CARESHEET

Keeping and breeding Ball Pythons

By Joris van der Hilst

Translated by Mireille Riesenbeck


Introduction

For over 25 years Ball Pythons are being kept by reptile lovers all over the world. Ball Pythons were one of the first species of python that were imported to be kept in captivity and they are still being imported from Togo, Ghana and Benin. The quantities have grown over the years, from 6.000 in 1983 to 44.000 in 1998 and recently even over 100.000 animals. However, currently the number of imported animals is receding due to the drop in value and wide availability of captive bred ball pythons. For a long time Ball Pythons have been sold as a good beginners species, mainly because of their gentle nature. When Ball Pythons feel threatened they will curl up like a ball, hence their name, instead of attacking in self defense as other species tend to do. Especially wild caught Ball Pythons show this behavior as captive bred animals are being handled by keepers from birth and therefore have no need of it. Still, even as their kind nature makes them good to keep for someone without experience in handling reptiles, there are a lot of problems with feeding Ball Pythons. Wild caught animals tend to stop eating for months at a time or do not eat from the start and many a beginning keeper has been desperately calling their veterinarian about this problem in fear that the animal is starving itself. Wild caught animals also often carry many parasites, internally as well as externally (eg. intestinal worms, ticks and mites) and most of the animals do not grow very old. Despite these problems the popularity of Ball Pythons has never decreased. This mainly because of their easy nature, affordability and appearance. The rate at which Ball Pythons produce offspring nowadays is very good and therefore captive bred animals are widely available for new keepers as well as for keepers who want to extend their collection.


Classification

The Ball python (Python Regius) is, together with the Angola Python (Python Anchietae) the smallest of species in the Python family. Genetically the Ball and Angola Python are very close and look very similar. Other species in the Python family are: Python Curtus, Python breitensteini, Python brongersmai, Python Molurus, Python Reticulatus, Python Timoriensis, Python Nataliensis and Python Sebae. The last two species come together with Python Anchietae from Africa. Also originating from Africa is the Calabar Python, (Calabaria Reinhardii). Calabar Pythons originate from Cameroun and surrounding countries and their habitat therefore partly overlaps that of the Ball Python.


Appearance

Ball Pythons are a smaller species that ranges in length between 110 and 150 cm, but animals of up to 180 cm are known to be kept in captivity. The normal pattern consist of a dark head with on both sides a small lighter stripe that covers the eyes and which starts at the nose and ends at the base of the neck. The base of the pattern consist of a beige to dark brown with a dark brown to black pattern and the color of the belly ranges from white to ivory. The tail is short and very muscular. Adults weigh from 1.3 up to 3.7 kg.


Habitat

The habitat of Ball Pythons ranges from Mid-west to Central Africa and covers the following countries: Cameroun, Zaire, Uganda, Gabon, Guinea, Congo, Liberia, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Nigeria, Togo and Benin. The areas in which they tend to live consist of savannah like terrain, grassy plains and rain forests, preferably the area in between these types of vegetation. On the northern side this large habitat is cut off by the Sahara and on the southern side by vast tropical rain forests. Ball Pythons are quite common in the wild. Research in Ghana concluded that there are 2,3 Ball Pythons per hectare in for the species sufficient terrain, which would mean that solely in Ghana there are between 6 and 18 million Ball Pythons in the wild.


Sexes

Sexing Ball Pythons looking purely at their spurs (rudimentary claws) is almost impossible, though males tend to have longer spurs than females. The best way to sex Ball Pythons is by probing. Males can be probed up to 10 scales while females can only be probed up to 3 scales. This is very delicate work and can best be done by someone experienced because it is way harder to probe Ball Pythons than many other species of snake. Adult animals can also be sexed on size, as females always grow larger than males. There are exceptions known however so this gives no guarantee. Offspring is often sexed by popping. This is done by gently pressing the tail part so the genitalia will come out. Females will have two little pink-white knobs but with males the hemipenisses will come out, which are very red due to the blood supply. Also with this type of sexing it is advised to let an experienced person do it.


Behaviour

Ball Pythons are ground dwellers. In the wild they are often found in abandoned termite hills, which also provide a good breeding place. Besides termite hills there are several other types of shelter, underneath bundles of branches, in rock crevices, in abandoned holes in the ground and even in areas populated by humans. When held in captivity they tend to ‘hole up’ most of the day and only be active after sunset and during the night. In the dry period they will be more sedate than during the rest of the year. As mentioned before almost all wild caught animals will curl up to form a ball with their head in the centre when they feel threatened. When these animals are handled by their keeper on regular bases they will only scarcely show this behavior. Their offspring will only show this behavior in the first few months after hatching, after which they will be easy to handle.


Food

Ball Pythons eat mostly mammals and birds in their wild habitat. In captivity they are commonly fed mice and rats. As mentioned before imported animals are difficult eaters which can stop eating for months at a time. This behavior can have many causes, females can stop due to being gravid, it can be caused by stress due to bad health/parasites, poor housing (too hot/cold, insufficient shelter) and the urge to mate (September-January). Fact is that all animals will eat well when comfortable. Therefore it is essential that imported animals are given time to adept to their new housing for a couple of weeks before handling and/or feeding them for the first time. Besides captive bred and wild caught animals there are animals offered that are ‘farm bred’. This gives the buyer the idea that these animals are captive bred in Africa, like farming cattle. This is not the case: the gravid mother was caught from the wild, has laid her eggs in this ‘farm’ and was released after laying the eggs. The eggs are artificially bred in a container and so the offspring was born in captivity, therefore these are not captive bred, only captive born.


Housing

The size of the housing, whether a glass terrarium or synthetic box depends on the size of the animal and the quantity of animals that will be kept in it. When animals are housed separately adult females should be kept at a minimum of 80 cm x 50 cm. Height is of less importance as they are ground dwelling. This is the minimum size for 1 female. Younger animals and males can of course be housed smaller. The interior needs to have a water bowl, substrate and a shelter. When kept in a rack system a shelter is not necessary as the box itself is a sort of shelter already. As substrate various materials can be used, wood shavings, wood chips, sand, turf and newspaper are quite commonly used. Popular under keepers is Lignocel, a fine wood chip which does not dust. For shelter a piece of bark can be used, as well as a flower pot which is turned upside down so the hole in the top is the entrance. Like in the wild, your animals will spend most of their daytime in their shelter. A water bowl is an absolute necessity. You can use a water bowl sized for cats, as Ball Pythons do not take a bath quite often. Only when their housing is too dry or when suffering external parasites as blood mites they will try to fit their whole body in this water bowl, however small it may be. Do take a water bowl that will not tip over easily, wet substrate is not good for the health of your animal as it tends to produce mold and can cause scale problems on the animals’ belly. To create a natural habitat in housing that has height branches and (artificial) plants can be used. This is not necessary as they are ground dwelling but they will make use of it, especially at night. A ledge higher up will be an attractive place to curl up onto, especially when there is shelter up there, but they are also found hanging in branches or wedged between ridges in the background paneling when available.


Temperature

During the summer the animals can be kept between 26-30 degrees Celsius with a hot spot of 32 degrees Celsius. This spot can be created with a lamp or floor heating (mat or cable). The ideal night temperature is around 24 degrees. In the summer period lights can be on for 14 hours at a time. Lights, heat mats and heat cables should always be connected to a thermostat to prevent overheating.


Humidity

Humidity should be between 60-85% during the summer months. This is easily realized by placing a water bowl on the warm spot, the only problem is that the water is easily contaminated because of the rapid growth of bacteria in warm water. A better solution is spraying water in several places, so the animal(s) can choose a moist or dry place to lie themselves.


Breeding

When fed well enough Ball Pythons will be sexually mature at the age of 3. Males tend to be able to breed at the age of 2 or even sooner. If you want to breed you need to be sure your animals are in good health and the females are well fed and have enough reserves. If that is not the case it is better to wait or skip a year. When trying to breed it is best to drop the temperature a little and to lower the humidity. When the humidity stays too high this can cause lung infections. To bring the temperature down there are two options: keep the day temperature on 30 degrees but lower the night temperature to 20 degrees Celsius. The other option is to lower both day and night temperature with 3-5 degrees to 26 degrees during the day and 18-21 degrees during the night. This period starts in December and ends in February/March. Other breeders start or end this period 2 months earlier and you can reduce the temperature gradually or just change it from one day on another. Do keep trying to feed your animals during this period. Many of them will refuse but some will keep eating till mere weeks before laying their eggs. Some breeders just stop offering their animals when they have lowered the temperature, others already stop 2 weeks before cooling down and will first offer again when they raise the temperature. Most breeders keep their animals separated during the cooler period, but this is not necessary.


Mating

When raising the temperature you can also raise humidity in the housing. From this period on the males can be put with the females and this often results in mating. It is quite helpful to have several males to put with a female as some males do not prefer the specific female where others might well breed with her. When the female needs to shed it is advised to separate her from the male and re-introduce the male again after she has shed. This is often an extra stimuli to breed. Most breedings are at night or early in the morning in the period January-April.


Gravidity

When mating was successful the female will tend to be in the warm spot more often. Sometimes they curl around the water bowl with their belly pressed against it. As the end of the gravidity grows closer the females tend to lie belly up more often, this is seen with several python species. Females will shed again 24-42 days before laying their eggs. After this shed you can create a place for her to lay her eggs with a plastic box filled with moist spaghnum moss. In this box it should be between 28-30 degrees Celsius. The moss needs to be moist, not wet and the female will almost always make this the preferred spot to lay her eggs in.


Eggs

The eggs will be laid between January and July. Females produce between 2-16 eggs, with 5-8 eggs per clutch as most common. The bigger the female the bigger the clutch is often true. When the female has laid her eggs she will curl around them, with her belly pressed against the eggs. Due to muscle contractions she can produce heat to keep the eggs on the preferred temperature, with a maximum of 3 degrees more as the surrounding. This behavior is consistent with that of several other python species. She can separate infertile eggs (slugs) or eggs that go bad from the healthy clutch. Often these eggs are smaller and the eggshell is thinner. Healthy eggs are commonly 50 mm long and white in color. They can have ‘windows’, these are spots on the eggs where the eggshell is thinner and therefore almost transparent. When you let the female breed the clutch herself the temperature in the nest box needs to be around 31 degrees with a very high humidity but the eggs have to stay dry enough to prevent mold growth Most breeders use an incubator to breed the eggs. You can put the eggs on a mixture of vermiculite and perlite, which is moistened in proportion 1:1. When you find a clutch with the female that has been laid several hours earlier the eggs will stick together. Do not try to separate these but rather put the whole clutch on the above mentioned mixture in the incubator.


Offspring

After 52-65 days the eggs will hatch. After cutting their initial incision in the egg with their egg tooth they can stay in the egg, often with their head sticking out of the egg, for another 2-3 days to consume the rest of their yolk before coming out completely. Sometimes they are out still having some of the yolk sack attached. It is best to put these offspring in a box with wet paper toweling on the bottom till the opening in the belly is completely closed. Hatchlings should be between 36-45 cm long and weigh between 42-73 grams. It is best to keep all hatchlings on paper toweling during their first weeks, to prevent infections. They should be kept more moist then adult animals to prevent dehydration. Besides humid tissues and a small water bowl a hiding place is often very welcome. After their initial shed you can try feeding for the first time. This goes quite well most of the times but sometimes a hatchling will refuse to feed for several weeks, even months. It is essential to let these animals in peace, give them enough shelter and hiding places and try to feed something different as baby mice, like baby gerbils or baby hamsters. Force feeding is the ultimate solution but is almost always not necessary when above is tried. When hatchlings feed well they will double their birth weight in 6 months, weigh 800 grams after 1,5 years and will be sexually mature within 3 years.


Conclusion

In captivity Ball Pythons can reach up to 25 years and can even then still produce offspring. The oldest documented Ball Python reached 47 years in age. When starting with this species it is advised to buy captive bred animals. This prevents having feeding problems as well as parasites and such. Captive bred Ball Pythons might be a little more expensive then wild caught or farm bred animals but you can better pay a little more for an animal knowing that this prevents you from frustration with feeding or the suffering over the death of the animal.