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Keeping Reptiles Newsletter
 Vol 2, Issue 2   
July, 2005
Watching the Big Swallow
In this Issue

For many "herp" enthusiasts, part of the fun of having snakes in their home is the fact that they are so unique. Snakes are the only animals with a body shape that's so clean and simple, uninterrupted by appendages. While a few snakes do have small spurs, the remnants of hind legs shrunken by many years of evolution, they don't have external ear openings or eyelids, which would make them look more "normal" compared to the rest of the animal kingdom. Having a different body structure also means that they must have unique abilities, and we know that they do. They've managed to adapt these abilities and survive, when so many other life forms have failed in the harsh reality of nature.

Probably the most unique adaptation, and the one they're most famous for, is a snake's ability to unhinge its two-piece lower jaw from the rest of its skull and swallow prey larger than its own head. Some people have likened this to a guy trying to swallow a basketball with his hands tied behind his back! The sheer wonder of watching a snake eat is one part of snake keeping that always seems to amaze me no matter how many thousands of times I've seen it. Most of my snakes freely eat all their meals in front of me, but there are a few that I've only managed to watch a couple of times in the years I've had them because they are more cautious than most. This is natural since each one is an individual with its own "personality."

There are a couple of hints I can provide to increase the chances that you'll be able to watch your snake swallow its meals, even if it's a bit reluctant to eat in front of you. Some shy serpents can be desensitized to a human's presence to the extent that once they eat in front of you without incident, they feel less fearful and will be more likely to do it again in the future.

First of all, you want to avoid any fast movements. If you remain still, the snake is less likely to pay attention to you being near its cage. If necessary, you can leave the food item in the cage and slowly move away to a place where you can still observe what's going on in the cage, but from a distance. If the snake starts to eat, you can then carefully move closer to geta better look, but be sure to stop moving if the snake stops swallowing or seems to be afraid of you. Usually once a snake starts swallowing, it will want to finish the meal even if it knows you're watching. But you need to be careful with a nervous captive. Any sudden movement (like a child or dog running up to the cage) can scare the snake and cause it to spit out the meal.

Sometimes even a regular feeder will be a bit slow to take the food animal that's been placed in its cage, or it may seize the rodent in its mouth but then stop and not continue to swallow. Through the years, I've noticed that by just looking away from the snake for a few moments, the snake will often realize that there's nothing to fear. Many times it will then continue to eat almost immediately. I once heard on a television program that some animals take a direct stare as a sign of aggression. I can't say that snakes interpret a look in the same way, but my experience does lead me to believe that looking away gives the impression of indifference and can put a feeding snake at ease. I've never read this anywhere, but it works for me.

Extract from "Snake Keeping - Proven Techniques Everyone Can
Use" by Barry Neilsen

Centralian Pythons (Morelia bredli)

by Justin Julander, Australian Addiction Reptiles

Centralian pythons are some of the most beautiful pythons in the world. Their magnificent red coloration helps them blend in with their redrock desert habitat. They come from central Australia around the area of Alice Springs. These snakes can usually be found in trees near seasonal watercourses. Centralians are generally mild mannered and even wild caught adults of this species rarely try to bite. They grow to an impressivc 8 feet long and are top predators in their habitat usually preying on large mammals as adults. Large clutches of eggs have been laid by this species numbering as high as 40 eggs in wild females. Hatchlings Morelia bredli start out dull brown in coloration, but after a year or so develop intense orange and red coloration, brought out especially in natural sunlight. These snakes do well in captivity and make wonderful captives.

Centralian Pythons (Morelia bredli)

In captivity, Centralian pythons are hardy, which probably reflects their adaptabilty in the outback of Australia. Desert reptiles usually fare well in captivity because they are used to harsh and changing conditions that they experience in the wild and are forgiving to temperature extremes that we may accidentally impose apon them. As with all reptiles, Centralians should be given choices of temperature and humidity so they can choose which temperature they need to do a certain job. In the wild, reptiles can choose from basically all temperatures to find the one they need using thermoregulation, and they are experts at finding the required heat. I give my bredli a thermogradient using incandescent bulbs as well as heat pads, heat tape, or other heating elements. To create a proper thermogradient, a large cage is beneficial. The smaller the cage, the harder it is to create a thermogradient with the appropriate range of temperatures this snake needs. I use a cage that is a about 6 feet in length and 2 feet high. Directly under the basking spot can reach 130 degrees F. At the cool end of the cage, the temperatures are usually close to ambient room temps and average around the low 80's. With the wide range of different temperatures, the snakes can choose temps they need for jobs like digesting food, cycling for breeding, fighting illness, and general well being. Problems arise quickly when reptiles are not allowed access to the temps they need.

Centralian pythons will eat mice and rats in captivity with gusto. Hatchling pythons will grow very quickly when fed if they are given the temperatures they need to digest, and seem to be bottomless pits at feeding time. Care must be taken when feeding snakes housed together to make sure their strong feeding response is not directed at a fellow cagemate. Two snakes grappling for the same rodent does not make for a fun puzzle and the untangling is quite a chore. I make sure the snakes are in separate areas of the cage and that each snake has a food item. Alternatively, the snakes may be separated to different feeding enclosures at meal time. Water is given in a bowl that is not easily tipped over. Too much humidity can be damaging to the snakes, and spills should be cleaned up immediately. I do provide an area of increased humidity for the snakes to use if they need it for things such as egg laying and shedding. This can be accomplished by providing a hide area with slightly damp green or sphagnum moss.

These snakes will do well if their needs are met, and make for beautiful and interesting captives. I will go down to my herp room just to stare at these beauties. They are definately one of my favorites!

Justin is excited about his animals and loves to share his enthusiasm and experience. Justin has been keeping reptiles for over 20 years and breeding them for the last 6 years. Justins collection includes children's pythons, womas, knob tailed and eyelash geckos, frilled lizards, snake necked turtles, green tree pythons and spotted pythons. Justin also runs a website called "Australian Addiction Reptiles"

Frequently Asked Questions

I'm going to build a new terrarium so that I can get a new snake (or 2). It's going to be approximately 200 gallons. If I put in large logs and rocks, would this be cool for a python or 2?  I will probably build in an optional separator to separate it into 2 equal sides...

There are a few issues you should think about with regard to your caging plans. First off, if you're building this cage and acquiring a large (adult) snake to put in it, then you can build to the size your snake research has shown you that you will need. However, if you're going to buy a baby snake (even a species that gets big), it can best be housed in something much smaller initially, and probably have a couple of progressively larger cages as it grows, before it would be ready to go into the cage you're planning.

Naturalistic vivariums, with "large logs and rocks" (your words) can look nice. However, don't forget about the effort required to clean the cage after your python takes a "dump" the size of which is equal to that of a Saint Bernard (no joke). There are other, less labor intensive, ways to keep a large snake. Maybe you are prepared to dismantle the cage and wash the large logs and rocks on a regular basis, which is fine as long as you can keep it clean. One alternative may be to install a drain in the bottom of the cage. That way you could use a hose to wash the furnishings in place and catch the runoff with a bucket or funnel it away with a pipe.

One a final note, I recommend keeping one snake to a cage in most cases, so the "separator" you mention would be a good idea. Before you put in all the work of building that cage, maybe it wouldn't hurt for you to do more reading about what a snake requires. That will help you plan an awesome cage that you can be proud of and, most importantly, one that will also provide everything required by the animal you're going to put in it.

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