The African Burrowing "Python"
Calabaria, Calabar Python, West African Burrowing Python, Burrowing Python, West African Ground Python.
Most of these names suffer from the unfortunate use of the word "Python". The relationship of these snakes to other Boids is a matter of some conjecture. Some authors regard this snake as a Erycine, but the evidence for this is somewhat equivocal. See the taxonomy page for a further discussion of Calabaria systematics.
Calabaria are unusual snakes. They are much more remniscent of a large Blind Snake (e.g. Typhlops, Leptotyphlops , etc.) than a boid. Although this species has been associated with the Erycines since its description (it was actually described as a member of the genus Eryx by Schlegel in 1851), they are different from all other Erycines in that they are oviparous (= egg laying). Because many of the characteristics they share with the Erycinae could be a result of sharing a fossorial (burrowing) lifestyle, their relationship to the Erycines (and boids in general) remains open for debate.
Adults rarely exceed 3 feet in length. This snake is found in western tropical Africa, from Sierra Leone, east to northern Zaire. It has been found in rocky secondary forest and overgrown plantations with dense undergrowth. Several authors report finding the snake on the forest floor with some significant leaf cover.
It has been found on the ground and over 1 meter above the ground in small bushes or climbing on fallen logs. Although it has been reported to be nocturnal, Gartlan and Struhsaker found several individuals actively foraging (and even eating) during the day. There are records of activity from at least early September until late March.
There is little published information on the behavior of wild Calabaria. It has been observed to eat mice and has been found on several occasions raiding mouse nests. These snakes are expert constrictors of small rodents and prefer them as food in captivity. They can easily constrict four or more nestlings at one time, a skill which is very useful to a potential nest robber.
This snake is famous for rolling in a ball when threatened. The ball it rolls into is tight and the head is often, but not always, placed at the center of the ball.
It also has a curious habit of head faking with its tail. When first disturbed, the snake will freeze, pressing its chin down firmly onto the ground. Then it will lift its tail slightly and move it gently back and forth, like a head. Considering how similar the head and tail of this species look, it is quite hard to tell which end is up! Many specimens also have some white scales (or even a white band) around the base of the tail, further attracting attention to the false head.
Calabaria make no attempt to bite when handled.
Calabaria are relatively easy snakes to keep in captivity if you are prepared to meet a few of their needs. They are very shy snakes and require at least one (more is better) secure hide box. They seem to prefer cramped hide boxes to roomy ones. They do not require large enclosures (they have bred in ten gallon aquaria) but they do require constant access to clean water. I have noticed they seem to "enjoy" having the cage misted once a week or so.
Some imported Calabaria will take to pre-killed mice right from the start. Females seem to be better about this than males. Others are a little more fussy. They prefer small rodents and are particularly fond of fuzzy mouse and rat nestlings. Some will refuse hopper mice, yet willingly take a rat fuzzy that is significantly larger! They can usually be stimulated to feed by offering several smaller food items (i.e. a nest full of rodents). Even a newly imported picky male can usually be tempted to eat by offering a clutch of rat or mouse fuzzies!
They will often take 4 or more fuzzy rats/mice in one feeding. I have been able to stimulate the "nest robbing" reflex in shy
Calabaria by offering one small fuzzy and then pressing a few others along the sides of the snake while it is subduing the first. The snake's instinctive response is to try and press that "escaping" baby against the wall of the cage and hold it here until it is done with the first one. Usually I can get a snake to take three or four mice at a feeding that way.
Very few people have succesfully bred Calabaria in captivity. A few people have
successfully hatched eggs laid by wild caught gravid females. For an
excellent article on breeding Calabaria in captivity, see Rick Staub's
article in the February 2001 Reptile and Amphibian Hobbyist (Vol. 6 No. 6).
Neil Chernoff has a fairly thorough discussion of
his experience breeding Calabaria
successfully for several years in a row. He also has some other
interesting comments about captive reproduction in reptiles, in general.
His page is an interesting read.
The following notes were sent to me by Neil regarding his successful reproduction of the species. Neil feels that the key to reproducing these shy snakes may be in providing them ample food and water, plenty of hiding places, and otherwise leaving them alone.
His male was purchased in 1993 and his female in 1994. They were kept in a ten gallon aquarium with a room temperature of 75 degrees Fahrenheit and a heat pad under one end of the cage. The snakes reproduced in 1998. Mating was not observed. He noticed the female was very swollen towards the cloaca on June 9th. He separated her into another cage and provided her with a laying box filled with a mix of sphagnum and peat moss. This list includes some observations on the development and hatching of eggs
- 6/24 - Female laid 3 eggs.
- 6/25 - Total wt of eggs 181.2g (pre-laying wt of female 376.9).
- Eggs were therefore 48% of pre-laying body weight(!).
- 6/26 - Moved to animal room, placed in dish on vermiculite per VPI suggestions.
- Wt of eggs - 181.3g.
- 7/1 - Eggs - 182.2g small amount of water added to dish.
- 7/2 - Wt of eggs -182.7g.
- 7/6 - Wt of eggs -185.0 small amount of water added to dish.
- 7/9 - Wt of eggs -187.0
- 7/14 - Wt of eggs -189.7
- 7/22 - Wt of eggs -188.6 vermiculite dry, water added
- 7/24 - Wt of eggs -188.2
- 7/27 - Wt of eggs -187.4
- 7/29 - Wt of eggs -186.6
- It appeared that the top egg was the most flaccid. On the assumption that contact with the moist bedding was better for weight (and noting that the top eggs of the sinaloans were the most collapsed), I placed a three inch strip of moist toweling against the side of the top egg.
- 7/30 - Wt of eggs -186.2
- 7/31 - Wt of eggs -185.9
- 8/10 - One egg had slits and movement (the flaccid egg on top)
- it had detached from the other pair. The remaining eggs have movement.
- 8/11 - Snake 2 emerged from the egg
- placed in a cage with pine bedding and a water bowl.
- Snake 2 weighed 32.5g.
- 8/12 - 2nd egg is slit.
- 8/13 - 2nd animal emerged from egg
- placed in cage with pine shavings and water bowl
- Snake weighed 32.2g.
- Snake 1 ate a pinkie.
- 8/14 - Snake 2 ate pinkie.
- 8/17 - Third egg beginning to rot and discarded.
Since then, Snake #1 has eaten single pinkies on 8/21 and 8/25; snake #2 has eaten on 8/21 (did not eat on 8/25). Neither snake ate on 8/26. Current (8/27) weights: snake 1 = 35.9g and snake 2 = 31.5g.
I am very greatful to Neil for providing me with this information!
Please see his web page for more
information and data from subsequent breedings.
Chernoff, N. 1998. Notes on the captive reproduction in Calabaria. Personal communication.
Gartlan, J.S. and Struhsaker, T.T. 197?. Notes on the habits of the Calabar Ground Python (Calabaria reinhardtii Schlegel) in Cameroon, West Africa. British Journal of Herpetology ??:201-202. (I can't read the year on my copy. I will find the original and add it.)
Gray, J.E. 1858. Description of a new genus of Boidae from old Calabar, and a list of west African reptiles. Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London 1858:154-167.
Kluge, A. G. 1993. Calabaria and the phylogeny of erycine snakes. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 107:293-351.
Schlegel, H. 1851. Description d'une nouvelle espèce du genre Eryx, Eryx reinhardtii. Bijdragen tot de Dierkunde, Amsterdam 1:1-3.
Staub, R. 2001. The Calabar Burrowing Boa/Python. Reptile
and Amphibian Hobbyist 6(6): 34-41.
Villiers, A. 1963. Les Serpents de l'Ouest Africain. 2nd edition. Institut Français D'Afrique Noir. Dakar. pp. 91-92.
Welch, K.R.G. 1982. Herpetology of Africa: a checklist and bibiolography of the orders Amphisbaenia, Sauria, and Serpentes. Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, Malabar, Florida.
© Chris Harrison