African burrowing python (Calabaria reinhardtii)

Also known as: African burrowing boa, Calabar burrowing boa, Calabar ground boa, Calabar ground python
Synonyms: Charina reinhardtii and Eryx reinhardtii
KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassReptilia
OrderSquamata
FamilyBoidae
GenusCalabaria (1)
SizeLength: up to 1 m (2) (3)

Listed on Appendix II of CITES (1).

This unusual and secretive snake closely resembles the sand boas (subfamily Erycinae), leading to controversy over whether it is in fact a python or a boa (2) (3) (4). Unlike sand boas, the African burrowing python is oviparous (lays eggs) and prefers dense forest to a more arid habitat (2) (5), and many believe that the features it shares with these boas are merely the result of adaptations to a similar, fossorial (burrowing) lifestyle (3) (5).

Though most currently classify this snake with the pythons (subfamily Pythoninae), no other python in the world resembles the African burrowing python in body shape (2). The body, head and tail are cylindrical and of fairly uniform diameter, and the small head, which is indistinct from the neck, so resembles the tail that it can be hard to tell which end of the snake is which (2) (3) (6); this is further confused by the presence of white bands on the underside of both the tail and chin (2) (5). The body is brownish in colour, with lighter red, orange or yellowish flecks and irregular blotches, the head and tail are generally darker, and the belly is grey or brown. The eyes are tiny and of the same brown colour as the surrounding scales (2) (3) and the mouth is small and inconspicuous, lacking the heat-sensitive pits characteristic of other pythons (3) (7). The scales are glossy and smooth, and the rostral scale on the tip of the nose is enlarged, to aid in burrowing (3) (4) (6).

Widespread across western tropical Africa, from Sierra Leone to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (1) (3).

The African burrowing python inhabits rainforest, swamp forest and overgrown plantations (2) (3) (8). As well as burrowing into decaying leaves and soil on the forest floor, and sometimes inhabiting the burrows of small mammals, it may also be found climbing among small bushes or fallen branches or sheltering inside termite nests, especially during the dry season (3) (5) (8).

Being shy, elusive and spending most of its time underground (3) (8), many aspects of the biology of the African burrowing python are not well known (3). It is believed to be mainly nocturnal, although it has also been found foraging during the day (3) (5). The African burrowing python’s small mouth is not suited to large prey (3), and it is believed to feed mainly on nestlings of small mammals such as mice, which it usually takes from the nest and kills by squashing against the walls of the burrow or by constriction, potentially taking up to four or more at once. The African burrowing python is famous for its defensive behaviour; when threatened, it rolls into a ball with the head protected in the centre of the coils. Alternatively, the tail may be lifted and moved about so that it closely resembles the head, distracting predators away from attacking the python’s real head (2) (3) (5).

Female African burrowing pythons typically lay between one and five large, unusually elongated eggs at the end of the dry season (2) (3) (6). Unusually for a python (7), the mother does not appear to coil herself around the eggs during incubation (3). The hatchlings grow relatively fast, and in captivity can reach breeding age at around three years old, possibly living for over 20 years (3).

Little information is available on the threats faced by African burrowing pythons, though rainforest destruction is thought to threaten snake communities in parts of its range, such as in southern Nigeria (9). Although this species is not common as a pet, most specimens in the pet trade are wild-caught, and few people have yet to successfully breed African burrowing pythons in captivity (3) (5) (6). If demand for this species increases, collection for the pet trade may become a concern in the future.

Although not currently considered at risk of extinction, the African burrowing python is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, meaning that international trade in the species should be carefully monitored and controlled (1). The African burrowing python occurs in some protected areas in West Africa, such as the Cross River National Park and the Upper Orashi Forest Reserve in southern Nigeria (10), and the species would benefit from further research into its behaviour, ecology and status in the wild, in order to better inform conservation measures and to warn of any population declines.

To help conserve snakes and other reptiles, visit:

International Reptile Conservation Foundation:
www.ircf.org

For more information on the African burrowing python, see:

Cimatti, E. (2003) Calabaria reinhardtii, African burrowing python. Reptilia, 28:66-71. Available at:
http://www.reptilia.net/html_english/index.htm

Authenticated (28/04/09) by Dr. Luca Luiselli, Senior Researcher in Ecology, Institute Demetra, Rome, Italy.
http://www.intecol.net/pages/002_personal.php?id=lucamlu

  1. CITES (December, 2008)
    http://www.cites.org
  2. O’Shea, M. (2007) Boas and Pythons of the World. New Holland Publishers, London.
  3. Cimatti, E. (2003) Calabaria reinhardtii, African burrowing python. Reptilia, 28: 66 - 71.
  4. Bartlett, P.P. and Wagner, E. (1997) Pythons. Barron’s Educational Series, New York.
  5. Kingsnake.com: The African Burrowing “Python” (Calabaria reinhardtii) (December, 2008)
    http://www.kingsnake.com/sandboa/calabar.html
  6. Bartlett, R.D. and Bartlett, P. (1998) Snakes. Barron’s Educational Series, New York.
  7. Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002) The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  8. Angelici, F.M., Inyang, M.A., Effah, C. and Luiselli, L. (2000) Analysis of activity patterns and habitat use of radiotracked African burrowing pythons, Calabaria reinhardtii. Israel Journal of Zoology, 46(2): 131 - 141.
  9. 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.
  10. Luiselli, L. (2009) Pers. comm.