The Captive Husbandry and Natural History of the Blood and Short-Tailed Pythons
By Jason Holzworth
Blood and Short-Tailed pythons have become common over the last decade at herp shows and in collections. Like many other species of serpents, there is a plethora of pattern and color morphs to be found. This is due to many dedicated years of implementing effective husbandry and breeding methods.
What is it?
First, the confusion of this species needs to be addressed, because quite frankly there is a lot of confusion among people on exactly what species of Short-Tailed python they have.
Python curtus was first described in 1872 by the Dutch Herpetologist, Hermann Schlegel. These specimens that could be in museums were from southern and western Sumatra. The first Blood Pythons came into the United States around the early 1930s. Austrian herpetologist, Franz Steindachner described Python breitensteini in 1884, which the specimen was from Teweh, Borneo.
It wasn’t until 1893 that George Boulenger of the British Museum of Natural History published a paper recognizing Python breitensteini as a subspecies of Python curtus. As time went on, more and more specimens were placed in museums and were available for examination in the early 1900s, allowing researches to see that the mainland form was different than the specimens from Borneo.
An American researcher at the Museum of Comparative Zoology of Harvard named Olive Griffith Stull, described the Blood Python in 1938 as Python curtus Brongersmai. On a side note, Stull, at the time was probably the foremost authority on pythons, boas, at the time.
In 1947, another Dutch herpetologist, L.D. Brongersma (whom Stuff named the Blood Python after), noted that not one, but two species of Short-Tailed pythons occurred on the island of Sumatra. The smaller and darker form, which became the nominate subspecies, Python curtus curtus, occurred in the southern and western parts of Sumatra. These two Sumatran species are also separated by a central mountain range. In addition to this there are granular sub ocular scales beneath the eye that red and brown form, Python curtus Brongersmai, found in central and northern parts of eastern Sumatra did not have. This was the same species described found on the mainland that Stull described. Molecular studies revealed that Python curtus curtus and Python curtus breitensteini were very closely related to each other, more so than P. c. Brongersmai
In 1990, all three subspecies began to make their way into U.S. collections, causing confusion among what subspecies was what, from animal dealer to private collector. In 2001, a paper written by Keogh, Barker and Shine put forth evidence that elevated both P. Curtus Breitensteini and P. Curtus Brongersmai to full species from their previous subspecies status of Python Curtus. (The names in parantheses following are common names)
- Python Curtus (Sumatran Short-Tailed python, Sumatran black python, black Short-Tailed python, black Blood Python),
- Python Brongersmai (Malaysian Short-Tailed python, Sumatran Blood Python, Blood Python, red Blood Python), and
- Python Breitensteini (Borneo Short-Tailed python, Borneo python, Borneo Blood Python).
This did not help with the confusion between species, even today, a great deal of confusion is still very common as many people use the generic term “Blood Python” with or without any of the before mentioned nick names to describe what species they have in their possession.
Despite the differences, the three species do share some things in common. They are found in vegetated and swampy marsh areas in their native range, waiting in ambush for unsuspecting prey of mammals and birds. All three species average four to six feet in length, however some individuals of Python Brongersmai can attain a larger size. Certain specimens, usually from Malaysian decent can attain 10 feet, but this is not a common occurrence.
Another common theme with all three specimens is the skin trade. Over 60,000 P. Brongersmai alone are collected and harvested for the skin trade each year. Some are also taken illegally for the skin trade as well as folk medicine. Mark O’Shea tells a story of being part of a police raid on an illegal reptile skin, meat and gall bladder factory. A huge number of dead snakes, snake body parts, and a few live specimens were found. The interesting part of this story, the factory occurred where P. Brongersmai did not occur naturally, and the authorities told O’Shea that if they would’ve been found alive, they would have just been released in the nearest “suitable” habitat.
Blood Pythons can even be found on ebay!
A Brief History
Since the 1970’s, P. Brongersmai has been imported into the United States for private collections. In the beginning of their era in captivity, they achieved a very distinct reputation to be extremely aggressive, parasite ridden, and reluctant to feed. Quite frankly, these descriptions were not accurate, but over time along side the help of dedicated breeders, zoos and hobbyists, many began to understand the basic needs and proper husbandry of Bloods and Short-Tailed pythons. I personally enjoy talking to some of the people who kept these animals thirty years ago. I’ve heard horror stories about their prized, fire engine red animal suddenly die, only to cut the specimen open to find a large infestation of worms and other parasites. Thankfully those days are long gone, and many generations of Blood and Short-Tailed pythons have been reproduced in captivity. Something else happened along the way, their reputation for being mean and aggressive slowly started to recede as many of the animals hatched into captivity become quite docile and tractable.
Choosing a Snake
Choosing a blood or Short-Tailed python may be the easiest or hardest decision in your life, it all boils down to what you want. Bloods and Short-Tails range in $75.00-$25,000 (yes you read that correctly). Just remember the old saying, “You usually get what you pay for.” Let me explain, when people think of a Blood Python, they think of that fire engine red animal that blows your mind every time you take a glance at it. However, you will not get with this from an animal that cost $75. The majority of these specimens are going to turn a drab brown before their second year of life and never look back. If you want an animal that will be a spectacular specimen, then you will simply have to spend some money. When looking for a high quality P. Brongersmai, usually the only way to accomplish this is one of two ways; buy an offspring from extremely red parents or just buy red adults. The prices can be extreme, and in five years, I predict that the price of extremely nice red specimens of Brongersmai will cost more than some of the albinos out there.
Most of the babies that are for sale come in from Indonesia from Blood Python ranches as either captive hatched or wild caught. Captive hatched snakes usually do well in captivity, but there is no guarantee they will be red adults. Ask yourself this, do you want quality or quantity? Whichever one you decide to go with is ok, it is your decision and your money. (Wild caught specimens should be left to the experienced blood keepers because of the high maintenance needs and care.)
Blood and Short-Tailed pythons can be kept much like Burmese pythons and Boa Constrictors, however they cannot tolerate the extreme conditions that the other species can. Blood Pythons like to have temperatures that range 78 degrees Fahrenheit to 88 degrees Fahrenheit. I have raised numerous Blood Pythons with this temperature formula and it has worked well. If you let your temps get below 78 degrees or above 88 degrees you may have dissatisfaction of your animal regurgitating or coming down with a case of respiratory infection. I use flex watt heat tape wired to a thermostat to control the temperature. A quality thermostat is key. I prefer the A419 from Johnson Controls (you can now get these with night drop!), but also use Helix Controls, and the Big Apple Herpstat. [Bloods should not be kept above 90 degrees for any length of time to avoid complications.]
Another tool you will need to help control the tempeture is some sort of thermometer. I personally prefer to use a temperature gun. I highly recommend owning more than one as you can keep then in more than one area of your herp room. You can measure the temperature quickly and very efficiently. Another great tool recommended is a digital thermometer with a probe to measure both the hot spot and the ambient air temps all in one unit.
Humidity and Water
Humidity is also a very important key to proper care of the Short-Tailed pythons. Humidity should be in the 60-70 percent range at all times. If the humidity falls below these levels your Short-Tailed python will look like a piece of beef jerky. This is particularly true in hatchlings and juveniles. Make sure these serpents have water available at all times, and fresh water at that.
If offered a large enough dish, Short-Tailed pythons will soak. Do not be alarmed if you see your blood soaking, even if it is for days. As long as he is eating regularly, there is nothing to worry about. Do not keep your short-tail on soaking wet substrate either, as this will create some serious skin issues like scale rot, bacterial and/or fungal infections.
Housing for hatchlings up to yearlings can be in an enclosure that provides 100 square inches. This may seem small, but Bloods and Short-Tails, and many other snakes for that matter, do not need large spaces to live in. In fact, they feel more secure and live happier and healthier lives in small enclosures.
At one year of age up until 18 months of age, depending on their size, they are moved up 150 square inches of floor space. The substrate I prefer for the last two enclosures mentioned is paper toweling. It is cheap, easily changed, and very sanitary. Some people like to use mulch, newspaper, or soil of some sort, but I have found paper toweling to be the most efficient substrate for a young and growing blood.
At 18 months of age, the snakes are moved into a Sterilite or Rubbermaid container that provides 432 square inches. They will live the next six months to a year in these enclosures and then will be moved up to their final housing through adulthood.
Some adults just do not get big, maxing out at three to four feet. The yellow headed version of P. curtus tend to stay small and I house adults of this locality in Boaphile cages that offer a floor space 30 inches x 24 inches. Height is not as important with these animals as they do not climb, but I do recommend at least 12 inches of height for adults, mainly for the ease of maintaining the enclosure and the specimen. Larger adults are moved into 36 inch or 48 inch enclosures with a depth of 24 inches depending on specimen’s size. Most will live out their lives in these enclosures. All adult enclosures have cypress mulch or newspaper as the substrate as I have personally found these choices to be the best.
Bloods and Short-Tails will take rats all their lives, if you are lucky! Some of the hatchlings that I have raised have been picky feeders, only taking live mouse hoppers from the start. I have found some specimens will take frozen-thawed rodents right out of the egg, some will not.
A trick that another keeper told me about that has worked extremely well, is to take a small cardboard box or paper bag. Let the hopper mouse live in it for a few hours so that it’s scent is concentrated in the bag or box. Then at night time, introduce the snake and leave it alone. 8 times out of 10, the snake will pick up on the scent, due to how strong it has become, and will feed. You may have to do this trick several weeks in a row before a short-tail becomes a regular feeder without this trick. Please do not leave any live rodent unattended for any amount of time during feeding, as serious complications and death can occur!
If you have a hatchling that absolutely will not eat, then eventually you will have to force feed it. If you have never done this, I highly recommend seeking professional help on force feeding by either consulting your vet, or your local herp society for guidance.
Feeding schedules for hatchlings and juveniles are more frequent than that of adults. Hatchlings until about one year of age should be offered appropriately sized prey every 7 – 10 days. After one year old, you can still offer food on the same schedule, but please be aware and take notice if your snake starts to become pudgy. It is ok to skip a meal every once in a while, and quite honestly may not be a bad idea to do it anyway.
Bloods and Short-Tails have an extremely unusual metabolism, unlike other snakes. Maybe people see photos of extremely girthy, fat snakes and are led to believe that is what they should look like. However, many of the Bloods that you see are simply fat and obese. Do not let your blood get fat, this will lead to a premature death.
Adults vary on feeding schedule. No two Bloods or Short-Tails are the same. I have a few adults that remain on the 7-10 day feeding schedule with the occasional missed meal. However this is not the norm. On average, an adult blood will eat every 2 – 4 weeks. Yes you read that correctly, your short-tail may only need to be fed once a month. Despite what you think, this is very true.
Problems in Captivity
My blood/short-tail won’t poop!
Calm down for a moment, and remember that as stated earlier, these snakes are like no other. They metabolize food much differently than other snakes. They do not poop every week as other snakes. Way less frequently actually. Some adults only defecate 4 – 8 times a year. I have heard of one blood going 8 months without defecation. But be assured, when your short-tail goes, he will go, and you’ll think you are keeping an elephant rather than a snake. So don’t freak out if your blood hasn’t pooped on the schedule you think it should be on. As always, if you think your blood is backed up and can’t pass, a visit to a Reptile Vet is needed to help diagnose the problem.
Just wait, your blood will poop!
Respiratory infection is caused by gram negative bacteria. All Bloods as well as snakes carry these bacteria, it only becomes active when proper husbandry conditions are not met. So if your snake has a respiratory infection, you need to examine your husbandry conditions, because you have messed up. Check your humidity and temperature, this is usually the culprit. Adjust your conditions and if it doesn’t improve in a week, take your snake to a Reptile Vet immediately. A serious RI will kill your snake.
Dimpled scales and eye caps occur in captive Bloods and Short-Tails when conditions just aren’t perfect. But do not worry, this condition will not kill your snake, but it let’s you know something is just not quite right. It usually one of two things; too much humidity or too little. That is right; improperly keeping your snake on either end of the spectrum can have the same result. Check your conditions and adjust accordingly. If you “listen” to your snake, it will tell you what it needs.
If you keep snakes, sooner or later you will experience mites. Mites are little pests that like to suck the blood and life out of your snake. Some people don’t think mites are such a big deal, others are vigilant about getting rid of these parasites as soon as they are spotted. I prefer to take the latter attitude about these pepper-sized pests, they can spread rapidly. Mites can be seen crawling around the snake, lodged under scales and around the eye caps, and floating dead in water bowls, as they cannot swim.
I have found a two-part treatment that works well with mites. The first part is to take the snake and place it in a Rubbermaid or Sterilite container. Then using a product called Reptile Relief, you generously spray the snake down. Reptile Relief contains natural ingredients that are not suppose to harm your snake, but will make the exoskeleton and shells of mite eggs explode. The second part, while your snake is crawling around in Reptile Relief, is to use an aerosol such as Provent-a-Mite. Simply remove the water bowl and any other wet items in the enclosure, including the substrate if it is soaked, then spray the aerosol can liberally in the cage. Close the cage door for 15 minutes, then open the door to air out and dry completly. As always, when using any of these products, please refer to the manufacturure’s instructions for the most effective way to use these products!
If your short-tail is kept properly, it will have no issues shedding its skin. Rarely will the skin come off in one piece but many pieces, just as long as it all comes off. If you find that your blood has retained skin that just will not peel off, put it in an appropriately sized Rubbermaid or Sterilite container with water about half the height of the animal sitting on the ground. Let it soak, making sure that the water temp isn’t too cold or too hot, the skin should peel off. After a snake has shed, the first thing to check is the eye caps, usually these are the areas that are hardest to come off, especially in less than optimum conditions.
It is vital with hatchlings and younger specimens that the skin comes off when it is ready. If not, unshed skin can actually kill your snake. Remember, once again Bloods and Short-Tails are not like other snakes. Hatchlings do not shed their skins within one or two weeks of being born. They can take 90-120 days to shed their skin.
Regurgitation is a very serious matter in captive snakes. It is a 100% symptom of something not being right. Whether it is an internal parasite or improper temperatures. Check your temperatures, usually Bloods kept over a constant 88 degrees will regurgitate. It is vital to not go over 88 degrees as well as provides a temperature gradient mentioned earlier.
If an animal regurgitates and you unsure about the temperatures, take your animal to a Reptile Vet immediately for a fecal check. The vet will check and see if any types of parasites show up in the snake. This could be a simple fix.
Regardless of the cause of regurgitation, wait at least two weeks before offering another food item. When the time finally comes to offer a food item, offer something a smaller then you normally would, and LEAVE THE SNAKE ALONE.
Blood and Short-Tailed pythons are very rewarding to keep in captivity. Their conditions are easily met if you just pay a little attention to their needs. They are usually very problem free and when raised up from a hatchling are very docile, destroying the reputations of old. Bloods and Short-Tails are some of the most beautiful and impressive snakes that can be found in captive collections.
Reprinted with permission ©2008 Jason Holzworth – www.redpython.net