Zoo Tales: Pythons From Two Continents
With the opening of its Australian Walkabout exhibit in May 2004, the North Carolina Zoo added a variety of "down under" mammals, birds and reptiles and, specifically, five species of pythons. These five Australian species, along with the two existing African species, now give zoo visitors a varied assemblage of sizes, colors, shapes and temperaments of these magnificent reptiles.
Like most snakes, pythons have received a bum rap from movies, literature and folklore.
To many of us, the word "python" often conjures up images of Tarzan totally engulfed in the coils of a giant snake, fighting it to the death with only his knife. But like many of the snakes we see in North Carolina, the non-venomous pythons are generally docile and non-aggressive.
Pythons are constrictors, which means that they wrap around their prey and squeeze them. But contrary to popular belief, pythons (or any other constricting snake) do not kill their prey by crushing them. They actually squeeze their prey only long enough to stop it from inhaling. The animal then dies from asphyxiation (lack of oxygen), not from being crushed to death.
Of the zoo's pythons, five of the species -- the scrub, the jungle carpet, the woma, the Macklot's and the green tree pythons -- are all native to Australia and may be found in the zoo's Australia Walkabout exhibit. Two other species, the rock python and the ball python, are native to Africa and can be found in the zoo's African Pavilion.
The scrub python, also known as the amethystine python, is one of five giant snakes of the world known to reach a length of 20 feet or more. (Others are the anaconda, reticulated python, African python and Indian python.) It is the largest of about a dozen species of pythons that inhabit Australia, New Guinea and the adjacent islands.
In the wild, pythons eat birds, small mammals, amphibians, other snakes and lizards. The larger rock python's diet can also include small antelopes and pigs. Their zoo diet, however, usually consists of mice for the smaller pythons and rats for the larger pythons. Although fed weekly at the zoo, pythons have been known to go more than a year without eating.
Pythons normally hunt at night, using pits or clefts in their lip scales. Each pit is lined with a thin membrane containing nerve endings that detect heat. Studies have shown that these pits can detect a change in temperature of as little as .002-.003 degrees C. This enables a python to locate its prey even in total darkness. Although pythons may appear extremely sluggish, their strike is faster than that of a rattlesnake.
Once a python locates its prey, it will strike and hold it with its teeth, at the same time winding several coils around the prey. Like other snakes, they swallow their prey whole, headfirst. The skin around their mouths is extremely elastic, and the bones of the jaw are loosely connected. Pythons will attack surprisingly large animals. The largest reliably recorded meal taken by a python is a 130-pound impala eaten by a 16-footer.
The python's main predator in the wild is man, who kills them for their beautiful skin, for their meat and for their fat, which is sometimes used in tribal medicines. Other predators may include crocodiles.
Although the zoo does not officially discourage the private ownership of pythons, it does, however, strongly encourage would-be owners to examine closely the pros and cons of ownership.
Zoo personnel receive about three calls per month from private owners who want to get rid of their pythons or other large snakes. Most complain that the snakes have gotten too big to manage. Other calls are from law enforcement and rescue personnel who find large snakes abandoned in houses and apartments. Because of space limitations, the zoo is unable to take in these snakes.
All of the zoo's pythons can be viewed daily at either the Australian Walkabout or the African Pavilion exhibits.
Tom Gillespie works with the N.C. Zoo.
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