When non-snake people hear the word ”python,” they often think of giant snakes like reticulated pythons. While thousands of people keep these snakes, they’re less popular than the much smaller ball python.
These snakes are native to central and western Africa and are valued as pets because of their docile nature. This, along with their manageable size and extreme color and pattern variability, makes them beautiful beginner snakes. Since the 1970s, nearly 4 million ball pythons have been exported from Africa, primarily from Togo, Benin, and Ghana, with many more bred in captivity.
- An exceptionally large ball python might reach six feet in length.
- Most captive-bred ball pythons average from three to five feet.
- Since 1978, about four million ball pythons have been exported from Africa.
- They grow fastest during their first year of life but never stop growing.
What Is a Ball Python?
Ball pythons are small to medium-sized, nonvenomous constrictor-type snakes. They’re captive-bred worldwide and sold as pets. These muscular, thick-bodied snakes have blunted snouts and triangular heads with heat-sensing pits set into the upper and lower lips.
Their wild pattern consists of a brownish base color with dark markings. The markings often take the shape of an alien head, and their bellies usually have a lighter color, ranging from all white to yellow, with or without speckles.
Captive-bred snakes come in a dizzying array of colors and patterns. Over the last forty years, breeders have actively sought out wild snakes with unusual color patterns – the albino, piebald, and sunset morphs were all originally found in the wild. Then, they take these snakes and add them to the breeding population to develop new and beautiful ball python morphs. Thanks to their work, there are unusual and unique patterns like the blue-eyed leucistic snakes, melanistic, and others. Most often, the color patterns shift a little as they age, either darkening or brightening, depending on the genetics involved.
As hatchlings, ball pythons measure between six and twelve inches long and grow rapidly in their first year of life; they can reach nearly two feet long by the end of their first year. Their first enclosure can be small, but they’ll grow out of it quickly, requiring more space to live and explore.
Where Do Ball Pythons Live?
This African native hails from western and central Africa, and the primary export countries are Benin, Togo, and Ghana. Their native habit includes open grassland and savanna, lightly forested areas, and agricultural fields. Ball python hunters find these snakes hiding inside abandoned rodent burrows, hollow palm trunks, and termite mounds where they seek shelter during the day. They find many females inside these hideouts while they’re pregnant and getting ready to lay eggs.
When they venture out in the evenings or at night to hunt, ball pythons’ cryptic patterns allow them to creep through the grasses and ground clutter without being seen. These ambush predators prefer finding a great place to wait for food to wander too close, and can sit still for days while they wait.
Their native home is known for year-round warm temperatures that average 70º-90ºF and humidity that ranges from 60-80%. So, your pet ball python’s enclosure should mimic this as much as possible. These snakes need multiple hides – one on the cool side and another on the warm side. Since they aren’t free to move about the local landscape (and shouldn’t be!), the snakes need the ability to thermoregulate by moving from warm to cool locations as needed.
What Do Ball Pythons Eat?
Pet ball pythons don’t have the opportunity to go out and find food when they’re hungry. They must rely on us for proper food. These snakes will happily eat to the point of obesity, so a schedule is vital.
This species can take a prey animal about the same size as the biggest diameter of its body. If they haven’t eaten in a while (these guys are notorious for hunger strikes), a smaller meal first is a good idea and less likely to make the snake struggle. Starting with smaller prey, gradually increase the size until they’re eating appropriately-sized rats most of the time.
Adult ball pythons need at least five days to digest their meal. Feeding sooner than that stresses their system and is unnecessary. When they’ve had a larger meal, wait a little longer before feeding again. Conversely, a smaller meal means you can feed a little sooner.
Varying the frequency, size, and species that you offer your snake is a great way to enrich its life. It more closely mimics what they would experience in the wild; in reality, predators, even primitive ones like ball pythons, benefit from variety.
|Ball Python Age||Feeding Frequency|
|Up to 12 months||Weekly|
|1 to 3 years||10-14 Days|
|3 years and older||2-5 weeks, depending on meal size|
What Affects Ball Pythons’ Growth?
Ball pythons, like other animals, bear the effects of what they eat – good, bad, or indifferent. Assuming that a particular snake has access to appropriately-sized prey animals, both males and females will grow from their hatching size of 6-12 inches to 18-24 by the end of their first year of life. After that, their growth slows tremendously, but a snake never really stops growing – its growth merely slows down.
The idea that a snake grows to fit its enclosure is a myth. They grow according to the food available and to their genetics. Even if a ball python isn’t fed enough during the first year, but subsequently receives enough food, the snake will eventually catch up to their growth potential. Generations of scarcity cause dwarfism in animals, including snakes, but a snake can typically recover from a few months of scarcity. By the end of its life, a ball python will grow to three-five feet in length, but an exceptionally large individual may reach six feet.
What’s the Best Enclosure for a Ball Python?
A ball python’s needs are few and simple: an enclosure with enough space to explore and plenty of places to hide. It also needs to have a warm side and a cool side, with a hide in each, and good food on a schedule that keeps them healthy.
Like many snakes, ball pythons are escape artists, so their enclosure needs to be secure with a locking mechanism to keep them from forcing it open. Many keepers choose an enclosure that opens in the front, because coming in from the top can look to a snake like a predator. However, with careful movements, that’s not too big of a problem.
Opinions on how best to keep a ball python have changed over the years because we’ve learned more about them. At this point, the accepted minimum enclosure for an adult ball python is one that measures four feet long by two feet deep and two feet high. Larger is always nice, if you have the space, but this size appears to be great for most of them.
Are Ball Pythons Good Pets?
This isn’t a short-lived species like some reptiles and amphibians. Ball pythons can live up to 10 years in the wild, but 20-30 years in captivity with good husbandry. Some snakes may be passed on from one owner to the next if they outlive them. It’s a possibility that needs to be addressed as a pet owner no matter what species you keep, but especially with harder-to-place animals like snakes.
Ball pythons are wonderful pets for the right owner. They’re not as active as a boa or kingsnake, so for some people, they’re not as much fun. However, they’re terrific for someone who understands that they just want to hang out and maybe explore a little.
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- Ranching Ball Pythons for Export | Wildlife Conservation Research Unit, Available here: https://www.wildcru.org/news/ranching-ball-pythons-west-africa-global-exotic-pet-trade/
- D’Cruze, N., Harrington, L. A., Assou, D., Ronfot, D., Macdonald, D. W., Segniagbeto, G. H., & Auliya, M. (2020). Searching for snakes: ball python hunting in southern Togo, West Africa. Nature Conservation. https://doi.org/10.3897/natureconservation.38.47864, Available here: https://natureconservation.pensoft.net/article/47864/https://natureconservation.pensoft.net/article/47864/