The world is experiencing a terrible tragedy at the moment: nearly an entire continent aflame, its people and animals driven out of their homes or succumbing to the fires (some started naturally, others by people), and an unprecedented toll on the natural environment is being taken thereby. Carlton Carnivores encourages all who are capable to find a way to support those fighting the fires and saving imperiled wildlife, and for those who do not have the finances, to spread awareness and rally support. One of the ways support can be gained, is to educate others about the wildlife of Australia. Not just the iconic species like the koala, kangaroo, dingo, etc. either, but those species overlooked yet no less at risk. This, is one of them:
Antaresia maculosa, or the Spotted Python, is a small python found across most of the eastern Australian coast from Queensland to northern New South Wales, and is also recorded from nearby offshore islands and southern Papua New Guinea. It is the largest of the four species in the genus, with the Anthill Python (A. perthensis) being the smallest python in the world at 2-2.5 feet mature, and the Stimson's and Children's Pythons (A. stimsoni and childreni respectively) intermediate between these two. Of course, "large" is a relative term; spotted pythons mature at 3-4 feet, rare instances reaching 5 feet long, and never more. They are an adaptable group, each species capable of utilizing multiple habitats and are found in tropical forests and grasslands all the way into the edges of the Great Sandy Desert in the Australian interior. The Great Dividing Range in northern Australia acts as the western limit for the spotted python, keeping it in north Queensland and along the coast and isolating it from its relatives further west.
The spotted python is a rather distinct and recognizable species in the group, possessing the densest and often darkest pattern. Snakes are tan to gray or reddish brown in background, with deep brown to black blotches and mottled markings running down the back and in irregular rows of spots along the sides. Some localities and mutations may even result in the dorsal blotches connecting in zizag patterns and solid lines, or broken up into thousands of tiny spots across the snake (the latter often referred to as "granite"). My pair is relatively moderately marked, Serafina the female with muted gray-brown background and broken blotches, while the male Namer possesses more heavily connected blotches and a darker back; both of them have cream-white underbellies though. In some ways, they're reminiscent of baby anacondas. These patterns provide excellent camouflage, whether the snake is hiding in forest leaf litter or Spinnifex grass clumps in more desert areas.
Spotted pythons, like their relatives, are primarily nocturnal creatures, active at night and built for such. Just like nearly all pythons, they possess two rows of heat-sensing pits on their upper and lower jaws, allowing them to detect prey even in pitch black, and their eyes are startling, slits for pupils and a ring of bright orange or yellow lining the slits while the rest of the eye matches the body color. A hot as the day can be in Australia, hunting at night is preferable even for an ectothermic animal.
And what does the spotted python hunt? Anything that moves. They are generalists, taking any appropriately sized lizard, frog, bird, or small mammal (though rodents and small marsupials are favorites). Pythons are among the classic constrictors, killing their prey via a series of tight coils wrapped around the animal; it is often erroneously believed that constriction kills the prey item by crushing it or suffocating it, while in fact the mechanism of death is far faster and more efficient. The high pressure the snakes can apply (even a small python like these might be able to apply the equivalent of a horse's or small car's weight on an animal) actually restricts blood flow through the arteries and veins, denying the organs (particularly the heart and brain) of oxygen and nutrients and shutting them down rapidly, thus the animal does not suffer long and the snake does not have to spend several minutes or hours killing its food.
Of course, the python is not on the top of the food chain either. These guys themselves may become prey animals to carnivorous marsupials, dingoes, raptors, crocodilians, monitor lizards, and many other creatures, especially as babies. So they, too, provide fodder for other rungs in the heterotrophic hierarchy, a middle ground both controlling populations of smaller creatures and supporting the larger.
Due to import/export restrictions of recent years on wildlife in Australia, all spotted pythons and their relatives seen in captivity in the US, Europe, etc. are captive-bred animals. There are some amazing morphs and mutations that are now restricted only to Australia thereby, but this also does an excellent job of protecting the native species from overcollecting and poaching (perhaps a true necessity now as wild populations come under strain from the fires burning all corners of the continent). Captive bred animals are also more likely to adapt well to being pets, have a far lower risk of carrying parasites and infections, and you are more likely to know the exact source of an animal. This is an easy species to keep as a pet and breed as well, their small size lending readily to keepers who do not have the space or resources for larger pythons (and their appearance well enough reminiscent of those species too) and most adults having fairly docile temperaments.
An adult spotted python can be kept in a large tub/rack system or 40-50 gallon cage, with a sturdy water dish (very important as you do not want these strong snakes knocking over and soaking their homes) and a warm end in the 90's Fahrenheit, ambient temperature in the low to mid-80's. As a nocturnal species, they like to have plenty of places to hide (even if a few, like Serafina, like to explore in the late afternoons as well), so make sure to have a couple of hiding structures on both ends of the cage and a few rocks or logs to climb on and around. Again though, try to make things secure or they may redecorate overnight. As adaptable as this species is, both moderately high and low humidity are tolerated (though when in shed make sure to provide a humid hide box if you keep humidity lower overall), and feeding is easy; most hatchlings readily take frozen-thawed pinkie mice, and will stay on mice or small rats their whole lives.
Handling this species can be a hit-or-miss sometimes though. As newborns, spotted pythons tend to be very defensive and nippy; Serafina and Namer were both no exception. However, with gentle handling and care not to startle them, most individuals will quickly grow out of this tendency and become fairly docile animals. My female was quick to calm down, and now will even venture up to the edge of the cage when she's exploring and I open it in order to come out; Namer has been slower to get used to me, still somewhat shy at times, but quickly becoming amenable to handling. It's not uncommon for them to be rather food-oriented though, so it's wise not to open a cage and just reach in with your hand. A short snake hook or similar tool to tap them to alert them that it's not feeding time or to pull them out of the cage may be a good idea.
And of course, for those who want to breed this species: there's a reason why it's hardly a problem finding spotted pythons and their relatives in the pet trade even when export from their native country is no longer permitted. Cooler temperatures during the winter season (mind you, this is a tropical/subtropical animal, so a huge drop is not needed) are about all that is required to trigger them to go into mating mindset, and a mature male and female together will do the rest. If given the right environment, females may then not only lay up to 18 eggs in a clutch, but like many other pythons they will incubate them themselves, wrapping around the eggs and keeping them safe and at a moderated temperature until they hatch 2 months or so later. Not every breeder likes to take the risk of leaving the eggs to the mother and will remove them to be incubated separately, but if you like seeing the natural process, upping the humidity or providing the female a large moist box to sit in will allow her to do the job herself, and one day you might come in to find a dozen or more babies hanging out with momma.
So, if you're the kind of person who wants to have a python, but doesn't quite have the space to house a Burmese or Reticulated, these might be a perfect alternative. Similar patterning (and wickedly colored eyes) and a typically docile mannerism, and one of the many species people are less familiar with from the Land Down Under. If you're not one to seek a python for a pet though, or just want to spread information about other species the media won't cover that may be at risk in the current firefight, share this blog about, and bring these adorable animals into the spotlight too. After all, every species plays a role in the ecosystem, and every species deserves to be a focus for protection.