Pythons belong to the Pythonidae family and are some of the largest snake species in the world. Some species can even reach 32 feet long.
Pythons can eat large animals like wild pigs, uncommon among snakes. They can open their jaws up to a 180-degree angle! Additionally, these ambush predators have a long lifespan of around 30 years.
Let's debunk some common myths and facts about these incredible animals through these striking python facts. You'll also learn how they can reproduce without males.
Picture yourself exploring the lush tropical forests of Africa, Asia, or Australia, when suddenly you come face-to-face with a creature as long as a school bus. That's what happens when you stumble upon a reticulated python (Python reticulatus).
These snakes are the longest and largest among the python species, with some measuring up to 32 feet. The Burmese pythons (Python bivittatus) are almost as impressive, which typically reach lengths of 16 to 23 feet, just a bit shorter but equally large.
But these giant snakes aren't just about their size. You'll be amazed by their colorful skin patterns. Each python has its unique colors. Most pythons have spots, stripes, and speckles, which they use to blend into their surroundings almost perfectly.
Pythons have several names. Each name reflects something unique about the python, whether it's a physical trait or the region they call home. Consider the Ball pythons, also called Royal pythons. It's an odd name for a snake, but it perfectly captures its tendency to curl into a tight ball when feeling threatened.
This little snake hails from sub-Saharan Africa, and although it's the smallest species on the continent, its name is undoubtedly a big conversation starter.
Now, let's journey to Southeast Asia, where we encounter two remarkable species: Burmese pythons, known for their immense size, takes its name from its homeland, Burma (now Myanmar), and the reticulated python, which got its name from its appearance. 'Reticulated' describes something resembling a net or network, perfectly describing the intricate pattern adorning this python's skin.
Related read: Snake Types.
Next on our python facts list: Pythons belong to the grouping of non-venomous snakes. They are constricting snakes, like anacondas and boa constrictors. So how do they hunt and kill their prey? They squeeze them. Contrary to popular belief, their constriction doesn't cause bone-crushing damage. It's less brutal and more of a science.
Pythons are ambush hunters. Once they detect an unsuspecting prey, they strike using its sharp, curved teeth to grab hold of them. The capture is swift, with the python's strong body wrapping around the prey within seconds.
It applies pressure in a smooth and even manner, cutting off blood flow to the prey's organs and causing immediate cardiac arrest2. So it's not about suffocation, as some myths suggest, but disrupting the prey's circulatory system. Furthermore, this hunting method allows them to devour even a large meal. A Rocky python can even eat a small leopard.
Pythons are incredibly adaptable creatures, thriving in a range of habitats. From rainforests to desert sand hills, they can live in diverse environments, like the arboreal pythons that adapted to living primarily in trees by wrapping their tails around tree branches.
Examples of arboreal species of python include the green tree python and the emerald tree boa, renowned for their vibrant green coloration and ability to camouflage effectively within the foliage. Like other reptiles, the python's ectothermic nature allows them to regulate their body temperature by relying on their surroundings. They enjoy basking in sunny areas to warm up.
Interestingly, pythons have also embraced a semi-aquatic lifestyle. Many species live beside bodies of water. While primarily found in Asia, Africa, and Australia, they have appeared in the Florida Everglades. These snakes can be found in various spots, from treetops to forest floors and abandoned mammal burrows.
One of the most impressive python facts is their ability to swallow meals that are larger than them. Pythons are skilled predators with diverse appetites. They hunt a wide range of prey, although these snakes prefer small to medium-sized mammals like rats, rabbits, and opossums. Contrary to popular belief, pythons don't attack humans unless provoked or stressed. Moreover, they don't limit their diet to mammals.
Pythons also readily devour birds of various sizes, from small sparrows to larger ducks and chickens. However, larger pythons, such as the reticulated and African rock python, can take on even larger prey like deer and antelopes.
The secret to their thriving dining is their great jaws, which can stretch wide. A stretchable ligament holds together the python's lower jaw, which, unlike most animals, isn't fused. Furthermore, its upper jaw isn't tightly stuck to its skull, allowing it to move independently and reach a 180-degree angle.
Combined with their slow metabolism, pythons can sustain themselves for weeks or months after consuming a large animal.
Pythons possess a truly astonishing reproductive ability within the animal kingdom. Female pythons can give birth without a male. This process, known as parthenogenesis, challenges our understanding of reproduction and highlights the adaptability of these snakes3.
It all begins with an unfertilized egg cell inside the female python. Without the involvement of a male, this egg cell undergoes a series of divisions, growth, and development, ultimately transforming into an embryo. The result is a baby python genetically identical to its mother.
While you might assume that this form of asexual reproduction would limit genetic diversity, the offspring of parthenogenesis are surprisingly well-equipped to survive in the wild. This exceptional reproductive strategy comes into play when there is a lack of suitable mates in the environment.
Like most snakes, pythons are oviparous reptiles, laying eggs for reproduction. Unlike some snakes that give birth to live young, pythons rely on developing their offspring within eggshells.
Once a python mother lays her eggs, she becomes a vigilant protector. She coils her formidable body around the clutch of eggs, creating a protective shield until the eggs hatch. This strategy protects the eggs from potential predators and plays a crucial role in their survival through a fascinating process known as "shivering thermogenesis."
The mother python can warm her eggs during this process by voluntarily causing her muscles to shiver. This muscle contraction generates heat, acting as a natural incubator that aids in developing the eggs.
Another interesting fact about pythons is that they love to spend time in the water. This behavior is not simply for relaxation but rather a vital part of the shedding process, known as ecdysis, which occurs multiple times a year for these ectothermic creatures.
Young pythons, who experience rapid growth, shed their skin more frequently than their older counterparts. When they soak in the water, it helps to soften their old skin, making it easier to shed. The shedding process begins when pythons rub against rough surfaces, and the water soak aids in the smooth removal of the old skin.
The python stands out as a model of longevity. These snakes can survive up to 30 years in the wild, surpassing many other species. Their extended lifespan results from their slow metabolism, a common characteristic among larger snakes. This slower metabolic rate places less strain on their bodies over time, potentially contributing to their prolonged life.
However, in captivity, pythons can surpass their wild counterparts, living up to 40 years or even more. Several factors contribute to this increased longevity. Regular veterinary care, carefully controlled diets, and the absence of natural predators all enhance their lifespan in captivity.
One notable example is the Ball pythons, which can live beyond 50 years in artificial python habitats.
As apex predators, pythons maintain the delicate balance of ecosystems. Their primary contribution lies in controlling the populations of rodents and other small creatures, which is no small task considering their rapid breeding rates.
Their insatiable appetite is a natural barrier against an unchecked explosion of rodent populations, preventing ecological imbalance. Rodents are notorious disease carriers, transmitting Lyme disease, leptospirosis, and even the plague.
By regulating rodent populations, pythons unintentionally help curb the spread of these diseases, promoting healthier and balanced ecosystems.
These slithering creatures possess specialized heat-sensing pits on their lips, setting them apart from their jungle counterparts. With their extraordinary sensitivity to temperature changes, these pits allow pythons to track warm-blooded animals1, their primary food source, even on the darkest nights.
But these heat-sensing pits are not just ordinary trackers. Each pit contains a finely-tuned membrane that detects infrared radiation—the heat emitted by living prey. Intricate bundles of nerves connect this natural detector to the python's brain through intricate nerves.
The brain interprets the signals and creates a thermal map, providing the python with a unique form of infrared vision. So, the python can precisely locate its prey without relying on light or movement cues. Furthermore, the strategic placement of these pits on the front and sides of the snake's lips gives the python an advantage in determining the direction of the heat source.
These giant constricting snakes have entranced people worldwide, embodying power and intrigue. They are divine symbols of water and rain in Africa, associated with prosperity and good fortune. In the deserts of Australia, they are creators and protectors, embodied in the Rainbow Serpent of Aboriginal mythology.
Meanwhile, Hindu mythology features pythons like Vasuki, who churns the Ocean of Milk. Pythons also occupy a spot on the Chinese zodiac, representing wisdom and mystery.
In the West, these snakes evoke a sense of fear and danger, symbolizing their impressive size and strength.
Despite being an invasive species, pythons face varying conservation statuses. Some, like the Indian and Burmese Python, are considered 'Near Threatened' and 'Vulnerable,' respectively.
These labels reflect the shrinking of their habitats due to human activities such as urbanization, agriculture, and logging. The demand for python skin in the fashion industry and the illegal trading of pet pythons also contribute to their decline.
However, it's not all doom and gloom. Other python species, such as the reticulated and green tree pythons, fall under the 'Least Concern' category. They are not currently facing significant risks, as they have larger populations and wider distribution ranges, giving them better chances of survival than their threatened counterparts.
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Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with P.
Krochmal, A. R., Bakken, G. S., & LaDuc, T. J. (2004). Heat in evolution's kitchen: evolutionary perspectives on the functions and origin of the facial pit of pitvipers (Viperidae: Crotalinae). Journal of Experimental Biology, 207(24), 4231-4238.
Boback, S. M., McCann, K. J., Wood, K. A., McNeal, P. M., Blankenship, E. L., & Zwemer, C. F. (2015). Snake constriction rapidly induces circulatory arrest in rats. The Journal of Experimental Biology, 218(14), 2279-2288.
Reed, R. C., Booth, W., & Schuett, G. W. (2012). Facultative parthenogenesis discovered in wild vertebrates. Biology Letters, 8(6), 983-985.
Chinny Verana is a degree-qualified marine biologist and researcher passionate about nature and conservation. Her expertise allows her to deeply understand the intricate relationships between marine life and their habitats.
Her unwavering love for the environment fuels her mission to create valuable content for TRVST, ensuring that readers are enlightened about the importance of biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation efforts.
Fact Checked By:
Mike Gomez, BA.