Aspidites melanocephalusBlack-headed Python

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Geographic Range

Aspidites melanocephalus, also known as the Black-headed python or the Black-headed rock python, is broadly distributed throughout the northern third of Australia, extending from east to west across the continent. This range includes a majority of the Northern Territory, the northern latitudes of Queensland and the northern third of Western Australia. (Shine, 1991; Uetz, 1995; Walls, 1998)

Habitat

Most often populating the dry scrublands and savannas throughout its geographic range, Aspidites melanocephalus can also be found in damper forests and agricultural farmland. It avoids the most arid environmental conditions, but can otherwise survive within a wide range of climates and conditions. Most of the time these pythons reside in either self-dug burrows or in abandoned burrows. Its fossorial tendencies allow it to keep a more constant body temperature, thus allowing it to occupy a wide range of habitat types. This species is a capable climber and is occasionally found in trees. Elevations inhabited by this species range from 50 feet above sea level to 200 feet above sea level. (Ashraf, 2011; Johnson, et al., 1975; "Pythons: Pythonidae - Black-headed Python (aspidites Melanocephalus): Species Accounts", 2011; Walls, 1998; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

  • Range elevation
    50 to 200 m
    164.04 to 656.17 ft

Physical Description

Black-headed pythons have a distinctive glossy, black hood that covers the entire cranium and extends 20 scales down the neck along the dorsal line. In juveniles, the dark pigmentation can extend even further to cover the anterior ventral scales. The rest of the body can range from sandy brown to yellow to a pale reddish tan, but normally exhibits irregular dark brown bands that can blend together along the mid-dorsal line, creating a striped appearance. There may also be small blotches between the stripes along the sides of some specimens. The venter can range from white to pink, but can also exhibit dark spots similar those along the dorsum. Coloration of Black-headed pythons can vary extensively depending on age and geographic location. For example, Western Australian specimens are much lighter with reddish overtones than those found in the Northern Territory and Queensland, which have darker, more intense striping patterns. Furthermore, while older specimens tend to be paler with less distinctive markings, younger specimens are known to exhibit markings of greater intensity. (Ashraf, 2011; Bauchot, 1997; Friend and Cellier, 1990; Johnson, et al., 1975; "Pythons: Pythonidae - Black-headed Python (aspidites Melanocephalus): Species Accounts", 2011; Shine, 1991; Uetz, 1995; "Aspidites melanocephalus (Black-headed python)", 2011; Walls, 1998; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

Body length in black-headed pythons ranges from 1.5 to 2 m. Captive adults weigh 16 kg on average, and females can grow to nearly a foot longer than males. Body form is cylindrical and slender, with 315 to 359 ventral scales, which is more than most Australasian species of Aspidites. Black-headed pythons have a reduced head and strengthened rostral region that make it well-suited for burrowing and capturing prey. (Ashraf, 2011; Bauchot, 1997; Friend and Cellier, 1990; Johnson, et al., 1975; "Pythons: Pythonidae - Black-headed Python (aspidites Melanocephalus): Species Accounts", 2011; Shine, 1991; Uetz, 1995; "Aspidites melanocephalus (Black-headed python)", 2011; Walls, 1998; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

Moderate isolation between populations of black-headed pythons has resulted in poorly defined population-distinguishing characteristics. Inter-population differences include the pairing of parietal bones (one pair in western populations and two to three in other populations), as well as fewer loreals and suboculars in western populations in comparison to their eastern counterparts. (Ashraf, 2011; Bauchot, 1997; Friend and Cellier, 1990; Johnson, et al., 1975; "Pythons: Pythonidae - Black-headed Python (aspidites Melanocephalus): Species Accounts", 2011; Shine, 1991; Uetz, 1995; "Aspidites melanocephalus (Black-headed python)", 2011; Walls, 1998; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

  • Sexual Dimorphism
  • female larger
  • Average mass
    16 kg
    35.24 lb
  • Range length
    1.5 to 2.0 m
    4.92 to 6.56 ft

Development

In the wild, bleack-headed pythons reach sexual maturity by 4 to 5 years after hatching, however, captive individuals have been bred as young as 2.5 years. Younger individuals generally have lower reproductive success than older individuals. On average, hatchlings are .6 m in length and can capture their own prey by two days after birth. (Ashraf, 2011; Bauchot, 1997; Johnson, et al., 1975; Madec and Madec, 2011; Shine, 1991; Uetz, 1995; Walls, 1998)

Reproduction

Although black-headed pythons are seasonally monogamous, both males and females may seek extra-pair copulations. Male black-headed pythons are not as aggressive as most pythonids, which frequently engage in male to male combat. However, some instances of combat have been recorded. Although this species is large and is relatively common throughout much of its geographic range, individuals are rarely observed, leading to a limited number of studies on this species. (Johnson, et al., 1975; Madec and Madec, 2011; TercafsSource, 1963; Uetz, 1995; "Aspidites melanocephalus (Black-headed python)", 2011; Walls, 1998; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

Aspidites melanocephalus females incubate their eggs, which are laid during October and November, by coiling around them for approximately 2 months before they hatch. Males are not as aggressive as most pythonids, though mating and courtship often involve male-male competition, which may include combative sparring or biting. In captivity, males paired with a single female have the highest mating success rate. Copulation can range from 20 minutes to 6 hours and a single clutch can range from 8 to 18 offspring. Young become reproductively mature by 4 to 5 years of age. (Bauchot, 1997; Friend and Cellier, 1990; Johnson, et al., 1975; Kluge, 1993; "A Listing of Australian Pythons: SERPENTES (SNAKES)", 1997; Shine, 1991; Walls, 1998)

  • Breeding interval
    Black-headed pythons breed during October and November
  • Breeding season
    Black-headed python hatchlings emerge after about 2 months of incubation.
  • Range number of offspring
    8 to 18
  • Average gestation period
    2 months
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (female)
    4 to 5 years
  • Range age at sexual or reproductive maturity (male)
    4 to 5 years

Aspidites melanocephalus is oviparous,laying from 8 to 18 eggs during October and November. Eggs averages 8.9 cm in length. After 2 months of incubation by the mother, hatchlings emerge and are completely independent. (Madec and Madec, 2011; Uetz, 1995; Walls, 1998; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

  • Parental Investment
  • female parental care
  • pre-fertilization
    • provisioning
  • pre-hatching/birth
    • provisioning
      • female
    • protecting
      • female

Lifespan/Longevity

The lifespan of Aspidites melanocephalus ranges from 20 to 30 years. No differences between the lifespans of wild and captive individuals has been documented. (Shine, 1991; Walls, 1998; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

  • Typical lifespan
    Status: wild
    20 to 30 years
  • Typical lifespan
    Status: captivity
    20 to 30 years

Behavior

Black-headed pythons are nocturnal and are well-adapted for surviving in hot, dry conditions. During cooler temperatures, evidence suggests that when termite nests are present, they tend to burrow into these habitats as a way of maintaining a stable body temperature. When termite mounds were not present, they adopted specific postures and modified their behavior to prevent extreme cooling. The glossy, black head that is characteristic of this species helps regulate body temperature as well, allowing the majority of the snake’s body to remain hidden while it extends only its head from its burrow. In order to cool themselves, they may bury their dark head in the sand. When disturbed, black-headed pythons occasionally hiss, but rarely bite. They may also strike with their mouths closed when threatened. Similar to other pythons, black-headed pythons constrict their prey to kill it prior to ingestion. They are adept swimmers; however, in the wild it is not common to find them in water. (Ashraf, 2011; Bauchot, 1997; Friend and Cellier, 1990; Kluge, 1993; Madec and Madec, 2011; "Pythons: Pythonidae - Black-headed Python (aspidites Melanocephalus): Species Accounts", 2011; Shine, 1991; Walls, 1998)

Home Range

There is no information available regarding the average home range of black-headed pythons.

Communication and Perception

Members of the genus Aspidites have entirely lost supralabial and infralabial sensory pits, which are used for heat sensing of endothermic prey or to detect small changes in local temperatures. The absence of heat sensing pits in this species marks a significant difference between the strategies employed for prey capture and perception than those employed by other pythons. There is no further information available regarding communication and perception in this species, however, it is probable that tactile, olfactory, and visual cues play an important role in communication and perception in black-headed pythons. (Ashraf, 2011; "Pythons: Pythonidae - Black-headed Python (aspidites Melanocephalus): Species Accounts", 2011; Shine, 1991; "Aspidites melanocephalus (Black-headed python)", 2011; Walls, 1998)

Food Habits

The diet of Black-headed pythons primarily consists of other reptiles. Skinks are the primary prey of black-headed pythons. Other important prey includes geckos, bearded dragons, legless lizards and Perentie, the largest monitor lizard native to Australia. Small snakes, including some venomous snakes are also consumed by black-headed pythons, which are completely impervious to the venom found in even the most toxic Australian snakes. Consumption of mammals and some birds is rare but does occur in nature. Because Black-headed pythons lack venom, they utilize constriction to subdue large prey prior to consumption. (Kluge, 1993; Madec and Madec, 2011; "Pythons: Pythonidae - Black-headed Python (aspidites Melanocephalus): Species Accounts", 2011; Shine, 1991; Uetz, 1995; Walls, 1998)

  • Primary Diet
  • carnivore
    • eats terrestrial vertebrates
  • Animal Foods
  • birds
  • mammals
  • reptiles

Predation

The major predators of black-headed pythons include dingos and humans. When threatened, black-headed pythons may strike with their mouth closed. Their nocturnal and fossorial nature likely reduces predation risk, and their coloration helps camouflage them from potential predators. (Ashraf, 2011; Kluge, 1993; Madec and Madec, 2011; "Pythons: Pythonidae - Black-headed Python (aspidites Melanocephalus): Species Accounts", 2011; Shine, 1991; TercafsSource, 1963; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

  • Anti-predator Adaptations
  • cryptic

Ecosystem Roles

As an important predator for a number of different reptile species, black-headed pythons play an important role in the north Australian food web. In addition, the burrows created by this species are sometimes used by other animals once they are abandoned. There is no information available regarding parasites of this species.

  • Ecosystem Impact
  • creates habitat

Economic Importance for Humans: Positive

The combination of habitat choice, burrowing behavior, and primarily nocturnal activity of Aspidites melanocephalus makes interaction with humans unusual such that neither group substantially affects one another. However, sales of Black-headed pythons as pets and for other domestication and breeding purposes has become relatively common throughout northern Australia. (Madec and Madec, 2011; "A Listing of Australian Pythons: SERPENTES (SNAKES)", 1997; Shine, 1991; Uetz, 1995; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

Economic Importance for Humans: Negative

There are no known adverse effects of black-headed pythons on humans.

Conservation Status

Black-headed pythons have not been evaluated by the IUCN. There is little information available regarding the population trends of this species, thus potential conservation and management needs are difficult to identify. They are considered widespread and locally abundant throughout their geographic range. The only foreseeable potential threat to this species is the pet trade; however, a large majority of animals in the pet trade are captive bred. (Ashraf, 2011; Uetz, 1995; Walls, 1998; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

Other Comments

Another name for this species is the Purruyura, which is a term used by the Nyangumarta aboriginals in the Pilbara region. Other common names for this species include “tar pot,” “Terry tar pot,” and “rock python”. The term tar pot derives from the distinctive markings of shiny, black scales on the head and neck that give the appearance that it has been dipped in a vat of tar. (TercafsSource, 1963; "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus", 2002)

Contributors

Joselle McCracken (author), The College of New Jersey, Matthew Wund (editor), The College of New Jersey, John Berini (editor), Animal Diversity Web Staff.

Glossary

Australian

Living in Australia, New Zealand, Tasmania, New Guinea and associated islands.

World Map

acoustic

uses sound to communicate

agricultural

living in landscapes dominated by human agriculture.

carnivore

an animal that mainly eats meat

chemical

uses smells or other chemicals to communicate

cryptic

having markings, coloration, shapes, or other features that cause an animal to be camouflaged in its natural environment; being difficult to see or otherwise detect.

female parental care

parental care is carried out by females

fertilization

union of egg and spermatozoan

forest

forest biomes are dominated by trees, otherwise forest biomes can vary widely in amount of precipitation and seasonality.

fossorial

Referring to a burrowing life-style or behavior, specialized for digging or burrowing.

heterothermic

having a body temperature that fluctuates with that of the immediate environment; having no mechanism or a poorly developed mechanism for regulating internal body temperature.

infrared/heat

(as keyword in perception channel section) This animal has a special ability to detect heat from other organisms in its environment.

iteroparous

offspring are produced in more than one group (litters, clutches, etc.) and across multiple seasons (or other periods hospitable to reproduction). Iteroparous animals must, by definition, survive over multiple seasons (or periodic condition changes).

monogamous

Having one mate at a time.

native range

the area in which the animal is naturally found, the region in which it is endemic.

nocturnal

active during the night

oviparous

reproduction in which eggs are released by the female; development of offspring occurs outside the mother's body.

pet trade

the business of buying and selling animals for people to keep in their homes as pets.

scrub forest

scrub forests develop in areas that experience dry seasons.

seasonal breeding

breeding is confined to a particular season

sexual

reproduction that includes combining the genetic contribution of two individuals, a male and a female

solitary

lives alone

tactile

uses touch to communicate

terrestrial

Living on the ground.

tropical

the region of the earth that surrounds the equator, from 23.5 degrees north to 23.5 degrees south.

tropical savanna and grassland

A terrestrial biome. Savannas are grasslands with scattered individual trees that do not form a closed canopy. Extensive savannas are found in parts of subtropical and tropical Africa and South America, and in Australia.

savanna

A grassland with scattered trees or scattered clumps of trees, a type of community intermediate between grassland and forest. See also Tropical savanna and grassland biome.

temperate grassland

A terrestrial biome found in temperate latitudes (>23.5° N or S latitude). Vegetation is made up mostly of grasses, the height and species diversity of which depend largely on the amount of moisture available. Fire and grazing are important in the long-term maintenance of grasslands.

visual

uses sight to communicate

References

OnlineHobbyist.com, Inc. 1997. "A Listing of Australian Pythons: SERPENTES (SNAKES)" (On-line). kingsnake.com. Accessed February 21, 2011 at http://www.kingsnake.com/oz/snakes/pythons/pythons.htm.

UniProt Consortium. 2011. "Aspidites melanocephalus (Black-headed python)" (On-line). UniProt Taxonomy. Accessed March 23, 2011 at http://www.uniprot.org/taxonomy/51883.

splitrockreptiles.com. 2002. "Eastern Black-Headed Pythons: Aspidites melanocephalus" (On-line). Split Rock Reptiles. Accessed March 23, 2011 at http://www.splitrockreptiles.com/aspidites_breeding.html.

Net Industries and Licensors. 2011. "Pythons: Pythonidae - Black-headed Python (aspidites Melanocephalus): Species Accounts" (On-line). Accessed March 22, 2011 at http://animals.jrank.org/pages/3843/Pythons-Pythonidae-BLACK-HEADED-PYTHON-Aspidites-melanocephalus-SPECIES-ACCOUNTS.html.

Ashraf, S. 2011. "What Is a Black-Headed Python?" (On-line). WiseGeek. Accessed March 22, 2011 at http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-a-black-headed-python.htm.

Bauchot, R. 1997. Snakes: A Natural History. New York: Sterling Publishing Company.

Friend, G., K. Cellier. 1990. Wetland Herpetofauna of Kakadu National Park, Australia: Seasonal Richness Trends, Habitat Preferences and the Effects of Feral Ungulates. Journal of Tropical Ecology, Vol. 6, No. 2: 131-152. Accessed February 21, 2011 at http://ezproxy.tcnj.edu:2052/stable/pdfplus/2559259.pdf.

Johnson, C., G. Webb, C. Johnson. 1975. Thermoregulation in Pythons-III. Thermal Ecology and Behavior of the Black-Headed Rock Python, Aspidites Melanocephalus. Herpetologics, 31/No. 3: 326-332. Accessed February 21, 2011 at http://www.jstor.org/pss/3891596.

Kluge, A. 1993. Aspidites and the Phylogeny of Pythonine Snakes. Records of the Australian Museum Supplement, 19: 1-77.

Madec, M., I. Madec. 2011. "Printer Friendly Bookmark and Share Black-Headed Python Snake Breeding" (On-line). Reptilechannel.com. Accessed March 23, 2011 at http://www.reptilechannel.com/snakes/breeding-snakes/black-headed-pythons.aspx.

Shine, R. 1991. Australian Snakes: A Natural History. New York: Reed Books.

TercafsSource, R. 1963. Transmission of Ultra-violet, Visible and Infra-red Radiation Through the Keratinous Layer of Reptile Skin (Serpentes and Sauria). Ecology, Vol. 44, No. 1: 214-218. Accessed February 21, 2011 at http://www.jstor.org/stable/1933210 ..

Uetz, P. 1995. "Aspidites melanocephalus" (On-line). The Reptile Database. Accessed February 21, 2011 at http://reptile-database.reptarium.cz/species.php?genus=Aspidites&species=melanocephalus.

Walls, J. 1998. The Living Pythons: A Complete Guide to the Pythons of the World. Neptune, NJ: T.F.H Publications Inc..