African rock pythons occur throughout sub-Saharan Africa, although they avoid the driest deserts and the coolest mountain elevations. Two subspecies are recognized: Python sebae sebae, northern African rock pythons, and Python natalensis, southern African rock pythons. The northern subspecies is found from south of the Sahara to northern Angola, and from Senegal to Ethiopia and Somalia. The southern subspecies is found from Kenya, Zaire and Zambia south to the Cape of Good Hope. The two subspecies overlap in some areas of Kenya and northern Tanzania. Some authorities recognize them as full species, P. sebae and P. natalensis.
Biogeographic Regions: ethiopian (Native )
Distribution: Senegal, Gambia, Mauritania, Guinea Bissau, Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Mali, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda, Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), Congo (Brazzaville), Gabon (BLANC & FRETEY 2000), Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania, Angola, Somalia, Zimbabwe May have been introduced to Florida, USA.
Type locality: see comment.
The largest snake in Africa, Python natalensis averages 3 to 5 m in length. There are reports of much larger African rock pythons, including a record from the Ivory Coast of a 7.5 m specimen, and a questionable report of another individual from the same country reaching a length of 9.8 m. Hatchlings are approximately 35 to 45 cm in length. As adults, African rock pythons average 44 to 55 kg in weight, with reports of some reaching well over 91 kg (200 lbs).
African rock pythons have a relatively small, triangular head that is covered in irregular scales that are typically blackish to brownish-gray in color. The head also has two light-colored bands that form a spearhead shape from the snout to the back of the head just above the eyes, as well as a yellow, inverted V under each eye. There are two heat-sensing pits on the supralabial scales on the upper lip and four to six more pits on the infralabial scales. The body is yellowish, gray-brown, or gray-green, with dark blotches that form a staircase-like pattern on the back. Belly scales are a white color with black specks producing a salt-and-peppery pattern. On the tip of the tail, there are two dark bands that are separated by a lighter band. Juveniles are more brightly marked than adults.
It has been noted that individuals found in the central and western parts of Africa are somewhat more brightly marked than their northern, eastern and southern counterparts. Of the two subspecies, P. s. sebae, of northern and western Africa, is generally larger, has larger head scales, and is more brightly colored than P. s. natalensis.
Range mass: 44 to 91 kg.
Average mass: 55 kg.
Range length: 4 to 7.5 m.
Other Physical Features: heterothermic
Sexual Dimorphism: female larger
Highveld Grasslands Habitat
This species can be found in the Highveld grasslands ecoregion in southern Africa. This ecoregion now provides the last remaining stronghold of a number of grassland species that have suffered major reductions in abundance in the grassland biome, and which are consequently threatened with extinction (e.g. the Blue Crane (Anthropoides paradisea). There is a relatively biodiverse vertebrate fauna, with 608 taxa recorded.
The dominant vegetation comprises grasses, with geophytes and herbs also being well represented. Dominant and diagnostic grass species are Thatching Grass (Hyparrhenia hirta) and Catstail Dropseed Grass (Sporobolus pyramidalis). Non-grassy forbs include False Paperbark Thorn (Acacia sieberiana), Rhus vulgaris, Selago densiflora, Spermacoce natalensis, Aandblom (Kohautia cynanchica), and Phyllanthus glaucophyllus. Relatively high precipitation levels sustain the grasslands during the austral summer, with the mean annual range between 400 to 900 millimetres.
The Highveld grassland ecoregion can be divided into three habitat types: (1) Kalahari/Karoo-highveld transition zone; (2) sweet grasslands; and (3) sour grasslands. In the western half of the ecoregion, a gradual transition occurs from the Karoo/Kalahari-highveld transition zone to the grassland habitats of the Highveld. Shrubs and trees grow in the transition zone, although grasses still dominate this zone.
Bird species richness is relatively high within this ecoregion. However, Botha’s Lark (Spizocorys fringillaris) is the only bird species strictly endemic to the ecoregion, where it inhabits heavily grazed grassland. An additional six avian species are near-endemics including White-winged Flufftail (Sarothrura ayresii), Blue Korhaan (Eupodotis caerulescens), White-bellied Bustard (Eupodotis senegalensis), Rudd’s lark (Heteromirafra ruddi), the Near Threatened Melodious lark (Mirafra cheniana), Buff-streaked chat (Saxicola bifasciatus), and the Vulnerable Yellow-breasted pipit (Anthus chloris).
This ecoregion contains a higher number of mammals, although only the Orange Mouse (Mus orangiae) is restricted to the ecoregion, and the Rough-haired Golden Mole (Chrysospalax villosa) is near-endemic. The ecoregion also supports populations of several large mammal species, some of which are rare in southern Africa (Stuart and Stuart 1995). Among these are the Vulnerable Cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus), Brown Hyena (Hyaena brunnea), African Civet Cat (Civettictis civetta), Leopard (Panthera pardus), Sable Antelope (Hippotragus niger), Ground Pangolin (Manis temminckii), Honey Badger (Mellivora capensis), African Striped Weasel (Poecilogale albinucha), Aardwolf (Proteles cristatus), Oribi (Ourebia ourebi), and Hartmann's Mountain Zebra (Equus zebra hartmannae). Herds of large mammals, including Black Wildebeest (Connochaetes gnou) and White Rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum), previously occurred in the Highveld grasslands, but were extirpated by the local human population. Other notable mammalian taxa occurring in the ecoregion include the Vulnerable Juliana's golden mole (Neamblysomus julianae).
Relatively few reptile species occur within the Highveld grasslands, mainly due to its cool climate. However, the ecoregion supports some of Africa’s most characteristic reptile species, including Nile Crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus), African Rock-python (Python sebae), Nile Monitor (Varanus niloticus) and Veld Monitor (Varanus albigularis albigularis). There are also two strictly endemic reptiles: Giant Girdled Lizard (Cordylus giganteus) and Agama aculeata distanti (Branch 1998). Several additional reptile species are near-endemics, including Drakensberg Rock gecko (Afroedura niravia), the Vulnerable Giant Girdled Lizard (Cordylus giganteus), and Breyer's Whip Lizard (Tetradactylus breyeri) (Branch 1998).
Twenty-nine amphibians occur within the ecoregion but none are endemic (Passmore and Carruthers 1995). Example anuran species in the Highveld grasslands are the Kimberley Toad (Amietophrynus poweri), African Dwarf Toad (Poyntonophrynus vertebralis), who breeds in temporary shallow pans, freshwater pools or depressions containing rainwater; the Red Toad (Schismaderma carens); Cape River Frog (Amietia fuscigula). endemic of the high slopes of the Drakensberg Mountains and Lesotho Highlands; South African Snake-necked Frog (Phrynomantis bifasciatus), typically found under loose sand below large rocks or boulders.
- C. Michael Hogan & World Wildlife Fund. 2015. Highveld grasslands. Encyclopedia of Earth. National Council for Science and Environment. Washington DC
- J.P.H. Acocks. 1988. Veld types of South Africa. Memoirs of the Botanical Survey of South Africa 57: 1-146. (An update of the first edition published in 1953),
African rock pythons prefer evergreen forests or moist, open savannahs. These snakes often frequent rocky outcrops that can be utilized for hiding purposes, or they may use mammal burrows in less rocky areas. African rock pythons reportedly have a close association with water and often are found near rivers and lakes. The highest elevation at which an African rock python was observed is 2300 meters, although most pythons are found well below that elevation.
Range elevation: 0 to 2300 m.
Habitat Regions: temperate ; tropical ; terrestrial
Terrestrial Biomes: savanna or grassland ; forest
Other Habitat Features: riparian
African rock pythons are carnivores and feed primarily on terrestrial vertebrates. As juveniles, these pythons feed on small mammals, especially rats. Once adult sized, they will move onto larger prey, such as monkeys, crocodiles, large lizards, and antelope. They will sometimes take fish as well. If African rock pythons live near humans, family pets and livestock may be eaten.
African rock pythons generally hunt at twilight using their heat-sensing pits. Once a prey item has been found, the python will sit patiently or move slowly toward the prey. Once in range, the python will strike with devastating speed and accuracy, sinking its long curved teeth into the prey's flesh and coiling around it. The power of these snakes is incredible. A large adult snake can tackle an antelope weighing up to 59 kg.
African rock pythons constrict their prey as do other members of the family Boidae (boas, pythons and anacondas). Contrary to popular belief, large constricting snakes do not crush their prey to death, but rather asphyxiate or compress them until they die of cardiovascular shock. As the prey breathes out, the snake tightens its coils so that the prey cannot breathe in again. Eventually, the prey suffocates or expires from heart failure and is swallowed whole. These snakes can go long periods of time between meals if necessary. A captive specimen reportedly fasted for over 2.5 years.
Animal Foods: birds; mammals; reptiles; fish
Primary Diet: carnivore (Eats terrestrial vertebrates)
These snakes are predators on small to moderately large vertebrates. As ectotherms, they feed infrequently compared to endothermic predators (such as mammalian predators), and over-all effects on prey populations are presumably minimal in comparison.
Juvenile pythons are prey for numerous predators; adults are much less vulnerable but are occasionally killed by larger mammals.
Aside from humans, adult African rock pythons have few natural predators due to their large size. However, during long digestion periods a python may become vulnerable to predation by hyenas or African wild dogs.
Juveniles are probably subject to attack by more predators.
- hyenas Hyaenidae
- African wild dogs Lycaon pictus
Anti-predator Adaptations: cryptic
Life History and Behavior
As in all snakes, African rock pythons have a well-developed vomeronasal (Jacobson's) organ system, supplied by the tongue. This allows perception of chemicals (odors) in the environment, such as prey odors and pheromones produced by other pythons. Pythons also possess heat-sensing pits in the labial scales that detect infrared (heat) patterns given off by endothermic predators and prey.
Communication Channels: visual ; tactile ; chemical
Other Communication Modes: pheromones ; scent marks
Perception Channels: visual ; infrared/heat ; tactile ; acoustic ; vibrations ; chemical
African rock python eggs are laid in hollows and protected by the coils of their mother during development. Once the young hatch they are independent.
African rock pythons can live for up to 30 years in captivity.
Status: captivity: 30 (high) years.
Status: captivity: 18.0 years.
Status: captivity: 27.3 years.
Lifespan, longevity, and ageing
Some authors have reported large, seasonal congregations of African rock pythons and have suggested that these are mating aggregations, but little is known about mating in the wild.
Male and female African rock pythons reach sexual maturity at three to five years of age. Males will begin breeding at a size of 1.8 m, while females will wait until they have exceeded at least 2.7 m. Breeding usually takes place between November and March. Declining temperature and changing photoperiod act as signals for snakes to begin breeding. During the breeding season, both males and females cease feeding, with females continuing to fast until the eggs hatch. The female lays her eggs about three months after copulation. Clutches are, on average, 20 to 50 eggs in number, although a large female can lay as many as 100 eggs in a single clutch. The eggs are quite large, often weighing 130 to 170 grams, and about 100 mm in diameter.
Breeding interval: African rock pythons breed once yearly.
Breeding season: Breeding usually takes place between November and March.
Range number of offspring: 20 to 100.
Average number of offspring: 20-50.
Range gestation period: 65 to 80 days.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female): 3 to 5 years.
Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male): 3 to 5 years.
Key Reproductive Features: iteroparous ; seasonal breeding ; sexual ; oviparous
The female will lay her eggs in a tree hollow, termite nest or mammal burrow and coil around them. This coiling behavior may be largely for protection, as the female does not "shiver" to create extra heat for incubation as reported for some other python species. However, a Cameroon specimen had a body temperature 6.5 degrees C higher than ambient temperature. Desired incubation temperature is 31 to 32 degrees C (88 to 90 degrees F). In 65 to 80 days the eggs will hatch, at which time the female will leave the young to fend for themselves. Hatchlings average 450 to 600 mm in length.
Parental Investment: pre-fertilization (Provisioning, Protecting: Female); pre-hatching/birth (Provisioning: Female, Protecting: Female)
African rock pythons are no longer as widespread as they once were. Python natalensis is now restricted mainly to hunting reserves, national parks and secluded sections of the African savannah. Reduction in available prey animals and hunting for its meat and skin has caused this species to decline in numbers over the years. Larger individuals are increasingly rare in many areas. African rock pythons have been placed on Appendix II of CITES and are legally protected in certain countries where populations have become increasingly vulnerable (such as South Africa).
US Federal List: no special status
CITES: appendix ii
Relevance to Humans and Ecosystems
These snakes sometimes will feed on livestock and pets of local human residents, particularly if natural prey has become scarce. In the past, rock pythons have been observed feeding on dogs, goats, poultry and other livestock that are important to the livelihood of the native peoples.
African rock pythons can also be a danger to humans. Although it is rare that a python will attack without provocation, there are several reports of rock python attacks on humans. Often, a human will startle a snake, causing it to bite. More rarely, the python may even constrict a human to death, and smaller humans have been eaten in extremely unusual circumstances. Although people are occasionally killed by pythons, the pythons are not always killed in retaliation. The offending snake may be transported to a different area where it is less likely to come into contact with humans.
Negative Impacts: injures humans (bites or stings)
Humans exploit Python natalensis in a number of ways. The most lucrative use is its skin and meat. The skin especially is highly desired by consumers, with the number of skins exported reaching near 9,300 in 2002. Humans also attempt to make pets out of African rock pythons. While a captive born python may be docile if accustomed to handling, wild-caught individuals do not make good pets because of their aggression. Another benefit provided to humans comes from juvenile snakes. Since younger African rock pythons eat rats, they help to control pests in areas of human habitation. Pythons are venerated and protected in some cultures.
Positive Impacts: pet trade ; food ; body parts are source of valuable material; controls pest population
Python sebae, commonly known as the African rock python, is a large, nonvenomous snake of Sub-Saharan Africa. The African rock python is one of seven species in the genus Python. It has two subspecies: one found in Central and Western Africa, the other in Southern Africa.
Africa's largest snake and one of the five largest snake species in the world (along with the green anaconda, reticulated python, Burmese python and amethystine python), specimens may approach or exceed 6 m (20 ft). The southern subspecies is generally smaller than its northern relative. The snake is found in a variety of habitats, from forests to near deserts, although usually near sources of water. The African rock python kills its prey by constriction and often eats animals up to the size of antelope, occasionally even crocodiles. The snake reproduces by egg-laying. Unlike most snakes, the female will protect her nest and sometimes even her hatchlings.
The snake is widely feared even though it very rarely kills humans. Although the snake is not endangered, it does face threats from habitat reduction and hunting.
Taxonomy and etymology
The African rock python (Python sebae) is one of seven species in the genus Python, a genus of large constricting snakes found in the moist tropics of Asia and Africa. The African rock python is divided into two subspecies, Python sebae sebae (also often called the African rock python) and Python sebae natalensis (the Southern African rock python). Some consider the more southerly population of this snake to be a separate species, Python natalensis, while others consider this form to be a subspecies.
Python sebae was first described by Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist, in 1788. Therefore he is also the author of the nominate subspecies P. s. sebae. The southern subspecies was first identified by Sir Andrew Smith, the father of South African zoology, in 1833.
Python is a Greek word referring to the enormous serpent at Delphi slain by Apollo in Greek Mythology. Sebae is a Latinization of Dutch zoologist, Albertus Seba. Natalensis refers to the Natal region of South Africa. Common name usage varies with both the species and northern subspecies referred to as African rock python or simply rock python. The Southern African rock python is sometimes referred to as the Natal rock python or the African python.
|Common name||Scientific Name||Classified by||Year|
|African rock python||Python sebae sebae||Gmelin||1788|
|Southern African rock python||Python sebae natalensis||Smith||1833|
Africa’s largest snake species and one of the world's largest, the typical African rock python adult measures 4.8 m (16 ft). Rumors of specimens over 6 m (20 ft) are considered reliable, although larger specimens have never been confirmed. Weights are reportedly in the range of 44 to 55 kg (97 to 121 lb), with a few weighing 91 kg (201 lb) or more. One specimen, reportedly 7 m (23 ft) in length, was killed by K. H. Kroft in 1958 and was claimed to have had a 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) juvenile Nile crocodile in its stomach.
The snake varies considerably in body size between different areas. In general, it is smaller in highly populated regions, such as in southern Nigeria, only reaching its maximum length in areas such as Sierra Leone, where the human population density is lower. Males are typically smaller than females.
The African rock python's body is thick and covered with colored blotches, often joining up in a broad, irregular stripe. Body markings vary between brown, olive, chestnut, and yellow, but fade to white on the underside. The head is triangular and is marked on top with a dark brown “spear-head” outlined in buffy yellow. Teeth are many, sharp, and backwardly curved. Under the eye, there is a distinctive triangular marking, the subocular mark. Like all pythons, the scales of the African rock python are small and smooth. Those around the lips possess heat-sensitive pits, which are used to detect warm-blooded prey, even in the dark. Pythons also possess two functioning lungs, unlike more advanced snakes which have only one, and also have small, visible pelvic spurs, believed to be the vestiges of hind limbs.
The African rock python is found throughout almost the whole of sub-Saharan Africa, from Senegal east to Ethiopia and Somalia and south to Namibia and South Africa. Python sebae sebae ranges across central and western Africa, while Python sebae natalensis has a more eastern and southerly range, from southern Kenya to South Africa.
In 2009, an African rock python was found in the Florida Everglades. It is feared to be establishing itself as an invasive species alongside the already-established Burmese python. Feral rock pythons were also noted in the 1990s in the Everglades.
The African rock python inhabits a wide range of habitats, including forest, savanna, grassland, semi-desert, and rocky areas. It is particularly associated with areas of permanent water and is found on the edges of swamps, lakes and rivers. The snake also readily adapts to disturbed habitats and so is often found around human habitation, especially cane fields.
|Rock python habitats|
Like all pythons, the African rock python is non-venomous and kills its prey by constriction. After gripping the prey, the snake coils around it, tightening its coils every time the victim breathes out. Death is thought to be caused by cardiac arrest rather than by asphyxiation or crushing. The African rock python feeds on a variety of large rodents, monkeys, warthog, antelopes, fruit bats, monitor lizards and even crocodiles in forest areas, and on rats, poultry, dogs and goats in suburban areas. Other Predators such as the Big Cats (Leopard, Lion, Cheetah) may fall to snake prey. However, the encounter in this circumstance are very rare and there will always target their cubs since a group of them can drive the snake off.
|Rock python feeding behavior|
Reproduction occurs in the spring. African rock pythons are oviparious, laying between 20 and 100 hard-shelled, elongated eggs in an old animal burrow, termite mound or cave. The female shows a surprising level of maternal care, coiling around the eggs, protecting them from predators and possibly helping to incubate them, until they hatch around 90 days later. It was recently discovered in a manner unusual for snakes in general and pythons in particular that the female guards the hatchlings for up to two weeks after they hatch from their eggs in order to protect them from predators.
|Rock python egg development|
Documented attacks on humans are exceptionally rare, despite the species being common in many regions of Africa, and living in diverse habitats including those with agricultural activity. There have been few well-substantiated deaths, and no well-substantiated reports of a human being consumed. Scientists are confident that large specimens more common in Western Africa, (7.3 m (24 ft) or longer, "would have no difficulty in eating adult humans."
- In 1979 in Waterberg District, Limpopo Province (then Northern Transvaal), South Africa, a 4.5 m (14.8 ft) African rock python killed a 13-year-old boy. The victim died due to suffocation and internal injuries, and his body was released after fighting with an adult man some 20 minutes after the attack began. The victim's head was covered in saliva, and scientists thought "it could have easily succeeded in swallowing" the 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in), 45 kg (99 lb) boy if not interrupted.
- In 1999 in Centralia, Illinois, USA, a 3-year-old boy was suffocated during the night by an escaped 2.3 m (7.5 ft) pet African rock python. Bite marks around the boy's neck and ears may have resulted from an attempt to swallow him.
- In 2013 in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada, four- and six-year-old brothers were reportedly killed by an approximately 4.3–4.9 m (14–16 ft), 45 kg (100 lb) pet African python. The snake appeared to have escaped from its enclosure, and a preliminary autopsy found the boys died of asphyxiation. However, the RCMP's investigation is ongoing, and circumstances of the incident prompted skepticism from experts not involved in the case. (See main article).
Other reported attacks
- In 2002 near Durban, South Africa, a ten-year-old boy was reportedly swallowed by an African rock python over a three-hour period, as seven other children stayed hidden in a mango tree. The animal was not captured and the story could not be verified, but detailed descriptions of markings and technique were credible to a local expert.
- In 2009 in Sabaki Village, Malindi District, Kenya, a male farm manager was attacked after stepping on an unspecified 4.0 m (13 ft) python. After an hour struggle, he was dragged up a tree, but was rescued by police and villagers after he was able to call for help on his mobile phone. The snake was captured by police, but had disappeared by the next day.
People are often fearful of large pythons and may kill them on sight. The African rock python may also be threatened by hunting for food and leather in some areas. It is also collected for the pet trade, although it is not generally recommended as a pet due to its large size and unpredictable temperament. Little information is available on levels of international trade in this species.
Some of the African rock python’s habitats are also known to be under threat. For example, mangrove and rainforest habitats and their snake communities are under serious threat in south-eastern Nigeria from habitat destruction and exploration for the oil industry.
The African rock python is still relatively common in many regions across Africa and may adapt to disturbed habitats, provided that abundant food is available. It is not currently considered at risk of extinction, but is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning international trade in African rock pythons should be carefully monitored and controlled, giving wild populations some protection from over-collection for pets and skins. The species is also likely to occur in a number of protected areas, such as the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a World Heritage Site.
In the Florida Everglades, where the African rock python is an invasive species and posing a threat to indigenous wildlife, it has no protected status and is one of the species listed on a hunting program recently authorized by state officials to eradicate non-native reptiles, the others being the Burmese python, reticulated python, green anaconda, and Nile monitor.
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