Central African rock python

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The Central African rock python (Python sebae) is a species of large constrictor snake in the family Pythonidae. The species is native to sub-Saharan Africa. It is one of 11 living species in the genus Python.

Central African rock python
Adult Female Python sebae 1.33aspect.jpg
Adult female (note the thick body)
Scientific classification edit
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Pythonidae
Genus: Python
Species:
P. sebae
Binomial name
Python sebae
(Gmelin, 1789)
Map of Africa showing highlighted range of two subspecies covering much of the continent south of the Sahara desert
  Range of Python sebae
  Range of Python natalensis
  Range of hybrids
Synonyms[2]
Synonymy
  • Coluber sebae Gmelin, 1789
  • Coluber speciosus Bonnaterre, 1790
  • Boa hieroglyphica Schneider, 1801
  • Python houttuyni Daudin, 1803
  • Python liberiensis Hallowell, 1845
  • Hortulia sebae Gray, 1849
  • Boa liberiensis Hallowell, 1854
  • Python sebae Boettger, 1887
  • Python sebae Boulenger, 1893
  • Python jubalis Pitman, 1936
  • Python sebae sebae
    Broadley, 1983
  • Python sebae – Branch, 1991
  • Python sebae – Kluge, 1993

Africa's largest snake and one of the seven largest snake species in the world (along with the green anaconda, reticulated python, Burmese python, Southern African rock python, Indian python, and Australian scrub python), specimens may approach or exceed 6 m (20 ft). The southern species is generally smaller than its northern relative but in general, the African Rock Python is regarded as the longest species of snake in the world.[3] The snake is found in a variety of habitats, from forests to near deserts, although usually near sources of water. The snake becomes dormant during the dry season. The Central 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 protects her nest and sometimes even her hatchlings.

The snake is widely feared, though it is nonvenomous and very rarely kills humans. Although the snake is not endangered, it does face threats from habitat reduction and hunting. Some cultures in sub-Saharan Africa consider it a delicacy, which may pose a threat to its population.

Taxonomy and etymologyEdit

The Central African rock python is in the genus Python, large constricting snakes found in the moist tropics of Asia and Africa.

P. sebae was first described by Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist, in 1789.[4] Therefore, he is also the taxon author of the nominate subspecies. The southern subspecies was first identified by South African zoologist Sir Andrew Smith, in 1833.[5]

The generic name, Python, is a Greek word referring to the enormous serpent at Delphi slain by Apollo in Greek mythology. The specific name, sebae, is a latinization of the surname of Dutch zoologist, Albertus Seba.[5][6] The subspecific name, 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[5] or the African python.[7]

DescriptionEdit

 
An 18th-century illustration

Africa's largest snake species[8][9] and one of the world's largest,[5] the Central African rock python adult measures 3 to 3.53 m (9 ft 10 in to 11 ft 7 in) in total length (including tail), with only unusually large specimens likely to exceed 4.8 m (15 ft 9 in). Reports of specimens over 6 m (19 ft 8 in) are considered reliable, although larger specimens have never been confirmed.[10][11][12] Weights are reportedly in the range of 44 to 55 kg (97 to 121 lb), per one study adults are expected to weigh only up to 32.2 kg (71 lb). Exceptionally large specimens may weigh 91 kg (201 lb) or more.[13][14][15] On average, large adults of Central African rock pythons are quite heavily built, perhaps more so than most specimens of the somewhat longer reticulated as well as Indian and Burmese pythons and far more so than the amethystine python, although the species is on average less heavily built than the green anaconda. The species may be the second heaviest living snake with some authors agreeing that it can exceptionally exceed 90 kg (200 lb).[16][17][18] One specimen, reportedly 7 m (23 ft 0 in) 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.[19] An even larger specimen considered authentic was shot in the Gambia and measured 7.5 m (24 ft 7 in).[11][12]

 
Illustration by Brehms Thierleben

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.[11]

The Central 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.[20][9] 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.[21][9] Under the eye, there is a distinctive triangular marking, the subocular mark.[20] Like all pythons, the scales of the African rock python are small and smooth.[9][22] Those around the lips possess heat-sensitive pits, which are used to detect warm-blooded prey, even in the dark.[21][22][23] 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.[22][23]

Cephalic features of the Southern African rock python (Python natalensis, left) and the Central African rock python (Python sebae, on the right).

The Southern African rock python and the Central African rock python differ in the following ways:

  • The southern has a colouration that is similar to its northern relative, however it is described as being more "drabber".[24]
  • P. sebae has two prominent light lines from the nose, over the eye to the back of the head, which are much duller in P. natalensis.[24][25]
  • The northern species has considerably larger head scales.[24]
  • Also, P. natalensis is typically smaller in size relative to P. sebae.[25] P. natalensis reaches an average length of between 2.8 and 4 metres[26] (max.size measured 5.8 meters.[27]) and, while P. sebae with an average length between 2.7 to 4.6 meters long[28] (max.size measured 6.5 meters.[27]).
  • In P. natalensis, the dark patch in front of and posterior to the eye is paler and narrower than in P. sebae, giving the appearance of a dark stripe as opposed to a yellow stripe at the level of the eye.[24]

Distribution and habitatEdit

 
A Roman mosaic shows an Central African rock python from the southern Nile.

The Central African rock python is found throughout almost the whole of sub-Saharan Africa,[29] from Senegal east to Ethiopia and Somalia and south to Namibia and South Africa.[30][9] Python sebae sebae ranges across central and western Africa, while P. s. natalensis has a more eastern and southerly range, from southern Kenya to South Africa.[8]

In 2009, a Central African rock python was found in the Florida Everglades.[31] 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.[10]

The Central African rock python inhabits a wide range of habitats, including forest, savanna, grassland, semidesert, and rocky areas. It is particularly associated with areas of permanent water,[20][32] and is found on the edges of swamps, lakes, and rivers.[8][9] The snake also readily adapts to disturbed habitats, so is often found around human habitation,[29] especially cane fields.[5]

Ecology and biologyEdit

FeedingEdit

Like all pythons, the Central African rock python is non-venomous and kills by constriction.[21][23] 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.[21] The African rock python feeds on a variety of large rodents, monkeys, warthogs, antelopes, vultures, fruit bats, monitor lizards, crocodiles, and more in forest areas,[9] and on rats, poultry, dogs, and goats in suburban areas. It will sometimes take fish as well.[33] Occasionally, it may eat the cubs of big cats such as leopards, lions, and cheetahs, cubs of hyenas, and puppies of wild dogs such as jackals and Cape hunting dogs.[citation needed]. However, these encounters are very rare, as the adult cats can easily kill pythons or fend them off.[34][12] On March 1, 2017, a 3.9-m (12-ft. 10-in) African rock python was filmed eating a large adult male spotted hyena weighing 70 kg (150 lb). This encounter suggests that the snake might very well be capable of hunting and killing larger and more dangerous animals than previously thought.[35] The largest ever recorded meal of any snake was when a 4.9m African Rock Python consumed a 59-kg impala.[36]

 
Constricting a pregnant goat

ReproductionEdit

 
Central African rock python emerging from egg

Reproduction occurs in the spring.[5] Central African rock pythons are oviparious, laying between 20 and 100 hard-shelled, elongated eggs in an old animal burrow, termite mound, or cave.[8][9] 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.[8][21][9] The female guards the hatchlings for up to two weeks after they hatch from their eggs to protect them from predators in a manner unusual for snakes in general and pythons in particular.[37]

Hatchlings are between 45 and 60 cm (17.5 and 23.5 in) in length and appear virtually identical to adults, except with more contrasting colors.[5] Individuals may live over 12 years in captivity.[38]

Human interactionEdit

AttacksEdit

 
Early 1900s, East Africa

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.[29] Few deaths are well-substantiated, with no reports of a human being consumed.[29] Large specimens (which are more common in Western Africa) "would have no difficulty in eating adult humans",[29] though it would have to be a small adult human.

Well-substantiated attacksEdit

  • A scholarly article published in 1980 said no prior well-substantiated fatalities were reported of humans killed by Central African rock pythons, and the only prior such attack by any type of python or boa was by a reticulated python in 1927.[29]
  • In 1979 in Waterberg District, Limpopo Province (then Northern Transvaal), South Africa, a 4.5-m Central African rock python killed a 13-year-old boy.[29] The victim died due to suffocation and internal injuries; his body was released by the python after intervention by an adult man some 20 minutes after the attack began.[29] The victim's head was covered in saliva, and scientists thought "it could have easily succeeded in swallowing" the 1.3-m, 45-kg boy had it not been interrupted.[29]
  • In 1999 in Centralia, Illinois, a 3-year-old boy was suffocated during the night by an escaped 2.3 m (7.5 ft) pet African rock python.[39][40] Bite marks around the boy's neck and ears may have resulted from an attempt to swallow him.[39]
  • In 2013 in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada, two brothers aged four and six were reportedly killed by a 4.3-to-4.9 m (14-to-16 ft), 45 kg (99 lb) Central African rock python kept by a pet shop owner.[41][42] The circumstances of the incident prompted some skepticism from experts not involved in the case.[42] An autopsy showed that the boys died of asphyxiation,[41] which does not fit with how constricting snakes kill.[43] The owner was charged with criminal negligence for not adequately protecting the boys from the snake.[44][45] (See main article).
  • In 2017, a 2.4-metre-long (8 ft) female Central African rock python, kept as a pet in Hampshire, England, was found to have killed its owner by asphyxiation, according to a coroner's inquest.[46]

Other reported attacksEdit

  • In 2002 near Durban, South Africa, a 10-year-old boy was reportedly swallowed by a Central African rock python over a three-hour period, as seven other children stayed hidden in a mango tree.[47][48] The animal was not captured and the story could not be verified, although detailed descriptions of the snake's markings and predation technique were reported to have seemed credible to a local snake park operator.[47]
  • In 2009 in Sabaki Village, Malindi District, Kenya, a male farm manager was reportedly attacked after stepping on a 13 ft (4.0 m) python, the exact species of which was not determined. After an hour's struggle, he was reportedly dragged up a tree, but then rescued by police and villagers after he was able to call for help on his mobile phone.[49][50] The snake was reportedly captured by police, but had escaped and disappeared by the next day.[49] The man said he bit the snake's tail while he was being attacked and was injured on his lower lip because the tip of the tail was sharp.[49]

BushmeatEdit

As the mammalian and avian game populations are gradually depleted in the Congo Basin, the proportion of large-bodied snakes offered at rural bushmeat markets increases. Consequently, a large proportion of the human population faces the threat of Armillifer armillatus infections, a python-borne zoonotic disease.[51]

ConservationEdit

People are often fearful of large pythons and may kill them on sight.[8][29] The Central African rock python is threatened by hunting for leather in some areas.[52] Consequently, it is listed as a Near threatened species. 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.[38] Little information is available on levels of international trade in this species.

Some of the Central 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 southeastern Nigeria from habitat destruction and exploration for the oil industry.[52][53]

 
The Central African rock python on the road to the south of Ivindo National Park, Gabon

The Central African rock python is still relatively common in many regions across Africa, and may adapt to disturbed habitats,[29] provided that food is available. The Central African rock python's population in West Africa has suffered greatly, whilst the Southern African species has fared better. This species is heavily exploited throughout its West African range, particularly for bushmeat and leather, and high rates of decline have been reported within the region. These declines appear to exceed 60% over three generations. However, both subspecies have faced declines in population and consequently it is at high risk of being a threatened species. It is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, meaning international trade in Central African rock pythons should be carefully monitored and controlled,[30] giving wild populations some protection from overcollection 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.[54]

In the Florida Everglades, where the Central 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.[55]

In cultureEdit

Luo people of Kenya living mainly in the area near Lake Victoria generally consider snakes to be evil and believe that sorcerers make them harm people.[56] They express a different attitude towards pythons - such as making them appear in play songs and even worshiping them. The Luo call the Central African rock python ng'ielo in their language,[57] and with the songs containing a phrase ng'ielo jadhogre “python the coiling”, children make a line and imitate a python's motion.[58][59][60] When the Luo worship a python, they call her Omieri (or Omweri) a returning python-spirit. The python is then seen as a reincarnation of Omieri, Goddess of Harvest and linked with rain and fertility.[61][56] One which appeared in 2003 raised international controversy over how she should be treated, with coverage from BBC News through the Daily Nation.[62][63][56]

ReferencesEdit

This article incorporates text from the ARKive fact-file "Central African rock python" under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License and the GFDL.

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Further readingEdit

  • Boulenger GA (1893). Catalogue of the Snakes in the British Museum (Natural History). Volume I., Containing the Families ... Boidæ ... London: Trustees of the British Museum (Natural History). (Taylor and Francis, printers). xiii + 448 pp. + Plates I-XXVIII. (Python sebae, pp. 86–87).
  • Gmelin JF (1789). Caroli a Linné Systema Naturae. Editio Decima Tertia [13th edition]. Tomus 1, Pars 3. Leipzig: G.E. Beer. 1,896 pp. (Coluber sebae, new species, p. 1118). (in Latin).

External linksEdit