose few difficulties. (See Weigel 1988, for information on 'assist feeding' and Barnett, 1987 for how he weans his young pythons onto mice using 'trick-feeding' methods).
(When switching Desert Death Adders from lizards to mice, I would tie a segment of lizard (head, tail, etc) to a small dead mouse and with long tongs wave it in front of the snake. The snake would then bite onto the food and commence consuming both mouse and lizard segment. After the snake had bitten the food item I was usually able to remove the lizard segment and reuse it while the snake would continue to consume the remaining mouse. Eventually (in theory) the Desert Death Adders would take mice alone without 'inducements ' ) .
Feeding and sloughing data for these snakes are published by a number of authors including Hoser, 1982. Barnett (1987), provides detailed growth data for hatchling Spotted Python---. Not surprisingly snakes kept at higher temperatures tend to eat and slough more than their cooler counterparts. Maximum growth in young specimens is achieved by keeping them relatively warm and feeding them as much as possible (although preferably in lots of smaller feedings rather than irregular large feedings, which are more likely to result in digestive problems). Some fast growing -Specimens seem to get 'pin-head syndrome' which merely refers to the body appearing to grow at a faster rate than the head, resulting in a head appearing abnormally small for a snake of a given size. Ectoparasites, skin disorders and humidity problems can all lead to an accelerated sloughing rate. It goes without saying that all keepers of these (and any other) snakes should keep detailed keeping, feeding and breeding records, principally as a means to pre-empt and/or identify potential problems.
Recorded clutch sizes for childreni complex snakes varies from 2 to 20. (See bibliography for details). Shine 1991 published the following statistics for snakes of the childreni complex, based on his dissections of specimens in field and museum. (Averages).
Children's Python: Hatchling 23 cm, Adult Male 69 cm, Adult Female 72 cm, 7 eggs per clutch.
Spotted Python: Hatchling 24 cm, Adult Male 77 am, Adult Female 84 cm, 13 eggs per clutch.
Stimson's Python: Hatchling 24 cm, Adult Male 88 cm, Adult Female 85 cm, 6 eggs per clutch.
(Ant-hill Python: Hatchling 17 cm, Adult Male 45 cm, Adult Female 47 cm, 5 eggs per clutch).
Note: Some of the above statistics were based on small sample sizes. There is geographical variation in size and other features in the above snakes not revealed by the above figures. Shine's figures would no doubt have biases to certain locations.
In the wild state Children's, Stimson's and Spotted Pythons act both as separate species and as the same species. In the north of Western Australia, it appears that Stimson's and Children's Pythons don't hybridise, even though they are found within a few kilometres from each other (but don't appear to coexist in any single locality). On that basis it would tentatively seem that they are different species.
However in parts of inland Queensland Smith identified snakes that he was unable to assign to a given 'species' on the basis of their intermediate characteristics and their location of origin being on the convergence of the ranges of all three forms. Likewise specimens from parts of New South Wales appear to be intermediate between Stimson's and Spotted Pythons. Alice Springs herpetologist Greg Fyfe has also observed wild caught snakes from Queensland intermediate in character between Stimson's and Spotted Pythons. (At this stage, no location in the wild is known where Stimson's, Children's or Spotted Pythons coexist).
Smith's revision of childreni complex snakes has also came under criticism due to overlaps of scale features of each 'species', further adding fuel to the argument that all three snakes are merely different forms of the same species (subspecies). In his revision, Smith split Stimson's pythons into two subspecies, but that division was based on overlapping characteristics, since found in some circumstances to place individuals from a single population into different subspecies. Therefore that division isn't accepted by most reptile people in Australia.
With the possible exceptions of Mirtschin (1992), and Gow (1989), most recent Australian authors, including Cogger (1992), Ehmann (1992) and Wilson and Kmwles (1988), have at least tentatively accepted Smith's division of the childreni complex into the three species as dealt with in this paper/article. Ant-hill Pythons, although in some old texts erroneously referred to as a subspecies of Children's (or Stimson's) Pythons (Worrell 1970, Cogger 1986), is clearly not so. The snakes are totally different in average size and appearance, including key diagnostic features. Furthermore it co-exists with Stimson's Pythons where it occurs and there is no evidence of cross breeding.
My opinion is that childreni complex snakes are a 'borderline case' in terms of whether or not they fit the man-made category of 'species'. The division into three 'species' by myself here is only tentative and pending wider acceptance among reptile people in Australia and elsewhere.
Clearly Pythons of the childreni comlex have been cross-bred in captivity. To what extent is not clearly known. For example a snake held at Los Angeles Zoo (USA) had the pattern of a Spotted Python, but scale characteristics of a Children's Python, (Kend 1992). Kend didn't state whether the snake had been derived from a captive hybridisation or wild-caught. Most childreni complex snakes in the United States and Europe appear to be Spotted Pythons. This makes sense as most childreni complex snakes in captivity in Australia are also Spotted Pythons. These snakes are the most common near the heavily populated eastern seaboard (Sydney, Brisbane).
Melbourne snake breeder, Simon Kortlang has in his collection hybrids resulting from a male Children's Python from Darwin (NT) mating with female Stimson's and Spotted Pythons, (with all parents being sourced from the wild). Kortlang also has reliable breeding records of crosses between wild-caught Stimson's and Spotted Pythons.
On 29th December 199.), Peter Comber (Melbourne, Australia), obtained 8 fertile eggs from a female Spotted Python that had mated with one of Kortlang's male Children's X Spotted Python hybrids. At the time of writing the eggs had not hatched, but no problems were anticipated. Although it has yet to be tested for all the childreni complex, it is currently assumed by myself that 'hybrid' offspring are fertile. ('Intergrades' between forms of Carpet/Diamond Python are clearly fertile and all are regarded as being of the same species by most herpetologists). Testing fertility of 'hybrid' offspring of childreni complex snakes could be useful in finally deciding the validity of these species.
Although Ant-hill Pythons are rare in captivity in all parts of the world including Australia, childreni complex snakes are common in most parts of the world, largely due to captive breeding. Many breeders do not appear to differentiate between the three 'species' and prices between them don't appear to vary much, if at all.
Prices for hatchlings (from price lists) though varying seem to average about $120 (USA) 80 (UK) $120 (AUS). (Breeding Ant-hill Pythons though generally unobtainable have been quoted at between $2,000 and $10,000 each or as pairs in the United States).
A good indication of how many of these snakes are in captivity can be gauged from dealers price lists and perusal of an annual publication put out by Frank Slavens, (see Slavens 1990 in bibliography).
Snakes and other fauna are smuggled through the post from Australia and by corrupt fauna and/or airline officials by various means. It is impossible to ascertain how many specimens leave Australia illegally on an annual basis, but anecdotal evidence points to a sizeable illicit trade. Those caught smuggling these animals from Australia often pay a high penalty.
For example on 24th March 1991, Casey Stephen Lazik, an American citizen was arrested after mailing to the United States three snakes from Port Hedland in Western Australia. On 16th May, 1991, he was convicted and fined a total of $10,000 on federal and state charges for attempting to illegally export a Woma Aspidites ramsayi, Black-headed Python and Ant-hill Python.
In three separate unrelated incidents, John Nichols of New Zealand, Tsuyoshi Shirawa of Japan and Jean-Pierre Blanc of Switzerland were all busted and subsequently gaoled for substantial terms after attempting to illegally export Shingleback Lizards Trachydosaurus rugosus in their luggage as they boarded planes leaving Australia.
Non-Australian readers should take note of these and innumerable cases and at this point in time refrain from any attempts to illegally obtain reptiles from Australia.
(Simon Kortlang and Brian Barnett, (Victoria, Australia) provided constructive criticism to a draft manuscript).
Barnett, B. F. (1979), 'Captive breeding and a novel egg incubation technique of the Children's Python (Liasis childreni)', Herpetofauna, 11 (2), pp. 15-18.
Barnett, B. F. (1987), 'The Eastern Children's Python in Captivity', Thylacinus (AAZK), 12 (1), pp. 10-19.
Chiras, S.. (1982), 'Captive reproduction of the Children's Python, Liasis childreni', Herpetological Review, 13 (1), pp. 14-15.
Cogger, H. G. (1986), Reptiles and Amphibians of Australia, (Fourth Edition), A. H. and A. W. Reed, Sydney, Australia. 688 pp.
Cogger, H. G. (1992), Reptiles and knphibians of Australia, (Fifth Edition), Reed Books Pty. Ltd, Sydney, Australia. 752 pp.
Dunn, R. W. (1979), 'Breeding Childrens' Pythons Liasis childreni, at Melbourne Zoo.', International Zoo Yearbook, 19, pp. 89-90.
Ehmann, H. (1992), Encyclopedia of Australian Animals - Reptiles, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, Australia. 495 pp. (Series editor Ronald Strahan).
Gow, G. F. (1989), Graeme Gow's Complete Guide to Australian Snakes, Angus and Ro on, Sydney, Australia. 171 pp.
Heijden, B. V. D. (1988), 'Breeding behaviour of Liasis childreni', Litteratura Serpentium (English Edition), 8 (2), pp. 58-61.
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.)
Kend, B. (1992), 'The Small Pythons of Australia', Paper presented at the International Herpetological symposium (IHS) June 25-28, 1992. (To be published in annual publication of the IHS).
Kortiang, S. (1989), Oviposition in Liasis stimsoni ofientalis', Australasian Herp News, 3, p. 3.
Maguire, M. (1 990), 'Accidental cannibalism of Children's Pythons (Liasis maculosus)', Herpetofauna, 20 (1). p. 33.
Maryan, B. (1984), 'the occurrence of the Children's Python (Liasis childreni) on Dirk Hartog Island, W. A.', Herpetofauna, 15 (2), p. 48.
Mattison, C. (1980), 'Keeping and Breeding Snakes', Blandford Press, London, UK. 184 pp.
McLain, J.M. (1980), 'Reproduction in Captive Children's Pythons, Liasis childreni, Proceedings on the fourth annual Symposium on Captive Propagation and Husbandry, pp. 79-82.
Mirtschin, P. and Davis, R. (1992), 'Snakes of Australia', Dangerous and harmless, Hill of content, Melbourne, Australia. 216 pp.
Ross, R.A. (1973), 'Successful mating and hatching of Children's Python, Liasis childrenl, HISS-NJ, 1 (6), pp. 181-182.
Ross, R.A. and Marzec, G. (1990), 'The Reproductive Husbandry of Pythons and Boas', Institute for herpetological Research, Stanford, California, USA. 270 pp.
Sheargold, T. (1 979), 'Notes on the reproduction of Children's Pythons (Liasis childreni Gray, 1842)', Herpetofauna, 13, pp. 2-4.
Shine, R. (1991), 'Australian Snakes', A Natural History, Reed Books Pty. Ltd, Sydney, Australia, 223 pp.
Slavens, F.L. (1990), 'Inventory of Live Reptiles and Amphibians in Captivity', Self-published, Seattle, USA. (Annual Publication).
Smith, L.A. (1985), 'A revision of the Liasis childreni species group (Serpentes: Boidae)', Records of the Western Australia Museum, 12, pp. 257-276.
Weigel, J. (1988), 'Care of Australian Reptiles in Captivity', Reptile Keepers' Association, Gosford, Australia, 143 pp.
Williams, D.J. (1992), "Natural' incubation by a Children's Python, Liasis maculosus (Peters, 1873) (Serpentes: Boidae), under public display conditions.', Sydney Basin Naturalist, 1, pp. 97-99.
Wilson, S.K. and Knowles, D.G. (1988), 'Australia's Reptiles.' A photographic Reference to the Terrestrial Reptiles of Australia, Collins Publishers, Sydney, Australia. 477 pp.
Worrell, E. (1970), 'Reptiles of Australia', Angus and Robertson. Sydney, Australia. 169 pp.
Those who want the details of breeding these snakes should see a paper published by Brian Barnett in 1999 in the journal Monitor 10 (2/3). Click here to view it.
Those who want the paper by Brian Barnett as an MS Word File canTo download it as an 83k self executing file (all 17 pages including tables) - just click here - then after downloading click onto the icon and follow the instructions - the word document will then be found in your windows 'temp' directory. The file will download within about 2 minutes or less.
For perhaps the best ever paper written on incubating snake eggs - again by Brian Barnett - Click here.
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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