20 Oct Reticulated Pythons. By Arno Naude
Giant and not so Giant Snakes.
If you ask “What is the longest snake in the world?” everyone will tell you it’s a Reticulated Python. What they don’t tell you is that some island localities will only grow to the size of a Carpet python. We are still learning new things about this amazing python and it is now becoming a more easily accessible pet in South Africa.
In recent years this python has become one of the mainstream pet snakes, while as little as 20 years ago it was regarded as a snake which will attack people and possibly even eat them. Once this species was bred in larger numbers and people learnt more about them they suddenly became more sought after.
Reticulated Pythons are only beaten by Ball Pythons when it comes to the sheer numbers of interesting python morphs. Since Reticulated Pythons have been bred in larger numbers as pets the number of morphs have increased as well. Reticulated Pythons have always been one of the most sought after snakes for the despicable exotic leather trade where they are slaughtered or skinned (often alive) in massive numbers, due to their size and abundance. Until recently the CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) allowed up to 400 000 skins from Indonesia every year. This, we can all understand, is not sustainable.
As a spinoff of this trade many dealers were finding snakes which had weird patterns and colours and often these ended up in the pet trade. Many gravid females are held until they lay their eggs after which they are slaughtered and the eggs incubated artificially. The resulting babies are sold off at higher prices especially if they produce any morphs. What is sad is that the babies might only hatch after the mother has already been turned into a handbag.
Buying a captive bred little Retic is completely different to trying to acclimate a wild caught Retic that has been dragged around in a hessian bag for a few weeks, thrown around on some bus or boat getting to the dealer and then placed into a wire cage before being sold on. Many of these wild caught snakes never come right and often never breed before dying. Some, however, did make it and eventually passed on their genetic deviations to a later generation. Some of the aberrant patterns have proven to not be genetic and these were just unusual normals. Many morphs have been proven genetic in this way too and these are sought after as pets.
As with many other python and boa species there are recessive, co-dominant and dominant genetics. Recessive mutations like albino, caramel albino (type 2), anerythistic, genetic striped, anthrax etc have to be bred using two animals which carry this gene before it is visually expressed.
Co-dominant genes like tiger, platinum, citron etc have a visual heterozygous snake which can be seen although it also produces a more extreme super or homozygous form like super tiger, leucistic or titanium. You cannot get a het Tiger or a het Platinum Retic. The normal siblings are just that: a normal snake, and will never produce the codom morph. When put with a normal wild type mate normally half the clutch will be visual heterozygous i.e. tigers, platinums etc. A super tiger to a normal wild type will however produce 100% tiger babies. See picture of Tiger retic. (bottom right picture)
Incomplete dominant forms like sunfire, granite-back and possibly motley, are more unusual. The super form looks the same as the heterozygous form but produces 100% morph babies when bred to a normal wild type mate.
The combination morphs look even more impressive and certain morphs like sunfire which themselves are pretty, can brighten up any other morph to make amazing combinations like the albino sunfire tiger. The chances of producing normal babies using a male like this Dwarf sunfire, tiger, genetic stripe is very small. Some of the babies will be 66% heterozygous for genetic stripe and will be difficult to see but it will produce sunfire, tiger and suntiger babies all from one clutch. See picture of Dwarf Suntiger Gentic Stripe.
There are few prettier snakes than the purple albino motley but if you have to add sunfire or platinum they might even glow in the dark. Some of the combinations will do strange things while others seem to mute each other. Knowing which to combine takes time and effort. There are numerous combinations that have never been done because of the fact that these snakes entered the hobby recently.See picture of Purple motley on page 19.
Besides the morphs, Retics also have a number of localities which are unique. Typically we talk of “mainlands” which are the largest of this species, then the “dwarfs” from various islands and “super dwarfs” from very specific localities. There is much controversy about which forms remain small but it is accepted that dwarfs will usually not get bigger than 4 metres and super dwarfs will remain under 3 metres in length, with males often only getting to 2 metres. I have seen super dwarf females that have bred when weighing only 8 kilograms. Mainland species originate from places like the Philippines, Sulawesi, Sumatra, Ambon, Makassar and Java while dwarfs are from Bali, Selayar and Helmahera and super dwarfs are from Madu, Jampea, Honey and Kayuadi. The dwarfs can be identified by the different body shape and the head shape as well as the neck patterns. The head shields and ventral scale counts are also different. Just be aware that Retics can change their colours very slightly so trying to identify localities by colour alone can be misleading. Dwarf and super dwarf babies will often be less than 30 cm in length at hatching while mainland babies will be 64 to 80 cm in length when they hatch. See comparison picture below.
Unlike Burmese Pythons that catch the sniffles when the temperatures drop, Retics are almost bullet proof and if you supply them with the right temperature gradient they will thrive and feed. Obviously you cannot keep them in an aquarium in the garage and expect them to do well. They are tropical snakes from South East Asia and they are widely distributed over a million square kilometres. This stretches from Bangladesh and India in the north till Timor just north of Australia. The entire area would still be considered tropical and they don’t know anything about a cold winter or dry humidity so do not try to expect them to adapt to these conditions. The temperatures over most of the range, for example, average around 32 degrees and drop to 28 degrees in winter with it hardly ever going below 21 degrees even at night. What is strange is that in some areas their “winters” have hotter days than in summer so it’s only the nights that are cold and the snakes react to cool, dryer nights which triggers their mating behaviour. Retic females will normally not breed every year and females may possibly only breed every 4 years in the wild.
Research done on Retics in the wild indicates that they hardly ever move around because they don’t have to thermoreglate and in the wild most of their diet comes from rats which they ambush. As a result of this behaviour Retics do not require cages as big as what Burmese pythons of the same length would need. Retics are also much more slender than Burmese or Rock pythons. They regard their cages as hide boxes and if placed in very large cages they can become territorial, which is a major problem. In the US one of the biggest snakes on record is just over 7 metres but is in a cage of 3 metres by 1.5 metres by 1.5 metres and she still reproduces every two years. Due to the fact that Retics come from areas of high humidity and live near water they produce very watery urates with a pungent odour. They can fill a water bowl with a dark orange smelly fluid quite regularly so make sure this gets cleaned often. If the snake has soaked the substrate this can cause belly rot very quickly especially if the cage is small and the snake cannot avoid lying in this acid.
The largest snake in the world is another of those touchy subjects. “Fluffy” from the Columbus zoo was believed to be the largest snake but after her death she was measured and was not as long as reported. Currently “Twinkie” is believed to be the largest snake and she even has her own website and Facebook page. It is generally accepted that everyone who claims to own the “longest snake in the world” have snakes around 7 or 8 metres.
Dwarfs only have genetic stripes as a recognised morph at this stage and super dwarfs only have anery morphs accredited to them. All other dwarfs or super dwarfs which are morphs have been selectively bred and then crossed back to retain the small size and still have the morph traits in them. The golden child and orange ghost are also believed to be dwarfs but some of these have grown to fairly big proportions, but this could be really over fed specimens. Small retics are more sought after in areas where space is a premium like Europe and many urban areas.
Unlike other pythons, Retics have some morphs which tend to produce 3 different babies from one clutch but not in equal quantities. “Clark” albinos will produce white, lavender and purple albino babies, with purple being the rarest colour. Super platinum babies can be Ivory, Ultra ivory or black eyed Leucistic babies with the pure white leucistic babies being the rarest form. See picture above of Platinum, Ultra ivory and Ivory
Breeding two of the same bloodlines can improve the odds of what the babies will be. A black eyed leucistic crossed with a platinum from a black eyed leucistic parent will produce far more leucistic babies. Same with a white albino to a white albino will produce far more white albino babies than the other two colours.
Many people are put off by the size that Retics can grow to but this species is the only one that I know of that you can determine the eventual size of the snake (within reason). If you keep a mainland Reticulated Python on a maintenance diet (one small prey item a week) you can ensure that a male, for example, will never grow longer than 3 metres and be sexually mature and be able to breed. A mainland female can be kept to about 4 to 5 metres long and will still produce eggs for you by not over feeding her. If you starve the animal it will not develop and be sterile and possibly die of malnutrition but by not giving it as much as what it will eat all the time, it will not become a giant snake. If you feed a male Retic as much as it will eat every four or five days it could reach 3 metres and be sexually mature before it is a year old. Females will need at least 3 years to become sexually mature. Males are generally much smaller than females. By the same token super dwarf Retics need to be grown slowly and will possibly only become sexually mature when 4 or 5 years old. Power feeding a super dwarf will make them much bigger than what they need to be and fat snakes do not breed well. For this reason dwarfs and super dwarfs are much more expensive than mainland retics. Dwarfs and super dwarfs will also lay much smaller clutches of eggs and these eggs will be smaller as well.
In the wild, male mainland Retics from Sumatra have been recorded as sexually mature when the snout vent length is over 1.3 metres and females when they are 2.4 metres snout vent length. This will be very similar to captive snakes, although body fat is a massive influence in determining when the female is ready to breed. In nature they time their breeding to lay eggs when the rainfall is at its highest for the year. In captivity it is possible to breed retics almost all year around. As soon as the night temperatures drop and the supply of food is reduced the female snake will start producing follicles. Males will also go off their food at this time and then will be ready to mate.
Retics have a feeding response unlike any other snake I have worked with. They can be fed every single day so every time the cage is opened they will believe it is feeding time and respond accordingly. From when they are small they need to be trained. Retics are, in my eyes, the most intelligent boid I have ever worked with. Once they have settled in you can teach them when food is going to be offered by tapping on the cage and then offering food. When you need to move them you open the cage and stroke them with a roll of paper towelling and then pick them up. That way you don’t get tagged by being mistaken as the next meal. They learn and respond to these clues very quickly.
The only time you do not try to handle a Retic is when a male is in breeding mode. He will push against you and try to climb over you and if you do not read the signs he will bite and maul you. Male Retics will kill each other if they come into contact with each other, so if you smell like another male or behave like another male (“wrestling” with them) you become a target. Remember any male over 18 months old will try to win the fight if he thinks it is mating time. Just like any other snake your Retic will warn you when they want to be left alone. If you read the signs and abide by them your snake will be just as easy to look after as any other python or boa. Disregard the signs and a Retic will teach you a lesson you will not forget. The teeth are bigger than other large pythons and they often have a sawing motion when they bite you. Stitches are usually required when a medium sized python gets hold of you. These are not beginner snakes and research is required before buying them. They can grow big and require lots of space and lots of food, however with the right attitude this snake can be one of the most rewarding snakes you will ever own.
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