Simply typing this question into a search engine will ensure you are very quickly bombarded with opposing opinions from ball python owners, breeders, or even plain old reptile enthusiasts. But what is the right answer? Is your ball python arboreal, and should this be a factor to consider when setting up its enclosure?
Ball pythons, also known as Royal Pythons, are not arboreal. They are not even semi-arboreal, as many claim. Their natural habitat is open grassland, and they spend a lot of their time burrowing in the ground, and in darkness.
That’s the simple answer, but there is a lot more to it than just that.
I’m going to take a look where ball pythons come from, their full relationship to trees, and any considerations that you may need to make for your python’s living space in terms of trees and branches, and whether anything like that is required.
What Are Arboreal Animals?
Arboreal animals include any animal that lives, or spends the majority of its time in trees. In most cases these animals will find their food in trees, as well as sleep there to ensure their own safety from terrestrial predators.
The most famous arboreal animal, and one we are all familiar with, is undoubtedly the monkey. They display all the behavioral nuances of arboreal creatures and it is important to keep this example in mind as we further discuss why ball pythons are not arboreal reptiles.
Where Do Ball Pythons Come From and Are They Venomous?
Understanding the natural habitat and hunting methods of ball pythons may help explain why they are not arboreal reptiles. They are native to Central and West Africa, and call the open grasslands of the African Plains their home. They spend much of their day burrowed underground or somewhere dark, and only become active when hunting or in search of a mate. (Source)
Their hunting habits are the main culprit in their often mistaken classification as semi-arboreal creatures. Ball pythons are not venomous and kill their prey by striking at them and then constricting their airway. This method of hunting is best applied to land animals, but is not impossible in trees as will be explained in the section below.
Ball Pythons Prey on Birds in Trees, They Must Be Semi-Arboreal Then, Right?
In the wild, fully grown ball pythons mostly hunt small mammals like rats and mice, and some may eat birds such as quail or chicken. In captivity owners may even include gerbils or guinea pigs in their diet.
The fact that wild ball pythons prey on birds, which they hunt in trees, is what most people point to when arguing they are semi-arboreal reptiles. In reality, not all ball pythons will hunt in trees. The larger the ball python, the more likely it is to survive on an exclusive diet of terrestrial mammals.
The smaller pythons – in many cases the younger ones – may at times venture into low-hanging tree branches where chicks are easy prey to take from their nests.
Just because ball pythons may or may not spend some of their time hunting in trees does not classify them as arboreal. In the same way just because humans may at times climb trees to find food or hide from predators it does not make us an arboreal species.
Ball pythons are creatures of opportunity, as are all animals in the wild. If they need food and see a tasty, easy to capture meal on a branch just a little above their heads, they will most certainly make the effort to go catch it.
This is where we once again refer to the monkey mentioned earlier. Monkeys are arboreal animals because they spend most of their time in trees. They find food in trees, they sleep in trees, and they even travel from tree to tree.
Ball pythons spend most of their time on land, they sleep in abandoned animal burrows or under rocks, and their main method of travel is on the ground. They cannot, therefore, be classified as arboreal or semi-arboreal, despite their tendency to sometimes hunt in trees.
Why Do Male Ball Pythons Spend More Time in Trees Than Females?
Both male and female ball pythons prey on small mammals and birds, but a wild male’s diet will consist of a larger percentage of small birds than a female’s.
This is mainly due to the difference in size between a fully grown male and female ball python. Adult male ball pythons are significantly smaller than their female counterparts. This makes them lighter and much better suited to moving around in trees.
Ball pythons are non-venomous, and kill their prey through strangulation. It is logical to assume that a smaller snake would then choose smaller, weaker prey than a larger snake. This is why young ball pythons, and the smaller adult males, are much more likely to be found in trees searching for nests of defenseless chicks.
Another reason for males being found in trees more often is their behavior when searching for a mate. During mating season, males are far more active than the females as they leave their burrows in search of a mate.
Ball pythons are nocturnal and will mostly leave their burrows at night. However, since males are more likely to leave their sleeping area often during mating season it simply increases the probability of them being found outside in a tree.
Should I Include Branches or Planks in My Ball Python’s Enclosure?
Since it is established that ball pythons are not arboreal snakes, the decision to include tree branches, wooden planks, or other types of climbing material in your snake’s enclosure is entirely up to you.
Many ball python owners add tree branches and the like simply as decoration. Your snake may or may not use them, but that depends on each individual.
Since ball pythons are nocturnal, they won’t spend much of the day time moving around. Ball pythons kept in captivity or in enclosures might never feel the need to venture into the tree branches as they are fed regularly and rarely would need to truly hunt for their prey or go hungry.
Considering all this, the conclusion is natural that as long as the snake has a place to burrow and ample space, the décor and add-ons are simply personal preference.
If you are looking for a full guide on creating a living space for your ball python, this youtube video has some fantastic ideas:
Are There Any Truly Arboreal Python Species?
Like ball pythons, the majority of the other 40 python breeds are also terrestrial (Source). Despite hunting mainly on land and at times in trees, pythons are very good swimmers and spend much of their time near water.
Arboreal pythons differ from ball pythons in the fact that they spend most of their time in trees – sleeping, hunting, and traveling through them. They also look different from their terrestrial cousins.
Arboreal pythons have much longer teeth, believed to help them get through bird feathers. They also have incredibly strong tails which allow them to move their bodies while having only a very small part of their overall length wrapped around a tree branch.
Arguably the most famous truly arboreal python is the Green Tree Python. True to its name it is a bright green color and spends most of its time in the treetops.
There are far more semi-arboreal pythons than there are fully arboreal ones. The most commonly known semi-arboreal pythons include:
- Carpet Python
- Boelen’s Python
- Axanthic Jaguar Python
- High Yellow Diamond Python
These are all arboreal or semi-arboreal pythons without a doubt, and are exempt from the confusion and misinformation surrounding ball pythons.
After reading this article it is quite easy to understand that despite widespread debate regarding the arboreal nature of ball pythons, scientific fact along with some common sense clearly goes to show they are classified as terrestrial snakes.
Yes, they sometimes hunt in trees, and yes, it isn’t uncommon to spot a male or young ball python moving along low hanging branches, but this alone cannot classify them as arboreal reptiles.
The key here is that they do not live in trees, which is a requirement for an animal to be classified as arboreal.
They also do not rely on trees enough for food or shelter to be called semi-arboreal.
They are simply terrestrial snakes who don’t want to make hunting more difficult than it already is and so, if they are light enough and smart enough, they will take the easy pickings from birds’ nests long before spending hours in search of food on land.