Ball pythons are so named due to their tendency to curl into a ball when feeling threatened or stressed. Their other common name (more commonly used outside the United States), royal python, was supposedly bestowed upon them due to a belief that Queen Cleopatra of Egypt wore them as jewelry. While this may or may not be true, it is true that several morphs of these pythons have become more valuable than a lot of jewelry, fetching thousands and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars. Normal coloration of ball pythons is dark brown to black with circles and semi-circular patterns of yellow-tan. Their underbelly is cream to pale yellow. They are a short, stout snake, reaching a maximum length of around 6 feet (1.8 meters), with 3-4 feet (.9-1.2 meters) being average. They can live more than 40 years, but 20 is far more common.
A note about captive-hatched ball pythons:
Most normal, non-specific color morph ball pythons are still farmed and imported from Africa (mostly from Togo, Benin and Ghana). Each of these countries has strict quotas (ball pythons are CITES II animals and are carefully monitored), so the snakes usually come in large quantities and then the quotas expire until the following year. This has been beneficial to the snakes, the collectors, the importers/exporters and the hobbyists in that the native peoples have seen the advantages and long-term benefits of “protecting” this species. In most of these countries, gravid females are collected, the eggs harvested, and then the mother is (and later a percentage of the babies are) released back into the wild. This has provided both grass-roots income and long-term habitat protection/species sustainability.
Ball pythons are native to West and Central Africa. They have a vast range and are found in Senegal, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, the Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Congo, Zaire, Mali, Uganda and Sudan. Within these countries they inhabit areas that are both arid and tropical, in areas with extreme temperature variances. They are often found on vast open savannas or areas with limited vegetation. Ball pythons often cope with inhospitable terrain by spending time below ground in other animal’s burrows or termite mounds during the day and only emerging at night to search for food.
Ball pythons are highly adaptable and very hearty, requiring fairly basic care. Average sized adult ball pythons should be provided with at least the equivalent of a 30-gallon enclosure that is horizontally oriented. Subadult and hatchling animals require less space, but should be able to stretch out their bodies without touching the confines of the enclosure. It is equally important to choose an enclosure that is large enough to provide a good thermal gradient. One side of the enclosure should provide a good basking temperature of 90-95 degrees Fahrenheit, while the opposite end should have a drop of 15-20 degrees. Ambient temperatures (or those in the midsection of the habitat) ideally should be in the 80-85 degree range. A drop of 5-10 degrees at night is natural. Basking temperatures are best provided using an undertank heating pad, tape or wire. Being nocturnal, basking lights are somewhat foreign to ball pythons, but can be used effectively in conjunction with undertank heating elements to provide a more naturalistic environment. Lights should always be placed on a timer to mimic natural sunlight—8-10 hours of light is a typical photoperiod. Substrate is important in that one way that ball pythons naturally regulate their temperature is by burrowing. The substrate should allow this opportunity. Good choices include aspen bedding, coco bedding, sterile potting soil, mulch, or the like. The substrate should be kept clean and relatively dry. That being said, ball pythons in the wild spend much of their time below ground where humidity levels are optimum. Since relative humidity fluctuates tremendously in the average household, the easiest way to provide adequate humidity is to mimic nature and provide an in-situ burrow or “humidity box.” Generally this is created using damp sphagnum moss, mulch or similar moisture retaining substance and placing it inside a closed plastic container with a hole cut in the top as an access point. The media should be moist or damp but not soggy (like a wrung out wash cloth). The humidity box should be placed near (but not on) the basking area to maintain the warmth necessary to sustain good humidity levels. Drinking water should be provided at least 1-2 times a week, in a bowl large enough for the snake to completely submerge itself. Water bowls may be left in the enclosure permanently, but should be regularly cleaned as ball pythons will often defecate in the water.
Ball pythons are avid rodent eaters. In Africa they are often introduced to villages to help eliminate rodent populations. Subsequently the diet of captive ball pythons should, not surprisingly, be made up of rodents. Frozen/thawed or live, ball pythons are rodent gourmets. Juvenile ball pythons should be fed once a week, adults can be fed slightly less frequently, but should not go more than 10 days without a meal.
Ball pythons are occasionally problem eaters. In some cases it is not unusual for them to go several months without eating. Sometimes this can be overcome by correcting aspects of their habitat (most frequently, the temperatures), but sometimes they just seem to want to fast. As long as their weight and general appearance is healthy (and all other husbandry parameters have been addressed) this is not a concern. If your ball python begins to lose a substantial amount of weight it is time to consult a qualified reptile veterinarian.