Range:

Africa, Madagascar, Southeast Asia, and Australia

Habitat:

Rain forests, grasslands and savannas, woodlands, swamps, rocky outcrops, desert sand hills, and shrub lands.

Pythons, boas, and anacondas: what’s the difference?

Giant snakes capture our attention as stars of monster movies. None of these huge snakes are venomous or evil. Reticulated pythons, boa constrictors, and anacondas are some of the biggest snakes in the world, and many people get confused about which is which.

The first thing to note is that the anaconda is a species of boa, not a separate type of snake. That leaves two groups: the pythons and the boas. These snakes are constrictors, killing their prey by wrapping around it and suffocating it. And they are considered primitive snakes with two lungs (most snakes have only one) and the remnants of hind legs and pelvic bones. But they have differences, too.

Pythons have one more bone in their head than boas do and some additional teeth. And pythons are found in the Old World (Africa, Asia, Australia) while boas live in both the Old World and the New World (North, Central, and South America). But the biggest difference is that pythons lay eggs while boas give birth to live young.

Habitat and home

Pythons can be difficult to find and watch long enough to learn their habits. They are found in rain forests, grasslands and savannas, woodlands, swamps, rocky outcrops, desert sand hills, and shrub lands, depending on the species. Pythons may be active day or night, depending on species, habitat, and when prey is most active.

Most pythons seek shelter in tree branches or hollows, among reeds, in rocky outcrops, or in abandoned mammal burrows. Two exceptions are the woma and the black-headed python, the only pythons known to create their own burrow by digging with the head and scooping out the dirt by curving their neck. Their jaws are countersunk, lower jaw fitting inside the upper jaw, which keeps dirt out of the snake’s mouth.

Reticulated pythons have been seen swimming in the ocean, which is probably how they originally got to the islands in the Pacific Ocean, where some of them now live.
Pythons have four rows of back-curving teeth in their upper jaw and two rows of teeth in the lower jaw that they use for obtaining, holding, and moving prey back into the esophagus.
The scrub python is Australia’s largest snake, reaching up to 19 feet long.
Children’s pythons often enter caves to forage for roosting bats.
Green tree pythons are yellow or red when they hatch. They take the adult’s green color between six months and two years old.
Black-headed pythons seem to prefer eating other reptiles, including venomous snakes.
The Boelen’s python was not identified by western science until 1953.

The famous Diablo
The San Diego Zoo has had pythons in its collection since its earliest days. One of our most famous python residents was an Indian python named Diablo, who arrived from India at 23 feet (7 meters) long and weighing 200 pounds (90 kilograms)—quite the show stopper!


We currently have six python species on exhibit in the San Diego Zoo’s Reptile House, including colorful Boelen’s pythons in the northeast corner of the House and Indian pythons in the northwest corner. Zoo guests can also admire one of our albino Burmese pythons living along the Zoo’s Tiger Trail. Burmese pythons’ typical coloration is brown, tan, and black, but the albino variation lacks those color pigments, and the snake is white with a yellow pattern. In the wild, albino snakes rarely survive because both predators and prey can spot them more easily, but they are striking to look at in zoos.

Python ambassadorsFour python species serve as animal ambassadors, used by our Education Department for presentations to school groups and tours. They include another albino Burmese python named Saffron, two young woma brothers (hatched here in 2007) named Mickie and Nooroo, a Madagascan ground boa named Manja, and Monty, a ball python. These gentle and beautiful creatures allow our guests to view pythons up close and touch them, helping to dispel the myth that snakes are slimy and scary.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has a ball python that serves as an animal ambassador as well. Nyoka (Swahili for “snake”) is one popular guy. He travels all over the Safari Park, the city, the state, and even the southwestern United States, helping to spread the word about the need for conservation and the dangers of the pet trade. His docile nature and years of experience being photographed and touched by the public has made him one of the Park’s favorite reptile celebrities.

Many people in Asia, Australia, and Africa live closer to pythons than they think, as the snakes often use backyards, basements, and roofs as their habitat. Pythons may also live on or near farms or gardens, where rodent species are abundant. Some people appreciate the pest control pythons provide, but others consider the snakes to be the pests and kill them on sight. Pythons are often run over on purpose while sunning on or crossing a road. In Asia, pythons are killed for folk medicine uses and as a food source, and the larger python species, particularly the Indian python, are killed for their beautiful patterned skin, which is used for clothing and apparel.

In Australia, pythons are a protected species, although many are illegally taken from the wild to support a growing trade in pet pythons. And pythons everywhere suffer from loss of habitat.