Africa’s largest snake (3) (4), the African rock python (Python sebae) has a long, stout body, patterned with blotches that vary in colour between brown, olive, chestnut and buffy yellow, often joining up in a broad, irregular stripe (3) (5). The triangular head has many sharp, backwardly curved teeth and is marked on top with a dark brown “spear-head” outlined in buffy yellow (3) (6). Under the eye is a distinctive triangular marking, known as a subocular mark (5). Like all pythons, the scales of the African rock python are small and smooth (3) (7), and those around the lips possess heat-sensitive pits, which are used to detect warm-blooded prey, even in the dark (6) (7) (8). 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 (7) (8).
The African rock python 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 (2). Some consider the more southerly population of this snake to be a separate species, known as the Southern African rock python, Python natalensis (4) (6), while others consider this form to be a subspecies (1) (5). The southern form is distinguished by its smaller size (adults averaging about 2.4 to 4.4 metres in length), larger scales on top of the head, darker colouration, markings on the back that are well separated blotches rather than an irregular stripe, and a smaller or absent subocular mark (4) (5).
- Also known as
- African python.
- Length: up to 7.5 m (2)
African rock python biology
Like all pythons, the African rock python is non-venomous and kills its prey by constriction (6) (8). 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 (6). The African rock python feeds on a variety of large rodents, monkeys, antelopes, fruit bats, monitor lizards and even crocodiles in forest areas (3) (11), and on rats, poultry, dogs and goats in suburban areas (11). A few cases are also known of this python hunting humans (12).
African rock pythons are oviparous, laying between 20 and 100 hard-shelled, elongated eggs in an old animal burrow, termite mound or cave (3) (4). 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 (3) (4) (6). Individuals may live for over 12 years in captivity (13).
African rock python range
The African rock python is found throughout almost the whole of sub-Saharan Africa (9), from Senegal east to Ethiopia and Somalia and south to Namibia and South Africa (1) (3). Python sebae sebae ranges across central and western Africa, while Python sebae natalensis has a more eastern and southerly range, from southern Kenya to South Africa (4).
Species with a similar range
African rock python habitat
The African rock python inhabits a wide range of habitats, including savanna woodland and grassland, forest, savanna, semi-desert, rocky areas and the edges of swamps, lakes and rivers (3) (4), being particularly associated with areas of permanent water (5) (10). It also readily adapts to disturbed habitats and so is often found around human habitation (9).
Species found in a similar habitat
African rock python status
The African rock python is listed on Appendix II of CITES (1).
African rock python threats
People are often fearful of large pythons and may kill them on sight (4), though unprovoked attacks on humans are very rare, despite the fact that this species is often found around human habitation (9). The African rock python may also be threatened by hunting for food and leather in some areas (14). 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 (13). Little information is available on levels of international trade in this species.
Some of the 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 south-eastern Nigeria from habitat destruction and exploration for the oil industry (14) (15).
African rock python conservation
The African rock python is still relatively common in many regions across Africa and may adapt to disturbed habitats (9), provided that abundant food is available (12). It is not currently considered at risk of extinction, but is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning international trade in African rock pythons should be carefully monitored and controlled (1), giving wild populations some protection from over-collection 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 (16).
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- To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
- An animal that reproduces by laying eggs, which hatch outside the mother’s body.
- A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species (generally in colouration or other morphological characteristics), but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
CITES (December, 2008)
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Bartlett, P.P. and Wagner, E. (1997) Pythons. Barron’s Educational Series, New York.
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Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Branch, W.R. and Hacke, W.D. (1980) A fatal attack on a young boy by an African rock python Python sebae. Journal of Herpetology, 14(3): 305 - 307.
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Luiselli, L., Angelici, F.M. and Akani, G.C. (2001) Food habits of Python sebae in suburban and natural habitats. African Journal of Ecology, 39: 116 - 118.
Luiselli, L. (2009) Pers. comm.
Bartlett, P.P., Griswold, B. and Bartlett, R.D. (2001) Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates: An Identification and Care Guide. Barron’s Educational Series, New York.
Luiselli, L. and Akani, G.C. (2002) An investigation into the composition, complexity and functioning of snake communities in the mangroves of south-eastern Nigeria. African Journal of Ecology, 40: 220 - 227.
Akani, G.C., Barieenee, I.F., Capizzi, D. and Luiselli, L. (1999) Snake communities of moist rainforest and derived savanna sites of Nigeria: biodiversity patterns and conservation priorities. Biodiversity and Conservation, 8: 629 - 642.
UNEP-WCMC: Serengeti National Park, Tanzania (January, 2009)