Blood Pythons, Information and Care
Scientific name: Python brongersmai
Other common names: Red blood python, Malaysian blood python, Malaysian red blood python, Sumatran red blood python.
Size: This is a very heavy-bodied snake. Large adults may have a massive girth. The head is long and broad, wider than the neck; the tail is short. Most adult females measure 50"-66" in total length, most adult males measure 40"-56" in total length. Older females occasionally attain 72" in total length. The maximum size for the taxon reportedly exceeds 9 feet in total length, but we are unconvinced. We've seen large obese females that weighed 40-45 pounds.
Distribution: The blood python is found throughout most of the lower elevations of Peninsular (Western) Malaysia, southwestern Thailand, Sumatra east of the central dividing range of mountains, Bangka Island and other islands in the Straits of Malacca, including the Lingga islands, Riau, and Pinang.
This taxon is commonly encountered in low forested hills and the various types of plantations that are located in the upland areas surrounding lower and wetter habitats. Blood pythons are occasionally encountered in irrigated farming areas and poorly drained flood plains, but it appears that they are more closely associated with the upland areas than many published accounts would indicate.
Availability: Until recent years, most wild-caught blood pythons exported to the U.S. were collected by and purchased from skinning businesses in Sumatra. In the early 1990s, most animals came from skinning businesses to the south in the vicinity of Palembang in southeastern Sumatra. Blood pythons from Bangka Island were often included with the Palembang animals.
Since the mid 1990s, most of the animals have originated from businesses in the vicinity of Medan, Sumatra, and most blood pythons in encountered in captivity today are descended from animals from that area.
Most imported blood pythons today are young animals. Most are "wild-bred, captive-hatched" blood pythons that are hatched from eggs laid by captured gravid females. These often are encountered at the weekend reptile shows that take place around the country. Many are falsely represented as "captive-bred." Never-the-less, most of these youngsters will do well for their keepers.
Excellent captive-bred specimens are available from professional breeders and serious hobbyists. The species is offered for sale on many price lists, web sites, and classified advertising. Captive-bred animals are often encountered at weekend reptile shows.
Pattern variation: This is a python taxa with variable pattern. Most typically then, the top of the head is unmarked or with a faint thin stripe from the internasals to the nape of the neck. There is a dark mark with a pale margin in front of the eye on the preoculars and a thin pale postocular stripe from behind the eye to the angle of the jaw. There is a dark triangular postocular blotch on the side of the head, the point contacting the posterior margin of the eye and widening onto the side of the neck. The upper surface of the neck and back is dark. Centered along the vertebral line and interspersed along the length of the body are small pale vertebral spots. On some specimens the vertebral spots are widely spaced, while in others they are numerous and in places coalesce to become elongated blotches or short stripes. On the sides are a series of dark lateral blotches. On the anterior half of the body, the sides appear as pale with a longitudinal series of lateral blotches on the lower sides-each blotch originating at the ventral surface and rising to about halfway up the sides. On the posterior half of the body these dark lateral blotches become taller and some or all contact and coalesce with the dark dorsal surface. In the pale areas of pattern, high on the side, are a longitudinal series of rounded black blotches, spaced at random intervals along the length of the body.
There are several observed variations of pattern. Some are inherited as simple recessive mutations, and there are others that are codminant. One recessive trait is exhibited by a few beautifully striped specimens that have been imported; their condition of striping is the result of a mutation.
The second and most dramatic is a condition of pattern and color known as "ivory." This is a partially leucistic condition in which about 90% of the surface of the body, including the chin, throat, sides and belly, is pure white. The head and tail are pale silver gray with small black flecks, the upper surface of the neck and back are pale yellow with gray flecks and small blotches. The ivory appearance is inherited as an incompletely dominant or codominant trait; the heterozygous condition is identified as the "matrix" appearance.
Color variation: There naturally exists quite a variation of colors in this taxon. The head can be dark charcoal gray, medium gray, pale chrome gray, a pale flesh color, or reddish tan; the heads of some Sumatran animals are red. It's our observation that blood pythons have the ability to change the intensity or darkness of their head color. The eyes of blood pythons are pale at the top and shaded to dark gray or black at the bottom. Usually the pale postocular stripe is pale gray, the dark postocular blotch is black.
The dark pattern elements on most of the body range from rich yellow to medium brown to orange-red to bright red to dark oxblood and, rarely, to very dark gray. In most blood pythons, the dark pattern elements are some shade of red and are not bounded by discrete black margins. The pale pattern elements on the back are typically yellow or yellowish. The pale pattern on the sides is usually a pale gray with tiny black flecks.
There are several types of wild-caught albino specimens currently in captivity. Several of the types have been bred to produce albino specimens. The condition that has been bred the longest is identified as "red-albino"; it likely is a type of tyrosinase-positive albinism, though that has not been proven. It is demonstrated to be inherited in the manner of a single recessive mutation. These red-albinos are without black pigment, but do have some dark gray and purple pigments which serve to enrich the red and yellow pigments-they are extraordinarily beautiful animals.
We have tyrosinase-negative albino specimens, beautiful red snakes with white heads and tails. At VPI there is a lavender-albino specimen. We direct your attention to our galleries of blood python images here at VPI.com to see many of the other variations of blood pythons.
-Cage size: At all ages, blood pythons require a secure well-ventilated cage. A glass aquarium with a secure ventilated top (screen wire or perforated metal) can make a satisfactory cage for a young specimen. Plastic storage boxes, with numerous perforations for ventilation, also can be used to maintain blood pythons. Some of the commercially available PVC, polyethylene, ABS plastic or fiberglass cages probably best accommodate the large size and bulk of adult blood pythons.
We initially place hatchlings in a small enclosure with about 40 square inches of floor space; we have found that often, if placed in too large an enclosure, a hatchling may be insecure and fail to feed. Once regular feeding begins, this species will quickly require a larger space, and we then move them to cages with 180-300 square inches of floor space. As adults, most blood pythons will require a cage with 6-12 square feet of floor space. One of the most common mistakes made in keeping this python is to not provide a suitably large cage for the adults.
-Substrate: It has been our experience and observation that blood pythons do extremely well on newspaper. When using newspaper as a cage substrate, it is a good maintenance practice, after papering the bottom with a thick pad of newspaper, to crumple several pieces of newspaper in the cage, under which the snake can hide if desired.
Blood pythons can be successfully maintained on a variety of substrates, including potting soil, clean gravel, cypress bark chips, and carpet. However, we do not recommend any of those substrates. Over a long period of time, it is difficult to maintain clean cage conditions using those substrates without excessive diligence.
-Water: Clean water should be available in a glass or ceramic water bowl at all times. For hatchlings we supply a small water bowl measuring about 2½" in diameter, 1" in depth. Young adults are provided a 16 oz water bowl, measuring 4" in diameter and 3" in depth. Older specimens are given large ceramic water bowls measuring 8" in diameter and 3" in depth. Blood pythons drink large amounts of water, and it appears to be especially important for this python to always have fresh water available.
Blood pythons often soak in water if given a suitably large container. While this is not necessary for successful maintenance of this python, there is no doubt that most enjoy an occasional bath. As is true for other python species, blood pythons may sit in their water bowls if they are stressed or insecure in their cages (they are "hiding" in their water bowl,) or if they are plagued by an infestation of snake mites-these possibilities should always be considered when any pythons are observed continually soaking.
-Temperatures: As a general starting point, blood pythons seem to do best if kept in the low-to-mid 80s degrees F. We keep most of our blood pythons at 80-82 degrees F in the day and 78-80 degrees F at night. Most of the time our blood pythons do not have a basking spot available to them. When we do provide a heated basking spot, it is 86-88 degrees F.
If recently fed, blood pythons should not be subjected to temperatures more than 90 degrees F or below 78 degrees F. When empty of food, blood pythons are tolerant of a wider range of temperatures. It does appear that this species is less tolerant of cool temperatures than most pythons; they do fine in the 70s, but we rarely expose them to temperatures below 75 degrees F.
-Feeding requirements: Blood pythons will eat rats all their life. One appropriately-sized rat per week is an adequate feeding schedule. In the fall, before the breeding season, older and larger snakes may eat two or three rats. Large specimens may eat one small rabbit a week. Many adults will not eat during winter months.
Hatchlings will start feeding on either live pink rats or live small mice (just weaned, 4-5 weeks old) for their first meals. Once they commence feeding regularly, most youngsters will eat medium or large mice, until they grow large enough to consume small adult rats. Most juvenile, subadult and adult blood pythons readily accept dead food, either thawed or fresh-killed.
REMEMBER! A live rodent may attack and damage or even kill a blood python if the rodent is left unsupervised and without food in the cage of the snake.
-Shedding: Blood pythons generally have few problems shedding their skin. It is necessary to elevate the humidity in the average cage one or two days before shedding occurs [we accomplish this simply by wetting the newspaper.] Should a snake incompletely shed, leaving a portion of the shed adhered to the snake, the snake should be soaked in pure or slightly-soapy shallow water for several hours, after which the adhered shed typically comes off very easily.
REMEMBER! When soaking a snake, the water into which the snake is placed should be no deeper than half-way up the side of the snake at midbody. Deeper water increases the chance of accidental drowning. Never soak a snake that is weak, sick or impaired in any way.
Small patches of skin that remain adhered to the snake are not expected to have any deleterious effect and it is at the option of the keeper to arrange for the removal. It's probably best to see that skin is not left on the face and eyes. Typically, "stuck" pieces of shed will come off with the next shed. Incomplete sheds and adhered sheds are indicators that the ambient humidity in the cage is too low and the careful keeper will "tweak" the system to increase the humidity.
-Humidity: There are differing opinions among keepers of blood pythons about what are the optimal conditions of humidity and how to achieve them. In conditions of humidity below 50%-60%, this taxon will have difficulty shedding and some of the large scales on the upper surface of the snake, including the spectacles covering the eyes, may be dimpled in the center. However, in conditions of high humidity and poor ventilation we have observed a significantly higher incidence of respiratory illnesses. In very high humidity and damp conditions, the scales will prune or wrinkle; this sometimes is interpreted as the dimpling caused by low humidity.
We have not noted any lasting or deleterious effects to result from the dimpling of the scales or spectacles. The effect is largely cosmetic. There are possible negative health effects that can result from a retained partial or full shed. It is rare that shedding difficulties and stuck shed have serious consequences for adult snakes. However, a stuck shed that is not remedied can be fatal to hatchling or juvenile blood pythons. When the condition occurs, stuck sheds are easily removed by soaking, as discussed in the previous section. Consequently, the only real danger that arises from keeping blood pythons in moderate levels of humidity is that a novice or inattentive keeper may not realize that a young snake in his care is suffering this condition.
We have seen blood pythons in other people's collections that were in warm cages dripping with humidity. The animals were given large pans of water in which to soak, and provided with pans of moist sphagnum moss in which to burrow. In our own experience, when we have replicated those conditions, two things became apparent. The first was that proper maintenance of these cages and their environments requires close attention and lots of labor. Extremely warm moist closed spaces are preferred habitat for mildews, fungi, algae, molds, and bacteria. We've actually seen mushrooms sprout from pans of moss. The proper maintenance and sanitation of these cages is difficult and is beyond the capabilities of many keepers. In other words, these cages may be good idea in theory, but, for most keepers, they are difficult to properly maintain in actual practice.
Our second observation is that there is a higher incidence of respiratory illness in blood pythons maintained in these high humidity situations. This is not to say that all snakes in these cages will become ill, only that there is a higher probability that they might become ill. This for us seems a very serious consideration. We have found that respiratory illnesses in this taxon can be difficult to treat and often have very serious consequences.
We have found that the best course of action is to strive to create 60%-70% ambient humidity inside the cages of blood pythons, with any variation toward lower humidity. In fact, this is about the "normal" amount of humidity present in most snake cages with open water bowls. We ignore some dimpling of the dorsal scales and spectacles. It is a good practice to soak blood pythons for several hours in 80 degree every once in a while; many blood pythons do like a good soak. We closely monitor the shedding schedules of the snakes, so that we can increase the humidity in the cage several days before a shed.
-Special considerations for hatchlings and juveniles: Hatchlings are cute little pudgy babies; most are ready feeders and are easy and rewarding snakes to raise. It is our experience that youngsters strongly prefer live prey for their first meals. Once they are feeding well, especially once they begin to associate food with keepers, they begin to eat pre-killed prey offered to them with forceps or feeding tongs. From that point, most will quickly and easily switch to thawed food. Hatchlings and young snakes feed best in cages that are not too warm, preferring 78-82 degrees for optimal feeding.
It's especially important to pay close attention to the shedding cycles of juveniles, and make certain that stuck sheds or incomplete sheds are quickly corrected.
Hatchling blood pythons are rarely red. The very reddest adult blood pythons may start out as brown, tan, or orange-brown hatchlings. Most youngsters undergo a dramatic color change as they mature. Animals typically don't begin to show some red color in their pattern until their second year, and the brightest red colors usually develop from 2½ -3½ years of age. Thereafter, the red coloration of most adults darkens with age.
Most python species shed one or two weeks after hatching, but blood pythons do not shed for about three or four months after hatching. Hatchling blood pythons usually begin feeding 14-21 days after hatching. Often a youngster has more than tripled his weight by the time he completes a first shed.
-General comments: Adult blood pythons are big heavy snakes, very impressive to handle. Most captive-raised Sumatran specimens can be expected to be very docile, but it is our experience that (at least some) Malaysian specimens of blood pythons are more temperamental and inclined to bite. We have blood pythons that are as docile and gentle and unlikely to bite as any pythons with which we have ever worked. A blood python can be an absolutely spectacular captive, ideal in every way for the keeper who seeks to maintain one of the larger pythons.
There is a lot of variation in color and pattern, so it can pay to shop for quality babies.
Wild-caught adult female blood pythons are extremely difficult to breed in captivity. Probably less than 1% of imported adult female blood pythons will ever lay eggs in captivity. This is not true of wild-caught males, many of which will breed successfully in captivity. But if one wants to breed blood pythons, we strongly recommend that they raise the females from hatchlings.