Ball Pythons! Husbandry, Breeding and Morphs.

Ball Pythons! Husbandry, Breeding and Morphs.

By Rolf Dennison, Ultimate Exotics.

Ball Pythons are probably one of the most common snake species kept in captivity. Over the last couple of years these small pythons have become increasingly popular and many different morphs are currently being bred in captivity. Ball Pythons can reach an average length of around 110 – 150cm and are considered a fairly small ‘giant’ snake due to their short length but stout body.

In the past, the Ball Python was a challenging species of snake to keep, as many of the Ball Pythons for sale were from wild stock and had difficulty adjusting to their captive environment, especially to feeding. Those who were lucky enough to obtain Ball Pythons that were doing well in captivity and feeding, would then seem to have a lot of difficulty in getting them to breed. Males would copulate with females year after year and yet no eggs would be produced. I remember about 8 years ago a group of us in KZN all had ball pythons that were doing well in captivity. Year after year we did everything by the book and they would mate, but very few of us would get eggs and we would wonder how the hell these Americans were breeding their Ball Pythons like Corn Snakes! I am sure it was because all of our stock was of wild caught origin, while the Americans were breeding selective, captive bred mutations that were well adjusted to being bred in captivity. After many years of selective breeding, Ball Pythons are becoming more accustomed to a captive environment and, if looked after correctly, will thrive and breed in captivity. There are still many wild caught or ranched Ball Pythons for sale in South Africa; rather try and source a captive bred Ball Python as often these specimens do much better in captivity and give you less hassle when it comes to feeding and breeding.

Geographic distribution and habitat

The range of the Ball Python comprises of Western and Central Africa, in the countries of Senegal, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Benin, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan and Uganda. Ball Pythons are limited only by natural barriers such as the tropical rainforest belt. Its pattern of distribution shows that it avoids the regions that have permanently humid rainforests, preferring the more arid woods and scrublands.

The range of the Ball Python comprises Western and Central Africa.

The range of the Ball Python comprises Western and Central Africa.

Keeping Ball Pythons

Ball Pythons can be kept in many different types of enclosures. They do best when housed singly, with adults being kept in cages with a minimum size of around 100 x 60 x 30cm. Ball Pythons can be kept together, although you will need to make sure that the enclosure is significantly larger in order to accommodate more than one snake. Take care to feed snakes separately when housing Ball Pythons together. If you plan to breed Ball Pythons it is best to house them separately, as this adds to the breeding stimulus once pairs are introduced to each other. Height is not a very important factor as this is a ground dwelling species.

A simple yet very effective setup for a Ball Python. With a setup like this multiple Ball Pythons can be kept in a rack system.

A simple yet very effective setup for a Ball Python. With a setup like this multiple Ball Pythons can be kept in a rack system.

Breeders prefer keeping Ball Pythons in plastic tubs of the appropriate size and housing them in a racking system. If keeping only a few Ball Pythons, they can be displayed in glass or wooden cabinets with glass sliding doors. Ensure that your temperature and humidity is correct in these setups and they will do well. Newspaper is a popular choice for substrate, as it is cost effective and easy to keep clean. They also will do well with aspen or bark bedding and cypress mulch. A large water bowl will need to be provided with clean drinking water at all times. The water bowl can be kept on the warmer side so as to help maintain a higher level of humidity. If not using a moist hide box in your enclosure, try to maintain the humidity at around 80%. If using a hide box that has moist sphagnum moss in it your outside humidity can be around 50%, just ensure that the sphagnum moss in the hide is moist.

No special lighting is required for keeping Ball Pythons, although heating is essential. Provide a warm spot in their enclosure (around 32˚C) which can be achieved with a heat pad and a temperature controller. Try to maintain an ambient temperature of around 25˚C.

A display setup can be very attractive and is ideal for a pet Ball Python.

A display setup can be very attractive and is ideal for a pet Ball Python.

Make sure that you provide shelters for your Ball Pythons. You will need a shelter on both the cooler and the warmer end with each shelter being big enough for your Ball Python to curl up inside. You will find that your Ball Pythons will spend most of their day curled up inside their shelters and will venture out at night.

Feeding

Spider Ball Python eating.

Spider Ball Python eating.

Captive Ball Pythons will readily eat mice and as they get older they will eat rats. You will find some individuals will only eat rats and others only mice. Feeding pre-killed rodents is good practice, especially when feeding Ball Pythons. If feeding live food make sure that you watch your Ball Python feed before leaving any live rodent jumping around the cage with your snake, as this can result in the rodent causing physical harm to your snake and it may also cause your snake to go off its feed and refuse to eat due to stress. I have heard of Ball Pythons refusing to eat for a few months due to this stress. Feed your Ball Python every 7 to 10 days, but do not be alarmed if your Ball Python misses a feed or two; just set a feeding routine and stick to it. If your python doesn’t eat, remove the live or pre-killed rodent and try again when the next feed is due. Ball Pythons can also fast for months at a time especially during the cooling and breeding season, and in the wild it is likely that they only eat four or five very large meals a year. If you having any further trouble feeding you can also try feeding your snake a multimammate mouse, as some individuals seem to prefer these.

Breeding Ball Pythons

When breeding Ball Pythons, the first thing you need to make sure is that you have a sexually mature pair. Males have been bred as young as 6 months of age, weighing as little as 500g, while on the other hand females should weigh around 1200g and be around 18 months old before they are bred. Sexing Ball Pythons will need to be done by probing as there are no physical characteristics that allow you to determine their sex. Probing should only be done by someone who has had experience as it is a delicate process. Males will probe to a depth of approximately 9-12 scale rows and females will probe to a depth of only 4-7 scale rows.

Breeding stimulation

Once you have a pair that are sexually mature and are in condition to breed, you can start getting ready for their cooling period, which is used in order to stimulate them to breed. In this article I will be using dates that I have used in the past, but this breeding routine can be adjusted to suit the breeder’s needs. From the 1st of May hot spot temperatures are reduced at night to around 26 – 27˚C. A day/night temperature controller can be used for this and can be set to accurately control your host spot temperatures during the night and day, with day time temperatures being kept normal. After around two weeks of cooling males are introduced to females and copulation generally begins right away. Males are removed from females at weekly intervals and food is offered to the males and the females. Often you will find that females and especially males will go off feed during this time. Keep an eye on the males, as sometimes they can go without food for long periods of time and this can affect their health. If you see any males that are underweight remove them and stop mating. It might even be necessary to house them in a different area than the females and make sure that they begin to eat and get back to health. Males can be introduced to multiple females throughout July and August: at this time the breeding season starts to spark off. From August breeding starts to get serious as the females’ follicles start to develop and males are introduced more frequently.

Ball Pythons mating

Ball Pythons mating

From the end of September females will start to ovulate. Ovulation is characterized by a significant mid-bodied swelling and a tight constriction of the top portion of the tail. Once ovulation is witnessed, the female is considered gravid and it is no longer necessary to place a male with her.

Ball Python ovulating. Note the large swelling which looks like she has eaten a very large meal.

Ball Python ovulating. Note the large swelling which looks like she has eaten a very large meal.

The length of time between initial follicular development and ovulation is highly variable, from a few weeks to as much as 6 months. A couple of weeks after ovulation, the female will shed her skin. This is recorded as a pre-lay shed. She will usually move the bedding around to form a nest. Approximately 30 days after her pre-lay shed, she will lay her eggs.

Ball Python with recently laid clutch of eggs.

Ball Python with recently laid clutch of eggs.

When it comes to egg laying, female Ball Pythons will lay an average of 4-8 eggs. Eggs are incubated in plastic tubs with some small holes in them, there will be enough air in the container as long as you open the lid and check the eggs every couple of days. The plastic tubs are half filled with moist vermiculite. The vermiculite is at the right saturation when it clumps together if you squeeze it, but no extra water comes out. To be safe, keep it on the drier side and if you see the eggs denting in slightly just add a bit more water. We use a 1:1 water to weight ratio which gives us a good saturation level. These containers are placed in an incubator, where they are incubated at around 31.5˚C and will hatch at around 60 days.

Genetics

The genetics of all the morphs can be a bit confusing at first but once it is understood it is quite an exciting thing, as you can learn how to breed certain morphs together and create a whole new morph altogether. Today we have the help of technology and there are many useful Ball Python morph calculators that can be used online until one gets the idea of things, a good one that I have used a number of times is at the following link: http://www.worldofballpythons.com/wizard/.

Ball Python Morphs

One of the reasons the Ball Python is such a popular snake amongst breeders is the large variety of different morphs that are available. At present there are more than 100 different morphs and every year more and more are being produced. The normal ‘wild-type’ Ball Python is readily available from most pet stores that keep reptiles. Over the past few years the Ball Python morphs have become very sought after in South Africa, some selling for tens of thousands of rands. These mutations are becoming more and more available and at the moment you might need to book yours from a reputable breeder before they are all sold out! Every year more and more ball morphs are being bred and imported and I am very sure that the Ball Python, with its appealing characteristics and its amazing variety of colours and patterns, has been responsible for the growing interest in keeping snakes and reptiles. One of the best things about Ball Pythons is that everyone with an interest in reptiles is drawn to these beautiful pythons, which have something to offer for a beginner reptile keeper or an experienced reptile breeder.

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