The ball or royal python is a small, stout constrictor with a short tail. The natural coloration is dark brown to almost black, with large irregular tan patches that often have a lighter, more yellow edge. A tan line runs from the snout to the angle of the jaw, through the eye. Recently, selective breeding has produced various color morphs including albino and pie-bald.
Ball pythons are found throughout the scrublands and forests of central and western Africa. This species is crepuscular in nature and often resides within tree stumps or in burrows, close to fresh water. Largely active during the darker hours, this python feeds on small birds and rodents, especially the agouti Nile rat, which more closely resembles a brown-grey gerbil than an albino lab mouse.
This snake rarely exceeds 5 feet (1.5m) and is typically 3 feet to 4 feet (1.0 to 1.2m) in length. It is heavily built and often weighs 2 to 4.5 pounds (1 to 2kg). These snakes can be long lived and easily reach teenage years. Some specimens have survived for more than 20 years in captivity, and their choice as a pet is a serious and responsible undertaking.
Although commonly kept in captivity, until recently breeding success has been very poor. In many cases this was due to the lack of interest in a species that was imported in large numbers and had little monetary value. Fortunately, with the advent of some highly prized color phases, prices are higher, and breeding efforts have been intensified. Breeding is possible from 2 years of age, but it is advisable to allow snakes to mature more slowly and attempt breeding from 4 to 5 years.
Ball pythons have enjoyed popularity largely because of their relatively small size and placid demeanor. In fact, many specimens, especially wild caught animals, are timid and will often become anorectic for prolonged periods if subjected to the stresses of poor husbandry and frequent handling. In many cases, these snakes prefer to be undisturbed and handled infrequently but, unlike some other boid snakes, seldom resort to striking an owner with whom they have not had recent interaction.
As a pet, the ball python is undemanding and if adaptive to captivity, will do well with basic care. Long periods of anorexia can be a cause for concern and are usually stress or seasonal in origin. All snakes can excrete Salmonella and, therefore, routine personal hygiene and the supervision of all child-snake interactions are important.
This species is a crepuscular, timid animal that prefers the quiet privacy of a hideout and hunts for small mammals at night. They do not appreciate human interaction, and although many will tolerate handling, some will become stressed, maladapted to the captive environment, and anorectic to the point of starvation. They are strong, able climbers and accomplished escape artists, so vivaria must be secure.
Pythons can eat freshly killed or frozen-defrosted rodents, no larger than the snake’s girth. Adult mice are suitable, but for those that dislike the artificial diet, an adult gerbil is more akin to their natural prey and often accepted. Supplementation is not routinely required and food should be offered late in the evening to coincide with the snake’s natural hunting instincts.
Well-adjusted captive adults that do not exercise or breed can become obese so feeding intervals of 5 to 7 days for neonates, 7 to 10 days for juveniles and 10 to 21 days for non-breeding adults are recommended. Breeding adults, especially females, may need to be fed every 7 to 10 days to reclaim lost body condition after egg production, laying and, if permitted, natural brooding.
Fresh water should always be available in a large, heavy bowl that is sufficient for bathing and yet cannot be overturned.
An adult Ball python should be maintained in a purpose built vivarium (at least 1.8m by 0.5m by 0.5m) with sliding glass doors for good access and ventilation grills to facilitate airflow. It is completely inappropriate to reduce ventilation in an effort to maintain temperature and humidity artificially.
Provide heating with an under-tank heat mat or an overhead ceramic or infrared heater. All heaters must be controlled by a thermostat and screened to prevent snake-heater contact that invariably results in horrendous burns. Cover the floor with artificial turf or paper towelling, and provide seclusion and security with several hideouts or retreats (e.g. bark, small cardboard boxes).
A stout, well-secured clean branch can add to the attractiveness of the set-up and provide climbing exercise. It is important to prevent excessive humidity and moisture, as skin infections are likely in such situations. A warm, dry and well-ventilated vivarium is preferred.
Ball pythons, like most snakes, do not have any special lighting requirements. Maintenance of a 12-hour photoperiod using small fluorescent strip lights or external room lights is adequate.
A daytime temperature gradient of 80 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with a basking area of 90 to 95 F, should be lowered to 75 to 80 F at night. Breeding often requires a greater reduction in the nighttime temperature down to 72 F, but daytime temperatures should be maintained.
Confirmation of gender requires probing, a skilled technique using a blunt, well lubricated probe to identify the male hemipenes or female cloacal sacs. The probe is gently inserted under the caudal rim of the cloaca; in males the probe enters to a level of 6 to 12 subcaudal scales, while in females the probe will enter only to a depth of 2 to 4 subcaudal scales.
Well-adjusted captive snakes may become seasonally anorectic during the winter months if they perceive a reduction in temperature and photoperiod. As long as the snake is healthy and well nourished, such anorexia should not be feared. Indeed many successful breeders purposely reduce nighttime temperatures and stop feeding as part of the breeding program. Maintaining multiple male and female groups apart during much of the year but bringing them together for breeding also improves breeding success.
Females usually lay 2 to 8 elongated leathery eggs which hatch after a period of 39 to 81 days, depending on the time of collection and method of incubation. Although females can brood their eggs, it is generally preferred to remove them for artificial incubation at 86 to 88 F with 60 to 80 percent humidity. On hatching, the young measure 38 to 43cm and will not accept pink mice as their first prey until after the initial shed, usually within 5 to 10 days of hatching. Care of the neonates is essentially the same as for adults, except that feeding requires the more frequent offering of smaller items starting with pinkies, then fluffs, sub-adult and finally adult mice.