There are many different types of snakes, and each one has its own unique set of behaviors and adaptations.
Some snakes are more terrestrial, while others are more aquatic.
Then there are those that spend most of their time in trees, which are referred to as arboreal snakes. So, what about ball pythons? Are they arboreal?
Are Ball Pythons Arboreal? Do Ball Pythons Live In Trees?
There is a common misconception that ball pythons are arboreal, but the truth is that ball pythons in the wild don’t spend a lot of time in trees.
They prefer to spend their days in burrows in the ground. Some young ball pythons, usually males, climb trees to hunt for small birds and to raid bird nests for eggs.
Larger and older ball pythons spend as much time as possible on and in the ground.
This means that you don’t need to fill your ball python’s enclosure with fake branches for climbing and sunning for it to feel at home.
However, knowing more about the ball python’s native range, habitat, and vital statistics can inform you whether a ball python is a right pet for you.
If a ball python is a good choice for you, understanding its natural history can help you give it a better home.
Ball Python Range and Habitat
Ball pythons live in the wild in western and central Africa south of the Sahara and north of the equator.
They live in countries on the coast of Africa, such as The Gambia, Senegal, Ivory Coast, Sierra Leone, Nigeria, and Cameroon, and in a few countries in the interior of Africa, such as Chad, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan.
Between 1997 and 2018, over four million ball pythons were exported from Africa to pet dealers in North America and Europe.
Some were collected in the wild as young snakes. Others were raised in hatcheries from eggs collected in the wild.
Over 98 percent of ball pythons imported into the United States come from Ghana and Togo. The highly desirable colored morphs, however, are mostly raised by breeders in Florida.
In Africa, ball pythons prefer to live in grasslands. Rodents feed on grass seeds, and ball pythons feed on the rodents.
A ball python will often take over the burrow of a rodent it has eaten. It will use the rodent burrow as a hiding place during the day. It will come out at night and hunt fresh prey by sensing heat signatures.
It is not uncommon to find more than one ball python in an underground burrow. Once females begin brooding their eggs, however, the males will leave.
Sometimes ball pythons are attracted to savannahs. These are grassy areas with a few thorny acacia trees.
The acacia trees attract termites, but these termites don’t feed on the wood. African termites take decaying leaves to feed their own crops of fungus. They manage the temperature and humidity inside mounds that can tower as much as 9 feet (3 meters) above the ground.
Termite mounds have enough room for a ball python to share. They are far enough above ground level that they give the snakes a place to retreat during seasonal floods.
Most ball pythons, however, live in rodent burrows, not in termite mounds, and certainly not in trees.
Ball pythons are also common on farms in equatorial Africa. Mice grow in abundance near grain bins, and ball pythons find many rodents for food on farms.
Ball pythons are not afraid of human activity. In Africa, they are appreciated for killing the mice that eat crops.
The habits of ball pythons in the wild tell us that they don’t need climbing toys. They need hides, and a layer of substrate in the bottom of their cage that is thick enough to burrow in. Two or three inches, or 5 to 8 cm, is enough.
Ball Pythons Need Equatorial Conditions
What else does the natural history of ball pythons in nature tell us about how to keep them healthy and happy?
Since ball pythons live close to the equator, they experience very little difference in the lengths of day and night throughout the year.
Days and nights are almost always about 12 hours long. Dusk and dawn are just a few minutes long. If there isn’t any moonlight, the African landscape is very dark at night.
Ball pythons are ambush hunters. They capture mice sleeping in their burrows, or more rarely, frogs coming to the banks of streams to mate, or baby birds in their nests.
They take advantage of the element of surprise, moving at night, when they cannot be seen.
Ball pythons can sense the body heat of animals about 30 inches (75 cm) away from the heat sensors in their heads. They do not need light to find their prey.
Because ball pythons are primarily active at night, they do not need lamps or lighting for health. Scientists have confirmed that ball pythons do not use UV light from the sun to make vitamin D.
Instead, they get all the vitamin D they need by eating their prey whole, absorbing all the vitamin D that is in their prey animal.
One of the things you will notice about a pet ball python is that it is more active when you turn the lights off.
Once they come out and start to move around, then it is OK to turn on a light so you can enjoy their colors.
Ball pythons live in parts of Africa where the average annual temperature can be as high as 85° F (29.4° C).
This means that if you take the average of the nighttime low and the daytime high for all 365 days a year, you get an average of 85° F.
That is about the summer temperature in Texas or Arizona, only extended throughout the year.
In captivity, ball pythons need warmth to activate the enzymes that digest their food, but they need slightly cooler temperatures for resting.
Your ball python needs a basking area where an under-the-cage heating pad keeps the temperature around 90° F (33° C).
A little lower on the same side of the enclosure, your python needs a warm area kept at about 85° F (29° C). Your ball python also needs a “cool” area for resting where the temperature is just 75° to 80° F (23° to 26° C).
In most of the ball python’s native habitat, the all-time record high might be about 95° F (35° C) and the all-time record low might be around 60° F (15° C).
Your ball python should never be exposed to higher or lower temperatures than these, even for a short period.
Ball pythons in Africa live in places that have alternating wet and dry seasons.
There might be almost no rain at all from December through March, and then flooding rains from May through September.
Humidity, however, is almost exactly the same all year-round.
In nature, ball pythons have nearly constant humidity of 80 to 85 percent.
They prefer burrows in the ground and in termite mounds where they are sheltered from the few, rare dry winds that may occur in the hottest months.
In captivity, your ball python needs constant humidity for normal skin health. Constant humidity helps your ball python shed its skin, and helps it fight off infestations with mites and ticks.
What Ball Python Habitat Tells Us About Their Diet
Some arboreal snakes eat bird eggs. Some arboreal snakes eat birds.
Arboreal snakes like the emerald tree boa, however, mostly eat rodents and opossums, and the green tree boa eats geckos and skinks.
Ball pythons aren’t arboreal. They aren’t limited to eating either animals that live on the ground or animals that live in trees.
Ball pythons may feed on birds, geckos, skinks, small rodents, and even bats.
But remember one important feature of the acacia trees that grow in sub-Saharan Africa where ball pythons live.
These trees have thorns. Small ball pythons, up to 30 inches (79 cm) long, can navigate between the thorns to hunt for birds, raid nests for eggs, and eat small tree-dwelling mammals.
But adult ball pythons over 39 inches (a meter) long, especially females, eat almost exclusively rodents they catch at ground level.
Ball Pythons Can Swim
In Africa, ball pythons are sometimes sighted swimming on high ground during the rainy season.
All ball pythons are natural swimmers. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should let your ball python take a dip in your swimming pool.
The problem with swimming pools for ball pythons is that chlorine is poisonous to ball pythons. It might be willing to take a swim with you, but the chlorine will make it sick.
Ball pythons don’t normally soak themselves in their water bowl, either. If your ball python wants to curl up in its bowl, wait until it crawls out, and then check its skin for mites.
You might see tiny black dots around your snake’s eyes, ears, or vent (cloaca).
Or you might notice black dots on your hands after you handle your snake. You might notice ash-like dust (mite feces) on your snake’s scales.
It turns out that Nix, the chemical used to treat mites in humans, can also be used to treat mites in ball pythons.
By sanitizing your ball python’s cage, and treating it with Nix, you can eventually heal your snake’s mite problem. But take a cue from your knowledge of the natural history of ball pythons: When your ball python stays in water, something is wrong.
What Is the Best Climbing Toy for a Ball Python?
Climbing toys for ball pythons should be:
- Slanted, not straight up and down,
- Rough, so your ball python will have some traction,
- Sturdy enough to hold the entire weight of your ball python (no more than 5 pounds/2.4 kilos). and
- Just a few inches (up to 10 cm) above the substrate of your ball python’s cage, outside its hiding place.
Fake bark works well, as does a fake plant put in on its side.
It’s OK to give your ball python a climbing toy that elevates it more so you can see it. Just keep in mind that ball pythons are not very good climbers. They fall off a lot.
They need to fall onto something soft, like a substrate, rather than a decorative rock.
Make sure your ball python cannot crawl high enough that it burns itself against an overhead light or heat lamp.
Don’t worry about your ball python climbing up the walls of its tank. It can’t. Its body is too thick for climbing without sturdy support.
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