Burmese Python Snake Facts

Disappearing from its habitat, but causing problems in Florida

Burmese python
Burmese python. Martin Harvey / Getty Images

The Burmese python (Python bivittatus) is the third-largest species of snake in the world. Although native to tropical southern Asia, the beautifully patterned, docile snakes are popular throughout the world as pets.

Description

The wild form of the snake has black-bordered brown blotches on a lighter brown background. Captive-bred species come in other colors and patterns, including albino, green, labyrinth, and granite morphs.

Albino Burmese Python
Albino Burmese Python. Stuart Dee / Getty Images

Wild pythons average 3.7 m (12.2 ft), but specimens exceeding 4 m (13 ft) are not uncommon. Rarely, snakes attain lengths between 5 and 6 meters in length. Females are slightly larger than males, but much thicker and heavier. Recorded weights of mature females range from 14 to 75 kg, while weights of males range from 7 to 15 kg. Dwarf forms of the snake occur in some parts of its range and in captivity.

Distribution and Habitat

Burmese pythons live in tropical regions of southern Asia, always near a permanent source of water. While they are excellent climbers with prehensile tails, they may be found in grasslands and marshes as well as woodlands and jungles. The species is invasive in the southeastern United States.

Burmese python range in Asia.
Burmese python range in Asia. Termininja 

Diet and Digestion

Like other terrestrial snakes, burmese pythons are carnivores that feed mainly on mammals and birds. The snake is a constrictor that captures and kills prey by biting it and holding it with its rear-pointing teeth, wrapping its coils around prey, contracting its muscles, and suffocating the animal. Prey size depends on snake size. A young python may eat rodents, while a mature specimen can take livestock, adult deer, and alligators. Burmese pythons don't hunt humans, but they have caused some deaths.

Burmese pythons adapt their physiology to prey availability. The snakes are opportunistic and will eat whenever prey is offered. Obesity is common in captive specimens. When fasting, the snake has a normal heart volume, reduced stomach volume and acidity, and reduced intestinal mass. Once prey is ingested, the ventricle of the snake's heart increases 40% in mass to aid digestion, its intestines gain mass, and its stomach enlarges and produces more acid.

The Burmese python is an apex predator that doesn't face many threats by other animals. Hatchlings may be preyed upon by birds of prey and other carnivores. In Florida, Burmese pythons, depending on their size, may be preyed upon by alligators and crocodiles.

Behavior

Burmese pythons are primarily nocturnal. Younger, smaller snakes are equally comfortable in trees or on the ground, while larger, more massive snakes prefer the rainforest floor. Most of the snake's time is spent hidden in underbrush. The snakes can stay underwater up to 30 minutes and are excellent swimmers. In cold weather, the snake may brumate in a tree. Brumation is a period of motionlessness and low metabolism, but it isn't the same as true hibernation.

Reproduction

Mating occurs in early spring. Females lay clutch of 12 to 36 eggs in March or April. They incubate the eggs until they hatch by wrapping around them and twitching their muscles to release heat. The female leaves the eggs once they hatch. A hatchling uses its egg tooth to break free of its shell and may remain with the egg until after molting before venturing out to hunt. Burmese pythons live about 20 years.

There is evidence Burmese pythons, unlike most reptiles, can reproduce asexually via parthenogenesis. One captive female, isolated from males, produced viable eggs for five years. A genetic analysis confirmed the offspring were genetically identical to their mother.

Conservation Status

The IUCN lists the Burmese python as "vulnerable" within its range. All of the large pythons face challenges because they are killed to make leather, used in folk medicine, eaten as food, and captured for the pet trade. To a lesser extent, habitat destruction affects the snakes, too. While the Burmese python occupies a large range, its population has continued to decline.

Invasive Species in Florida

Meanwhile, the snake's population growth in Florida poses a significant threat to other wildlife. The Burmese python gained a foothold in the United States when Hurricane Andrew destroyed a python breeding facility in 1992. The escaped snakes spread into the Everglades. The release or escape of pet snakes has contributed to the problem. As of 2007, Burmese pythons were found in Mississippi and throughout much of Florida. Where the snakes are well-established, populations of foxes, rabbits, raccoons, opossums, white-tailed deer, panthers, coyotes, and birds are seriously depressed or have disappeared. Pythons compete with the American alligator and also prey upon it. Pets and livestock in affected regions are at risk, as well.

Florida sponsors hunting contests; regulates the importation, breeding, and sale of reptiles; and works to raise public awareness of invasive species. However, Burmese pythons remain a problem in the southeastern United States.

Burmese Python Fast Facts

  • Common Name: Burmese python
  • Scientific Name: Python bivittatus
  • Distinguishing Features: Large constrictor, with black-rimmed brown splotch pattern. Captive specimens may be other colors.
  • Average Size: 3.7 m (12 ft)
  • Diet: Carnivorous
  • Lifespan: 20 years
  • Habitat: Tropical rainforests of southern Asia; invasive in Florida
  • Conservation Status: Vulnerable
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Reptilia
  • Order: Squamata
  • Suborder: Serpentes
  • Family: Pythonidae
  • Fun Fact: The Burmese python has been known to reproduce asexually via parthenogenesis.

Sources

  • Campden-Main SM (1970). A Field Guide to the Snakes of South Vietnam. Washington, District of Columbia. pp. 8-9.
  • Mazzotti, F. J., Rochford, M., Vinci, J., Jeffery, B. M., Eckles, J. K., Dove, C., & Sommers, K. P. (2016). Implications of the 2013 Python Challenge® for Ecology and Management of Python molorus bivittatus (Burmese python) in Florida. Southeastern Naturalist15(sp8), 63-74.
  • Stuart, B.; Nguyen, T.Q.; Thy, N.; Grismer, L.; Chan-Ard, T.; Iskandar, D.; Golynsky, E. & Lau, M.W.N. (2012). "Python bivittatus". The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. IUCN. 2012: e.T193451A2237271. doi:10.2305/IUCN.UK.2012-1.RLTS.T193451A2237271.en
  • Walters, T. M., Mazzotti, F. J., & Fitz, H. C. (2016). Habitat Selection by the Invasive Species Burmese Python in Southern Florida. Journal of Herpetology50(1), 50-56.
  • Van Mierop, LHS; Barnard, SM (1976). "Observations on the reproduction of Python molurus bivittatus (Reptilia, Serpentes, Boidae)". Journal of Herpetology. 10: 333–340. doi:10.2307/1563071