Borneo Pythons, Information and Care Sheet

David and Tracy Barker

Common name:  Borneo Python

Scientific name:  Python  breitensteini

Other common names:  Borneo short-tailed python, Borneo blood python. [In light of the recognition of this taxon as a full species, we are proposing that the common name for this species be amended from “Borneo short-tailed python” to “Borneo python. This is the only python species that is endemic to the island of Borneo, and we feel that the common name “Borneo python” is both informative and the most concise name for this taxon.]

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 and tapers sharply. Most adult females measure 32"-50" in total length, most adult males measure 24"-40" in total length. It’s not unusual for older females to attain 60” in total length and the maximum size for the taxon approaches 6½ feet in total length and exceeds 30 pounds in weight. 

Distribution:  The Borneo python is found throughout most of the lower elevations of the island of Borneo. This subspecies is particularly associated with areas drained by slow rivers, irrigated farming areas, poorly drained flood plains, and the forested hills that surround these areas.

Availability:  Most of the wild-caught animals available in the U.S. were collected in western Borneo and exported from Pontianak, Kalimantan, Indonesia. Many "wild-bred, captive-hatched" Borneo short-tail pythons are exported to the U.S. from Indonesia each year. These are often encountered at the weekend reptile shows that take place around the country. 

           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 relatively variable pattern. Most typically then, there is a thin dark stripe on the top of the head from the internasals posterior to the nape of the neck where it widens and gains a pale center as it contacts the dark top of the neck. Otherwise the top of the head is pale and unmarked. There is a dark mark in front of the eye and a dark postocular stripe. A wide dark stripe begins on the neck and continues to the tip of the tail. Centered in this wide dark stripe that covers the upper surface of the neck and body, interspersed along the length of the body are small pale vertebral spots, positioned along the vertebral line. On the posterior half of the body, the vertebral spots are more numerous, begin to coalesce and become a pale vertebral stripe with intermittent breaks that continues to the tip of the tail. On the sides are a series of dark-edged lateral blotches. On the anterior half of the body, the lateral blotches rise from the ventral surface to about halfway up the sides. On the posterior half of the body these dark lateral blotches contact and coalesce with the dark dorsal surface.

            Two conditions of anomalous pattern that are known to be inherited as simple recessive mutations are “marbled” and “speckle-sided.” The marbled condition is typified by much of the pattern on the body being swirled or marbled to create a random collage of the colors. In the case of the speckled-sided appearance, animals exhibiting this mutation have all of the normal pattern on the lower sides replaced with black and white speckling.

              A beautiful albino Borneo python was collected in 2005, but we are told that it died before it bred in captivity. Other morphs that have been bred are the ultra-breit morph, and the VPI striped morph, both illustrated in the Borneo Python Gallery at this website.

Color variation:  There naturally exists quite a variation of colors in this taxon. The head is usually pale yellow-brown to pale brown, the eyes are orange, the face may have a orange or salmon blush. The dark pattern elements on most of the body are chestnut to rich dark brown, often with a thin black margin. The dark pattern elements on the posterior portion of the body may be uniformly brownish black. The pale pattern elements on the back are yellow. The pale sides are usually a pale brown or gray brown, but in some specimens may be yellow.

            There are several lineages currently bred in captivity that are descended from unusually pale and beautiful wild-caught snakes, and the offspring are extra beautiful pale yellow animals with reduced dark markings. While this general appearance is inheritable, it is polygenetic in nature and not the result of a single recessive mutation. 

Maintenance requirements:

—Cage size:  At all ages, Borneo 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 Borneo pythons.  Some of the commercially available PVC, polyethylene, ABS plastic or fiberglass cages probably best accommodate the large size and bulk of adult Borneo 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. Also, ambient humidity levels are higher in small enclosures, and this is desirable for young Borneos.

             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. By two or three years of age, most Borneo pythons will require a cage with five to eight 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 Borneo 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. 

           Borneo 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. Borneo pythons drink large amounts of water, and it appears to be especially important for this python to always have fresh water available. 

           Borneo 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, Borneo 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, Borneo pythons seem to do best if kept in the low-to-mid 80s degrees F. Many keepers provide a basking spot in the cages of Borneo pythons; in other words, the ambient temperature of the snake room and the cage is 78-82 degrees F, and a small area on the floor of the cage is heated to 86-88 degrees F. As is true for many snakes, Borneo pythons can better tolerate temperature extremes if they do not have food in their digestive system.  If recently fed, Borneo pythons should not be subjected to temperatures more than 90 degrees F or below 78 degrees F. When empty of food, Borneo pythons are tolerant of a wider range of temperatures. It does appear that this species is less tolerant of cool temperatures than most pythons; we rarely expose them to temperature below 75 degrees F.

—Feeding requirements:  Borneo pythons will eat rats all their life. One small to medium rat per week is an adequate feeding schedule. We have observed large specimens to eat the largest rats and even small rabbits. However, we rarely feed large meals to this species. The species is a sedentary ambush predator with a slow and efficient metabolism—in other words, Borneos will get fat easily if fed too much. We feed the largest specimens only single medium-sized rats for meals.

            In response to longer days and slightly lower average daily temperatures, 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. After only a few such meals, little Borneos will begin to feed on dead prey that is offered to them on long forceps. 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 Borneo pythons readily accept dead food, either thawed or fresh-killed.

             REMEMBER! A live rodent may attack and damage or even kill a Borneo python if the rodent is left unsupervised and without food in the cage of the snake.

—Shedding:  Borneo 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 to remove adhered skin, 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.

             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 Borneo pythons about what are 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.

             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 Borneo 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 Borneo 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 Borneo short-tail 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 the 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 over the long term 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 maintain in actual practice.

             Our second observation is that there is a higher incidence of respiratory illness in Borneo 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 very 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 Borneo short-tail 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. We soak the snakes for several hours in 80 degree water once a week or so. 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'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. 

           Most python species shed one or two weeks after hatching, but Borneo pythons do not shed for about three or four months after hatching. Hatchling Borneo 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:  While not particularly long, adult Borneo pythons can be massive big bulky snakes, very impressive to handle. Most specimens are quite docile, raised in captivity they can become very gentle and trusting snakes. There is a lot of variation in color and pattern, so it can pay to shop for quality babies. Be aware that a significant percentage of the "wild-bred, captive-hatched" babies that are imported do not thrive. 

Posted 13 January 2007