African rock python

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African rock python
File:Adult Female Python sebae 1.33aspect.jpg
Adult female P. sebae, northern subspecies (note the thick body)
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Pythonidae
Genus: Python
Species: P. sebae
Binomial name
Python sebae
(Gmelin, 1788)
  • P. s. natalensis Smith, 1833
  • P. s. sebae (Gmelin, 1788)
File:Natural Range of Python sebae.svg
  Range of Python sebae sebae
  Range of Python sebae natalensis
  Range of hybrids

The African rock python (Python sebae) is a large, nonvenomous snake of sub-Saharan Africa. It is one of 11 living species in the genus Python. It has two subspecies; one is found in Central and Western Africa, the other in Southern Africa.

Africa's largest snake and one of the six largest snake species in the world (along with the green anaconda, reticulated python, Burmese python, Indian python, and amethystine python), specimens may approach or exceed 6 m (20 ft). The southern subspecies is generally smaller than its northern relative. The snake is found in a variety of habitats, from forests to near deserts, although usually near sources of water. The African rock python kills its prey by constriction and often eats animals up to the size of antelope, occasionally even crocodiles. The snake reproduces by egg-laying. Unlike most snakes, the female protects her nest and sometimes even her hatchlings.

The snake is widely feared, though it very rarely kills humans. Although the snake is not endangered, it does face threats from habitat reduction and hunting.

Taxonomy and etymology

The African rock python is one of ten species in the genus Python, large constricting snakes found in the moist tropics of Asia and Africa. It is divided into two subspecies, P. s. sebae (the nominate subspecies) and P. s. natalensis (the Southern African rock python).[3] Some consider the more southerly population of this snake to be a separate species, Python natalensis,[4][5] while others consider this form to be a subspecies.[6][7]

P. sebae was first described by Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist, in 1788. Therefore, he is also the author of the nominate subspecies. The southern subspecies was first identified by South African Zoologist Sir Andrew Smith, in 1833.[3][8]

Python is a Greek word referring to the enormous serpent at Delphi slain by Apollo in Greek Mythology. Sebae is a Latinization of Dutch zoologist, Albertus Seba.[8] Natalensis refers to the Natal region of South Africa. Common name usage varies with both the species and northern subspecies referred to as African rock python or simply rock python. The Southern African rock python is sometimes referred to as the Natal rock python[8] or the African python.[9]

Common name Scientific Name Classified by Year
African rock python Python sebae sebae Gmelin 1788
Southern African rock python Python sebae natalensis Smith 1833


File:Albertus Seba Python sebae.jpg
An 18th-century illustration

Africa's largest snake species[4][10] and one of the world's largest,[8] the typical African rock python adult measures 3 to 3.53 m (9 ft 10 in to 11 ft 7 in), with only unusually large specimens likely to exceed 4.8 m (15 ft 9 in). Reports of specimens over 6 m (19 ft 8 in) are considered reliable, although larger specimens have never been confirmed.[11][12][13] Weights are reportedly in the range of 44 to 55 kg (97 to 121 lb), per one study adults are expected to weigh only up to 32.2 kg (71 lb). Exceptionally large specimens may weigh 91 kg (201 lb) or more.[14][15][16] One specimen, reportedly 7 m (23 ft 0 in) in length, was killed by K. H. Kroft in 1958 and was claimed to have had a 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) juvenile Nile crocodile in its stomach.[17] An even larger specimen considered authentic was shot in The Gambia and measured 7.5 m (24 ft 7 in).[12][13]

File:Python natalensis Smith 1840.jpg
1840 drawing of southern subspecies by Sir Andrew Smith

The snake 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. Males are typically smaller than females.[12]

The African rock python's body is thick and covered with colored blotches, often joining up in a broad, irregular stripe. Body markings vary between brown, olive, chestnut, and yellow, but fade to white on the underside.[6][10] The head is triangular and is marked on top with a dark brown “spear-head” outlined in buffy yellow. Teeth are many, sharp, and backwardly curved.[5][10] Under the eye, there is a distinctive triangular marking, the subocular mark.[6] Like all pythons, the scales of the African rock python are small and smooth.[10][18] Those around the lips possess heat-sensitive pits, which are used to detect warm-blooded prey, even in the dark.[5][18][19] 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.[18][19]

The southern subspecies is distinguished by its smaller size (adults averaging about 2.4 to 4.4 m in length), smaller scales on top of the head, and a smaller or absent subocular mark.[4][6]

Juvenile, southern subspecies. Note the small scales on the top of the head and the comparatively reduced markings on the side of the head. 
Head of northern subspecies. Note the large scales on the top of the head. 


File:Praeneste - Nile Mosaic - Section 1a - Detail.jpg
A Roman mosaic shows an African rock python from the southern Nile.

The African rock python is found throughout almost the whole of sub-Saharan Africa,[20] from Senegal east to Ethiopia and Somalia and south to Namibia and South Africa.[7][10] 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]

In 2009, an African rock python was found in the Florida Everglades.[21] It is feared to be establishing itself as an invasive species alongside the already-established Burmese python. Feral rock pythons were also noted in the 1990s in the Everglades.[11]


The African rock python inhabits a wide range of habitats, including forest, savanna, grassland, semi-desert, and rocky areas. It is particularly associated with areas of permanent water[6][22] and is found on the edges of swamps, lakes and rivers.[4][10] The snake also readily adapts to disturbed habitats and so is often found around human habitation,[20] especially cane fields.[8]

Rock python habitats
Northern subspecies, Senegal National Park 
Southern subspecies, edge of the Cuando River, Botswana 
Southern subspecies in the wild 


Like all pythons, the African rock python is non-venomous and kills its prey by constriction.[5][19] 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.[5] The African rock python feeds on a variety of large rodents, monkeys, warthog, antelopes, fruit bats, monitor lizards and even crocodiles in forest areas,[10] and on rats, poultry, dogs and goats in suburban areas. Occasionally, it may eat the cubs of big cats such as leopards, lions, and cheetahs and puppies of big dogs such as hyenas and cape-hunting dogs.[citation needed]. However, these encounters are very rare, as the adult cats can easily kill pythons or fend them away.[citation needed].[23]

Rock python feeding behavior
Constricting a pregnant goat 
Stretching to consume an antelope 


Reproduction occurs in the spring.[8] African rock pythons are oviparious, laying between 20 and 100 hard-shelled, elongated eggs in an old animal burrow, termite mound or cave.[4][10] 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.[4][5][10] It was recently discovered in a manner unusual for snakes in general and pythons in particular that the female guards the hatchlings for up to two weeks after they hatch from their eggs in order to protect them from predators.[24]

Hatchlings are between 45–60 cm (18–24 inches) in length and appear virtually identical to adults, except with more contrasting colors.[8] Individuals may live for over 12 years in captivity.[25]

Rock python egg development
Brooding eggs

Human interaction


Documented attacks on humans are exceptionally rare, despite the species being common in many regions of Africa, and living in diverse habitats including those with agricultural activity.[20] There have been few well-substantiated deaths, and no well-substantiated reports of a human being consumed.[20] Scientists are confident that large specimens more common in Western Africa, (7.3 m (24 ft) or longer, "would have no difficulty in eating adult humans."[20]

Well-substantiated attacks

  • In 1979 in Waterberg District, Limpopo Province (then Northern Transvaal), South Africa, a 4.5 m (14.8 ft) African rock python killed a 13-year-old boy.[20] The victim died due to suffocation and internal injuries, and his body was released after a fight with an adult man some twenty minutes after the attack began.[20] The victim's head was covered in saliva, and scientists thought "it could have easily succeeded in swallowing" the 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in), 45 kg (99 lb) boy had it not been interrupted.[20]
  • In 1999 in Centralia, Illinois, United States, a 3-year-old boy was suffocated during the night by an escaped 2.3 m (7.5 ft) pet African rock python.[26][27] Bite marks around the boy's neck and ears may have resulted from an attempt to swallow him.[26]
  • In 2013 in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada, two brothers of ages four and six were reportedly killed by an approximately 4.3–4.9 m (14–16 ft), 45 kg (100 lb) African rock python kept by a pet shop owner.[28][29] Although the circumstances of the incident prompted some skepticism from experts not involved in the case,[29] an autopsy confirmed that the boys died of asphyxiation[28] and the owner was charged with criminal negligence for not adequately protecting the boys from the snake.[30][31] (See main article).

Other reported attacks

  • In 2002 near Durban, South Africa, a ten-year-old boy was reportedly swallowed by an African rock python over a three-hour period, as seven other children stayed hidden in a mango tree.[32][33] The animal was not captured and the story could not be verified, although detailed descriptions of the snake's markings and predation technique were reported to have seemed credible to a local snake park operator.[32]
  • In 2009 in Sabaki Village, Malindi District, Kenya, a male farm manager was reportedly attacked after stepping on a 4.0 m (13 ft) python, the exact species of which was not determined. After an hour's struggle, he was reportedly dragged up a tree, but then rescued by police and villagers after he was able to call for help on his mobile phone.[34][35] The snake was reportedly captured by police, but had escaped and disappeared by the next day.[34] The man said he bit the snake's tail while he was being attacked and was injured on his lower lip because the tip of the tail was sharp.[34]


People are often fearful of large pythons and may kill them on sight.[4][20] The African rock python may also be threatened by hunting for food and leather in some areas.[36] 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.[25] 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.[36][37]

File:Python natalensis.jpg
Python natalensis, Makuleke/Pafuri, Kruger National Park, South Africa

The African rock python is still relatively common in many regions across Africa and may adapt to disturbed habitats,[20] provided that abundant food is available. 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,[7] 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.[38]

In the Florida Everglades, where the African rock python is an invasive species and posing a threat to indigenous wildlife, it has no protected status and is one of the species listed on a hunting program recently authorized by state officials to eradicate non-native reptiles, the others being the Burmese python, reticulated python, green anaconda, and Nile monitor.

See also


This article incorporates text from the ARKive fact-file "African rock python" under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License and the GFDL.

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External links