Aspidites melanocephalus, also known as the Black-headed python or the Black-headed rock python, is broadly distributed throughout the northern third of Australia, extending from east to west across the continent. This range includes a majority of the Northern Territory, the northern latitudes of Queensland and the northern third of Western Australia.
Biogeographic Regions: australian (Native )
Distribution: Australia (North Territory, Queensland, West Australia)
Type locality: Bowen (for Port Denison), Queensland, Australia adelynensis: Australia (Western Australia);
Type locality: Wyndham, Western Australia. Holotype: WAM R51208 davieii: Australia (Western Australia); Holotype: WAM R46170.
Type locality: Tom Price, Western Australia.
Black-headed pythons have a distinctive glossy, black hood that covers the entire cranium and extends 20 scales down the neck along the dorsal line. In juveniles, the dark pigmentation can extend even further to cover the anterior ventral scales. The rest of the body can range from sandy brown to yellow to a pale reddish tan, but normally exhibits irregular dark brown bands that can blend together along the mid-dorsal line, creating a striped appearance. There may also be small blotches between the stripes along the sides of some specimens. The venter can range from white to pink, but can also exhibit dark spots similar those along the dorsum. Coloration of Black-headed pythons can vary extensively depending on age and geographic location. For example, Western Australian specimens are much lighter with reddish overtones than those found in the Northern Territory and Queensland, which have darker, more intense striping patterns. Furthermore, while older specimens tend to be paler with less distinctive markings, younger specimens are known to exhibit markings of greater intensity.
Body length in black-headed pythons ranges from 1.5 to 2 m. Captive adults weigh 16 kg on average, and females can grow to nearly a foot longer than males. Body form is cylindrical and slender, with 315 to 359 ventral scales, which is more than most Australasian species of Aspidites. Black-headed pythons have a reduced head and strengthened rostral region that make it well-suited for burrowing and capturing prey.
Moderate isolation between populations of black-headed pythons has resulted in poorly defined population-distinguishing characteristics. Inter-population differences include the pairing of parietal bones (one pair in western populations and two to three in other populations), as well as fewer loreals and suboculars in western populations in comparison to their eastern counterparts.
Average mass: 16 kg.
Range length: 1.5 to 2.0 m.
Other Physical Features: heterothermic
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger
Most often populating the dry scrublands and savannas throughout its geographic range, Aspidites melanocephalus can also be found in damper forests and agricultural farmland. It avoids the most arid environmental conditions, but can otherwise survive within a wide range of climates and conditions. Most of the time these pythons reside in either self-dug burrows or in abandoned burrows. Its fossorial tendencies allow it to keep a more constant body temperature, thus allowing it to occupy a wide range of habitat types. This species is a capable climber and is occasionally found in trees. Elevations inhabited by this species range from 50 feet above sea level to 200 feet above sea level.
Range elevation: 50 to 200 m.
Habitat Regions: tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest ; scrub forest
Other Habitat Features: agricultural
The diet of Black-headed pythons primarily consists of other reptiles. Skinks are the primary prey of black-headed pythons. Other important prey includes geckos, bearded dragons, legless lizards and Perentie, the largest monitor lizard native to Australia. Small snakes, including some venomous snakes are also consumed by black-headed pythons, which are completely impervious to the venom found in even the most toxic Australian snakes. Consumption of mammals and some birds is rare but does occur in nature. Because Black-headed pythons lack venom, they utilize constriction to subdue large prey prior to consumption.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; reptiles
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)
As an important predator for a number of different reptile species, black-headed pythons play an important role in the north Australian food web. In addition, the burrows created by this species are sometimes used by other animals once they are abandoned. There is no information available regarding parasites of this species.
Ecosystem Impact: creates habitat
The major predators of black-headed pythons include dingos and humans. When threatened, black-headed pythons may strike with their mouth closed. Their nocturnal and fossorial nature likely reduces predation risk, and their coloration helps camouflage them from potential predators.
- dingos, Canis lupus dingo
- humans, Homo sapiens
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Life History and Behavior
Members of the genus Aspidites have entirely lost supralabial and infralabial sensory pits, which are used for heat sensing of endothermic prey or to detect small changes in local temperatures. The absence of heat sensing pits in this species marks a significant difference between the strategies employed for prey capture and perception than those employed by other pythons. There is no further information available regarding communication and perception in this species, however, it is probable that tactile, olfactory, and visual cues play an important role in communication and perception in black-headed pythons.
Communication Channels: tactile
Perception Channels: visual ; infrared/heat ; tactile ; acoustic ; chemical
In the wild, bleack-headed pythons reach sexual maturity by 4 to 5 years after hatching, however, captive individuals have been bred as young as 2.5 years. Younger individuals generally have lower reproductive success than older individuals. On average, hatchlings are .6 m in length and can capture their own prey by two days after birth.
The lifespan of Aspidites melanocephalus ranges from 20 to 30 years. No differences between the lifespans of wild and captive individuals has been documented.
Status: wild: 20 to 30 years.
Status: captivity: 20 to 30 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Although black-headed pythons are seasonally monogamous, both males and females may seek extra-pair copulations. Male black-headed pythons are not as aggressive as most pythonids, which frequently engage in male to male combat. However, some instances of combat have been recorded. Although this species is large and is relatively common throughout much of its geographic range, individuals are rarely observed, leading to a limited number of studies on this species.
Mating System: monogamous
Aspidites melanocephalus females incubate their eggs, which are laid during October and November, by coiling around them for approximately 2 months before they hatch. Males are not as aggressive as most pythonids, though mating and courtship often involve male-male competition, which may include combative sparring or biting. In captivity, males paired with a single female have the highest mating success rate. Copulation can range from 20 minutes to 6 hours and a single clutch can range from 8 to 18 offspring. Young become reproductively mature by 4 to 5 years of age.
Breeding interval: Black-headed pythons breed during October and November
Breeding season: Black-headed python hatchlings emerge after about 2 months of incubation.
Range number of offspring: 8 to 18.
Average gestation period: 2 months.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 4 to 5 years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 4 to 5 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; sexual ; fertilization ; oviparous
Aspidites melanocephalus is oviparous,laying from 8 to 18 eggs during October and November. Eggs averages 8.9 cm in length. After 2 months of incubation by the mother, hatchlings emerge and are completely independent.
Parental Investment: female parental care ; pre-fertilization (Provisioning); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female)
Black-headed pythons have not been evaluated by the IUCN. There is little information available regarding the population trends of this species, thus potential conservation and management needs are difficult to identify. They are considered widespread and locally abundant throughout their geographic range. The only foreseeable potential threat to this species is the pet trade; however, a large majority of animals in the pet trade are captive bred.
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: no special status
State of Michigan List: no special status
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
There are no known adverse effects of black-headed pythons on humans.
The combination of habitat choice, burrowing behavior, and primarily nocturnal activity of Aspidites melanocephalus makes interaction with humans unusual such that neither group substantially affects one another. However, sales of Black-headed pythons as pets and for other domestication and breeding purposes has become relatively common throughout northern Australia.
Positive Impacts: pet trade
Aspidites melanocephalus, commonly known as the black-headed python, is a species of snake in the family Pythonidae (the python family). The species is native to Australia. No subspecies are currently recognized.
Adults grow to an average of 1.5–2 m (4.9–6.6 ft)in total length, but can grow to a maximum total length of 3.5 m (11 ft). The body is muscular with a flattened profile, while the tail tapers to a thin point.
The top of the head is covered by large symmetrical scales. The dorsal scales, which are smooth and glossy, number 50-65 rows at midbody, while there are 315-355 ventral scales. The tail has 60-75 mainly single subcaudal scales and the anal scale is single. The posterior subcaudals tend to be divided, often irregularly.
The color pattern consists of shades of black, dark grey, brown, gold, and cream arranged in a striped or brindled pattern. The belly is light-coloured, flecked with darker spots. The head is shiny black that also extends down the neck and throat for several inches.
Occurs in humid tropical to semi-arid conditions.
These snakes are terrestrial and are often found in amongst rocks and loose debris. If disturbed, they will hiss loudly, but are unlikely to bite unless hunting prey. They will sometimes strike with a closed mouth, but generally can be handled easily. They are strong swimmers, but are almost never found inside water. They are non-venomous.
The diet consists of mainly reptiles, but they will eat mammals if available. Because black-headed pythons live in the desert, they heat up a lot quicker and stay warmer for longer. This means they can eat more because they digest food quicker in warmer conditions. When ingesting large prey this species positions one or two coils just ahead of its distended mouth and by constriction makes the task of swallowing easier.
Oviparous, with 5-10 eggs per clutch. The females stay coiled about the eggs and incubate them until they hatch, which is usually after 2-3 months. The young will take small prey as soon as two days after hatching. Immature individuals are vulnerable to predation, including cannibalism. Adults have no natural predators other than dingos and humans.
Due to its docile nature and striking color pattern, this species has become very desirable as an exotic pet. It is bred in captivity and can be relatively easily obtained, but does command a high price. As they can be muscular snakes and reach a fairly substantial size, prospective owners should consider a suitable enclosure, as well as temperature and feeding requirements.
In human culture
- McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T. 1999. Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, Volume 1. Herpetologists' League. 511 pp. ISBN 1-893777-00-6 (series). ISBN 1-893777-01-4 (volume).
- Mehrtens JM. 1987. Living Snakes of the World in Color. New York: Sterling Publishers. 480 pp. ISBN 0-8069-6460-X.
- "Aspidites melanocephalus". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 19 September 2007.
- Burnie D, Wilson DE. 2001. Animal. Dorling Kindersley. 624 pp. ISBN 0-7894-7764-5.
- Boulenger, G.A. 1893. Catalogue of the Snakes in the British Museum (Natural History). Volume I., Containing the Families...Boidæ... Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History). (Taylor and Francis, Printers.) London. xiii + 448 pp. + Plates I.- XXVIII. (Aspidites melanocephalus, p. 91.)
- Krefft, G. 1864. Description of Aspidiotes melanocephalus, a New Snake from Port Denison, N.E. Australia. Proc. Zool. Soc. London 1864: 20-22.
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