A royal python is a type of heavy-bodied, non-venomous snake native to central Africa. More commonly known as a ball python in the United States, the royal python is one of the most popular snakes in the pet trade. The scientific name for this species is Python regius.
One of the smallest of the python species, the royal only reaches 3–5 feet (0.9–1.5 m) in length. The females are usually longer and thicker than the males, with larger heads. Their dark brown or blue-brown skin has large blotchy light brown or yellow patterns. Shading varies among snakes, and albino color morphs are sometimes present, particularly in captive bred pythons. This species is called the ball python because the snake's defense mechanism is to curl into a tight ball, hiding its head.
Possibly the longest-living snake species, the royal python may can live up to 40 years. The oldest recorded royal python was 47 and a half years old. On average, they live about 20–30 years and will generally survive longer in captivity than in the wild.
Once reaching maturity at three or four years, the royal python begins to reproduce. The female lays two to ten eggs, most commonly six. Unusual to snakes, pythons actually incubate their eggs by curling around the clutch and then twitching their muscles to create heat. She will incubate her eggs for approximately 90 days before the babies hatch. Newborn snakes measure about 14–17 inches (35.5–43.2 cm) upon hatching.
Extremely popular in the pet trade, royal pythons have been exported from Africa to regions worldwide. Docile and easy to care for, ball pythons are good for beginning snake owners. Pet snakes may be captive bred or wild caught. Wild-caught snakes do not adapt well to life in captivity and tend not to recognize non-native food sources, so many wild-caught python owners will find it hard to convince the snake to eat. Conversely, captive-bred pythons do very well in captivity and eat live mice or rats on a weekly basis.
Because of their popularity as pets, wild royal pythons are considered threatened. This status is particularly a concern because these pythons are important to their native ecosystems — both because they serve to keep small mammals and birds under control and because they are a food source for some Africa cat species and birds of prey. The pet trade is not the only cause for the decline of the wild ball python, however. Indigenous people also frequently eat them for food and hunt them for their skins.