Overview

Brief Summary

Biology

Like all pythons, the African rock python is non-venomous and kills its prey by constriction (6) (8). After gripping the prey, the snake coils around it, tightening its coils every time the victim breathes out. Death is thought to be caused by cardiac arrest rather than by asphyxiation or crushing (6). The African rock python feeds on a variety of large rodents, monkeys, antelopes, fruit bats, monitor lizards and even crocodiles in forest areas (3) (11), and on rats, poultry, dogs and goats in suburban areas (11). A few cases are also known of this python hunting humans (12). African rock pythons are oviparous, laying between 20 and 100 hard-shelled, elongated eggs in an old animal burrow, termite mound or cave (3) (4). The female shows a surprising level of maternal care, coiling around the eggs, protecting them from predators and possibly helping to incubate them, until they hatch around 90 days later (3) (4) (6). Individuals may live for over 12 years in captivity (13).
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Description

Africa's largest snake (3) (4), the African rock python has a long, stout body, patterned with blotches that vary in colour between brown, olive, chestnut and buffy yellow, often joining up in a broad, irregular stripe (3) (5). The triangular head has many sharp, backwardly curved teeth and is marked on top with a dark brown “spear-head” outlined in buffy yellow (3) (6). Under the eye is a distinctive triangular marking, known as a subocular mark (5). Like all pythons, the scales of the African rock python are small and smooth (3) (7), and those around the lips possess heat-sensitive pits, which are used to detect warm-blooded prey, even in the dark (6) (7) (8). Pythons also possess two functioning lungs, unlike more 'advanced' snakes which have only one, and also have small, visible pelvic 'spurs', believed to be the vestiges of hind limbs (7) (8). The African rock python varies considerably in body size between different areas. In general, it is smaller in highly populated regions, such as in southern Nigeria, only reaching its maximum length in areas such as Sierra Leone, where the human population density is lower (2). Some consider the more southerly population of this snake to be a separate species, known as the Southern African rock python, Python natalensis (4) (6), while others consider this form to be a subspecies (1) (5). The southern form is distinguished by its smaller size (adults averaging about 2.4 to 4.4 metres in length), larger scales on top of the head, darker colouration, markings on the back that are well separated blotches rather than an irregular stripe, and a smaller or absent subocular mark (4) (5).
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Distribution

African rock pythons occur throughout sub-Saharan Africa, although they avoid the driest deserts and the coolest mountain elevations. Two subspecies are recognized: Python sebae sebae, northern African rock pythons, and Python natalensis, southern African rock pythons. The northern subspecies is found from south of the Sahara to northern Angola, and from Senegal to Ethiopia and Somalia. The southern subspecies is found from Kenya, Zaire and Zambia south to the Cape of Good Hope. The two subspecies overlap in some areas of Kenya and northern Tanzania. Some authorities recognize them as full species, P. sebae and P. natalensis.

Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )

  • Areste, M., R. Cebrian. 2003. Snakes of the World. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc..
  • Branch, B. 1998. Field Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Sanibel Island, Florida: Ralph Curtis Books.
  • Murphy, J., R. Henderson. 1997. Tales of Giant Snakes. Malabar, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company.
  • Spawls, S., K. Howell, R. Drewes, J. Ashe. 2002. A Field Guide to Reptiles of East Africa. San Diego, California: Academic Press.
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Continent: Africa
Distribution: Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Congo (Brazzaville), Gabon (BLANC & FRETEY 2000), Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Angola, Somalia, Zimbabwe  May have been introduced to Florida, USA.  
Type locality: see comment.
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Range

Found throughout almost the whole of sub-Saharan Africa (9), from Senegal east to Ethiopia and Somalia and south to Namibia and South Africa (1) (3). Python sebae sebae ranges across central and western Africa, while Python sebae natalensis has a more eastern and southerly range, from southern Kenya to South Africa (4).
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Physical Description

Morphology

The largest snake in Africa, Python natalensis averages 3 to 5 m in length. There are reports of much larger African rock pythons, including a record from the Ivory Coast of a 7.5 m specimen, and a questionable report of another individual from the same country reaching a length of 9.8 m. Hatchlings are approximately 35 to 45 cm in length. As adults, African rock pythons average 44 to 55 kg in weight, with reports of some reaching well over 91 kg (200 lbs).

African rock pythons have a relatively small, triangular head that is covered in irregular scales that are typically blackish to brownish-gray in color. The head also has two light-colored bands that form a spearhead shape from the snout to the back of the head just above the eyes, as well as a yellow, inverted V under each eye. There are two heat-sensing pits on the supralabial scales on the upper lip and four to six more pits on the infralabial scales. The body is yellowish, gray-brown, or gray-green, with dark blotches that form a staircase-like pattern on the back. Belly scales are a white color with black specks producing a salt-and-peppery pattern. On the tip of the tail, there are two dark bands that are separated by a lighter band. Juveniles are more brightly marked than adults.

It has been noted that individuals found in the central and western parts of Africa are somewhat more brightly marked than their northern, eastern and southern counterparts. Of the two subspecies, P. s. sebae, of northern and western Africa, is generally larger, has larger head scales, and is more brightly colored than P. s. natalensis.

Range mass: 44 to 91 kg.

Average mass: 55 kg.

Range length: 4 to 7.5 m.

Other Physical Features: heterothermic

Sexual Dimorphism: female larger

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Ecology

Habitat

African rock pythons prefer evergreen forests or moist, open savannahs. These snakes often frequent rocky outcrops that can be utilized for hiding purposes, or they may use mammal burrows in less rocky areas. African rock pythons reportedly have a close association with water and often are found near rivers and lakes. The highest elevation at which an African rock python was observed is 2300 meters, although most pythons are found well below that elevation.

Range elevation: 0 to 2300 m.

Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial

Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest

Other Habitat Features: riparian

  • Spawls, S., B. Branch. 1995. The Dangerous Snakes of Africa. South Africa: Southern Book Publishers, Ltd..
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The African rock python inhabits a wide range of habitats, including savanna woodland and grassland, forest, savanna, semi-desert, rocky areas and the edges of swamps, lakes and rivers (3) (4), being particularly associated with areas of permanent water (5) (10). It also readily adapts to disturbed habitats and so is often found around human habitation (9).
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Trophic Strategy

African rock pythons are carnivores and feed primarily on terrestrial vertebrates. As juveniles, these pythons feed on small mammals, especially rats. Once adult sized, they will move onto larger prey, such as monkeys, crocodiles, large lizards, and antelope. They will sometimes take fish as well. If African rock pythons live near humans, family pets and livestock may be eaten.

African rock pythons generally hunt at twilight using their heat-sensing pits. Once a prey item has been found, the python will sit patiently or move slowly toward the prey. Once in range, the python will strike with devastating speed and accuracy, sinking its long curved teeth into the prey's flesh and coiling around it. The power of these snakes is incredible. A large adult snake can tackle an antelope weighing up to 59 kg.

African rock pythons constrict their prey as do other members of the family Boidae (boas, pythons and anacondas). Contrary to popular belief, large constricting snakes do not crush their prey to death, but rather asphyxiate or compress them until they die of cardiovascular shock. As the prey breathes out, the snake tightens its coils so that the prey cannot breathe in again. Eventually, the prey suffocates or expires from heart failure and is swallowed whole. These snakes can go long periods of time between meals if necessary. A captive specimen reportedly fasted for over 2.5 years.

Animal Foods: birds; mammals; reptiles; fish

Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)

  • Branch, W., D. Hacke. 1980. A fatal attack on a young boy by an African rock python Python natalensis . Journal of Herpetology, 14(3): 305-307.
  • Luiselli, L., F. Angelici, G. Akani. 2001. Food habits of Python natalensis in suburban and natural habitats. African Journal of Ecology, 39: 116-118.
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Associations

These snakes are predators on small to moderately large vertebrates. As ectotherms, they feed infrequently compared to endothermic predators (such as mammalian predators), and over-all effects on prey populations are presumably minimal in comparison.

Juvenile pythons are prey for numerous predators; adults are much less vulnerable but are occasionally killed by larger mammals.

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Aside from humans, adult African rock pythons have few natural predators due to their large size. However, during long digestion periods a python may become vulnerable to predation by hyenas or African wild dogs.

Juveniles are probably subject to attack by more predators.

Known Predators:

Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic

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Life History and Behavior

Behavior

As in all snakes, African rock pythons have a well-developed vomeronasal (Jacobson's) organ system, supplied by the tongue. This allows perception of chemicals (odors) in the environment, such as prey odors and pheromones produced by other pythons. Pythons also possess heat-sensing pits in the labial scales that detect infrared (heat) patterns given off by endothermic predators and prey.

Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; chemical

Other Communication Modes: pheromones ; scent marks

Perception Channels: visual ; infrared/heat ; tactile ; acoustic ; vibrations ; chemical

  • Cogger, H., R. Zweifel. 1998. Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. San Diego, California: Academic Press.
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Life Cycle

African rock python eggs are laid in hollows and protected by the coils of their mother during development. Once the young hatch they are independent.

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Life Expectancy

African rock pythons can live for up to 30 years in captivity.

Range lifespan

Status: captivity:
30 (high) years.

Average lifespan

Status: captivity:
18.0 years.

Average lifespan

Sex: female

Status: captivity:
27.3 years.

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Lifespan, longevity, and ageing

Maximum longevity: 27.3 years (captivity)
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Reproduction

Some authors have reported large, seasonal congregations of African rock pythons and have suggested that these are mating aggregations, but little is known about mating in the wild.

Male and female African rock pythons reach sexual maturity at three to five years of age. Males will begin breeding at a size of 1.8 m, while females will wait until they have exceeded at least 2.7 m. Breeding usually takes place between November and March. Declining temperature and changing photoperiod act as signals for snakes to begin breeding. During the breeding season, both males and females cease feeding, with females continuing to fast until the eggs hatch. The female lays her eggs about three months after copulation. Clutches are, on average, 20 to 50 eggs in number, although a large female can lay as many as 100 eggs in a single clutch. The eggs are quite large, often weighing 130 to 170 grams, and about 100 mm in diameter.

Breeding interval: African rock pythons breed once yearly.

Breeding season: Breeding usually takes place between November and March.

Range number of offspring: 20 to 100.

Average number of offspring: 20-50.

Range gestation period: 65 to 80 days.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 3 to 5 years.

Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3 to 5 years.

Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; sexual ; oviparous

The female will lay her eggs in a tree hollow, termite nest or mammal burrow and coil around them. This coiling behavior may be largely for protection, as the female does not "shiver" to create extra heat for incubation as reported for some other python species. However, a Cameroon specimen had a body temperature 6.5 degrees C higher than ambient temperature. Desired incubation temperature is 31 to 32 degrees C (88 to 90 degrees F). In 65 to 80 days the eggs will hatch, at which time the female will leave the young to fend for themselves. Hatchlings average 450 to 600 mm in length.

Parental Investment: pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female)

  • Areste, M., R. Cebrian. 2003. Snakes of the World. New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc..
  • Branch, B. 1998. Field Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Sanibel Island, Florida: Ralph Curtis Books.
  • McCurley, K. 2003. "New England Reptile" (On-line). Accessed October 22, 2006 at http://www.newenglandreptile.com.
  • Spawls, S., B. Branch. 1995. The Dangerous Snakes of Africa. South Africa: Southern Book Publishers, Ltd..
  • Spawls, S., K. Howell, R. Drewes, J. Ashe. 2002. A Field Guide to Reptiles of East Africa. San Diego, California: Academic Press.
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Conservation

Conservation Status

African rock pythons are no longer as widespread as they once were. Python natalensis is now restricted mainly to hunting reserves, national parks and secluded sections of the African savannah. Reduction in available prey animals and hunting for its meat and skin has caused this species to decline in numbers over the years. Larger individuals are increasingly rare in many areas. African rock pythons have been placed on Appendix II of CITES and are legally protected in certain countries where populations have become increasingly vulnerable (such as South Africa).

US Federal List: no special status

CITES: appendix ii

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Status

Listed on Appendix II of CITES (1).
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Threats

People are often fearful of large pythons and may kill them on sight (4), though unprovoked attacks on humans are very rare, despite the fact that this species is often found around human habitation (9). The African rock python may also be threatened by hunting for food and leather in some areas (14). It is also collected for the pet trade, although it is not generally recommended as a pet due to its large size and unpredictable temperament (13). Little information is available on levels of international trade in this species. Some of the African rock python's habitats are also known to be under threat. For example, mangrove and rainforest habitats and their snake communities are under serious threat in south-eastern Nigeria from habitat destruction and exploration for the oil industry (14) (15).
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Management

Conservation

The African rock python is still relatively common in many regions across Africa and may adapt to disturbed habitats (9), provided that abundant food is available (12). It is not currently considered at risk of extinction, but is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning international trade in African rock pythons should be carefully monitored and controlled (1), giving wild populations some protection from over-collection for pets and skins. The species is also likely to occur in a number of protected areas, such as the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a World Heritage Site (16).
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Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems

Benefits

These snakes sometimes will feed on livestock and pets of local human residents, particularly if natural prey has become scarce. In the past, rock pythons have been observed feeding on dogs, goats, poultry and other livestock that are important to the livelihood of the native peoples.

African rock pythons can also be a danger to humans. Although it is rare that a python will attack without provocation, there are several reports of rock python attacks on humans. Often, a human will startle a snake, causing it to bite. More rarely, the python may even constrict a human to death, and smaller humans have been eaten in extremely unusual circumstances. Although people are occasionally killed by pythons, the pythons are not always killed in retaliation. The offending snake may be transported to a different area where it is less likely to come into contact with humans.

Negative Impacts: injures humans (bites or stings)

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Humans exploit Python natalensis in a number of ways. The most lucrative use is its skin and meat. The skin especially is highly desired by consumers, with the number of skins exported reaching near 9,300 in 2002. Humans also attempt to make pets out of African rock pythons. While a captive born python may be docile if accustomed to handling, wild-caught individuals do not make good pets because of their aggression. Another benefit provided to humans comes from juvenile snakes. Since younger African rock pythons eat rats, they help to control pests in areas of human habitation. Pythons are venerated and protected in some cultures.

Positive Impacts: pet trade ; food ; body parts are source of valuable material; controls pest population

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