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Daily Classroom Special
Critter Corner: Meet the Burmese Python  
About this Daily Classroom Special
Critter Corner allows teachers and students to learn and share experiences about organisms that can be kept in the classroom. Critter Corner is maintained by Judith Jones, teacher at East Chapel Hill High School (NC) and Teachers Network web mentor. E-mail Judith. Make sure to visit Judy's other Daily Classroom Special, The Time Travel Interviews with Famous Scientists

To the Critter Corner Directory.

Introduction

Burmese Python About 15 years ago, I was walking past a pet store window and I saw the most beautiful little two foot snake. Since I have a passion for herps I went in, found out that it was called a Burmese python, that it ate mice, and I bought it. One year later I began teaching biology at Chapel Hill High School and I took my growing snake to live in my classroom. He was an instant hit with a great variety of students. I found that many of the students who are rather alienated loved coming in at lunch to handle him and to help feed him his bimonthly ration of rodents. The other thing that I discovered is that he was growing rapidly. Finally, I did my research and learned that Burmese pythons have been known to reach a length of 20 feet in the wild. As you can imagine, I was alarmed. I talked to the reptile keeper at the North Carolina Zoo and he advised me to feed my snake a lean but adequate diet to slow the growth. Felix is currently about 11 feet long, rather placid, and seemingly quite healthy.

It is important to note that Felix was a captive bred snake. I am very opposed to buying reptiles that have been imported from their native lands. Many of these creatures die during transport; many are riddled with parasites; and their behavior is unpredictable. Captive bred reptiles make much better classroom organisms.

I must warn teachers (and others) that taking on the care of a large python such as Felix, is not advised. However, sometimes teachers acquire pythons because students go to college and their parents want to find homes for the snakes that have been left behind. Therefore, I will tell what I have learned.

Photo courtesy of the Oakland Zoo. Why not visit their web site!

Scientific Name

Python molurus bivittatus (This is sometimes called the dark phase Indian python.)

General Physical Description

There are several colors and patterns (morphs) of the Burmese python. The normal color is a rich deep brown that is brightened by a network of cream and buff bands. The new hatchlings are about two feet in length and by adulthood the females will grow to 13-18 feet while the males remain smaller - about 8-13 feet. They have been known to reach up to 200 lbs. As with all snakes, the Burmese python has many small teeth but no fangs. Near the cloacal opening can be found two small but distinctive claws! These are all that remains of the snakes ancient ancestors - lizards. The python skeleton also has a small pelvic girdle, also a remnant of its lizard ancestry. (Great for teaching about evolution!)

Behavior

Behavior of the python can vary. Pythons that have been raised and handled from infancy can be fairly docile and easy to handle. It is believed that the genetics of the snake does play a large part in its behavior, however. Some seem to be nervous and ready to bite from infancy; others are rather mellow and receptive to handling. Pythons have been known to defecate when they are handled - a very disturbing behavior! Felix is fairly easy to deal with - has never defecated on people. He is an eager eater, however, and I have to cover him with a blanket before removing him from his cage because he confuses getting out time with feeding time. Once out of his cage, he can be handled without fear of being bitten. He has been handled by hundreds of school children of all ages and in many types of settings and he has never bitten anyone. However, I am extremely careful. These are not domesticated animals. I watch him and control the handling at all times. I make sure that there is not too much confusion which might upset him and induce negative behavior. I must stress, however, that snakes do have personalities and you have to get to know your snake in order to best evaluate how docile it will be in particular situations.

Reproduction

I have never bred Felix nor would I consider it. I really don't recommend keeping large pythons in any setting other than educational. However, python reproduction is interesting and students enjoy learning the details. Females should be about ten feet and males about eight feet long before they are bred. Before breeding, the pythons are treated to a cool (65 degrees F) temperature for one to two months. They are not fed during this time. It is thought that the cool temperatures will trigger ovulation in the females and increase hormone levels in the males leading to healthy sperm production. The female is fed frequently after the cooling period and after about three weeks is placed in the male's cage. They mate by internal fertilization and the mating will last for many hours. The female will not eat during the gravid period and during incubation of her eggs. She will lay 15-25 eggs about two to three months after mating. She will coil around the eggs and brood them by shivering. This twitching of the muscles probably increases the temperature of the clutch of eggs. Spaghnum moss can be added to maintain humidity of the eggs. The eggs will hatch in about two months.

Native Habitat and Role in the Environment

As with any snake, pythons join the great carnivores of the world! In fact the diet of the python is similar to that of the African lion. Burmese pythons are found in Indo-china (Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, China, Hong Kong, etc.). When I have introduced Felix to students from Vietnam, they have become very excited and told me about finding these snakes in their country. The pythons like forested areas that are near water. They are primarily nocturnal; they are good climbers and swimmers. These snakes are considered threatened on the Endangered Species list - another good reason NOT to buy an imported snake.

Classroom Habitat

It is particularly important to have an escape-proof cage for large pythons! The custodians and other staff members are not very delighted when they learn that a 11 foot snake is prowling the school building. Having said that, my Felix has escaped a couple of times when he was younger and we always found him - once entwined around the air conditioning unit! But now I have a well-latched cage and I am about to put him into new, larger quarters that will be even more secure. Burmese pythons usually like to have a large branch to climb on although Felix has never used his. They also need a large container of water. It is virtually impossible to buy proper housing at your local pet store. I order mine from companies that I locate in Reptile Magazine or other journals. Minimum size for a grown snake would be four feet long by two feet wide. The bottom can be covered by pine shavings, newspaper, or fine bark. The temperature should be about 85-90 degrees F. using a basking lamp over a particular area so the snake can choose to be warm or not. I have used the reptile rocks when the snakes are small but large snakes really need a different temperature method. The new cages I have ordered have heating units controlled by thermostats that go under a particular part of the cage.

Food and Feeding Schedule

Young Burmese pythons can eat mice that are fuzzy but still very small. Very quickly, adult mice can be offered. By the time the snakes are about four feet long, they can eat small rats and eventually larger rats. If you are up to it, they will graduate to rabbits or chickens - larger and larger as time goes on. I resort to feeding several large rats at a feeding when rabbits are not available. Many herpetologists recommend feeding prekilled prey because it is safer for the snake. I have found I cannot kill the prey and feed my snakes live food (as would happen in nature). I have never had a serious problem in the past 15 years. However, when I have access to prekilled prey, I will use it. The python will grab the prey, quickly wrap its coils around and suffocate the prey. Once the rodent is dead, the python will search for the head end and swallow the food whole. By swallowing the prey head-first, the snake avoids the problem of the prey limbs going down in a bent and painful position. In the beginning the python should be fed two prey animals every week. Most herpetologists recommend feeding pythons once a week or once every two weeks. I choose the latter because I do not want to encourage rapid growth. My Felix is 15 years old and very healthy so the regimen has worked well for me (and him).

Handling Tips

Before I remove Felix from his cage for handling, I cover his head with a small blanket; this is the signal that I will be removing him and not feeding him! It is important to establish a routine. I always have another person present when I get him out now that he has achieved such a large size. Felix is used to being draped around my neck like a stole while wrapping his tail around one of my legs but I do not in general recommend putting a large python around your neck. When students hold him, we line up a chain of children and let each child have a portion of snake. I take the head! He has gotten very heavy and it is important to support his body when handling him so that he won't be injured. I have been bitten when he was much younger and it happened because I put my hand quickly into his cage - my fault, not his. The bites are painful though not particularly dangerous if washed well and watched for infection. I have had much more serious bites from cats and of course, we know that human bites are the worst of all.

 

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