The thought of why and how ball pythons may have evolved to hunt primarily at night in the wild came upon me while I was cleaning ball python cages yesterday. This blog entry is more or less a loose hypothesis or collection of possibilities on why and how ball pythons evolved to hunt at night as opposed to during the day. I must preface this blogy entry by stating that these are by no means facts, only my personal thoughts and ideas after pondering the subject matter later that evening. Consider this blog more or less a discussion on the topic and nothing more since I've done no research either way to prove or disprove any of the ideas that follow. Your comments are very much welcomed so please share your thoughts on this topic.
Most people notice immediately the row of holes or “pits” above the mouth area on a ball python because they look odd or different. It's easy to think that these holes are used for breathing since we as humans have a pair of holes on our face as well right above the mouth area that we refer to as a “nose”. On the contrary, the holes or pits in a ball python are not used to breathe but are used to measure external heat sources and the proximity or distance of the heat source from the ball python itself.
In order to discuss why and how ball pythons may have evolved to hunt at night, we have to first remove the notion of captive bred ball pythons from the picture and examine their original birth-place, Africa. Africa is home to a diverse and rich assortment of animals, both small and large. Temperatures tend to be hot in many areas and the selection of animals - both predators and prey - demand that in order to survive an animal must adapt to its environment along with the threat of surrounding predators or face extinction, hence the term “survival of the fittest”.
Ball pythons are not dangerous creatures when compared to deadly snakes in Africa such as the Black Mamba, Puff Adder and Gaboon Viper just to name a few. In fact, ball pythons don't grow to massive lengths like the Burmese Python, Reticulated Python, Anaconda and the like so they are in fact quite vulnerable snakes. This vulnerability would have forced the ball python to migrate and dwell in areas where they were less likely to become prey to other notorious predators such as the Lion, Hyena, etc., and remain hidden for the most part in shelter from other predators wishing to seek them out as prey. This desire to stay concealed is probably why captive bred ball pythons tend to stay tucked away hiding in their hide-boxes for the most part.
The primary predator of the ball python in Africa is the Black Cobra. Ball pythons evolved a defense posture to combat this predator by fashioning their bodies into the shape of a ball, hence the name “ball python”. A black cobra cannot swallow a ball python that has fashioned its body into the shape of a ball so I can only venture to believe that ball pythons developed this defensive posture over time. Early ball pythons that did not curl up somewhat or contort their body were eaten and the ones that did survived, thus passing this important trait down to future generations. Since curling up meant survival, ball pythons over time through natural selection have developed the ability to fully fashion their bodies into the ball shape that we know today.
The chief food source of ball pythons in Africa is the rodent. Rodents are food sources for many other predators as well so rodents tend to be more active at night and travel under the cover of darkness. Ball pythons need to feed as all animals do so they too had to evolve along with the rodent in order to hunt them at night. I think this evolution over time is the reason why they developed heat pits and the ability to see better in the dark. If you look at a ball pythons' eyes, you'll notice that they resemble that of cat eyes. Like a cat, their pupils narrow vertically in the presence of light and expand in the absence of light.
Since feeding our ball pythons frozen thawed food items, I've noticed that they rely heavily on the use of their heat pits. If the prey item is not warm enough, the ball python will usually strike and “miss” the prey item several times despite the fact that it may only be mere inches away from their face. This leads me to believe that the primary mechanism used to generate a strike action in order to capture and subdue prey is based primarily on the heat source by way of its pits. They use their forked tongue to gather scent molecules from the air to identify nearby prey and employ their heat pits to zero in on the location of the heat source for the attack.
In my opinion, vision in ball pythons plays a minor role when it comes to the need to visually see a prey item but is still important and useful nevertheless, otherwise they would have no need for eye sight. Mole rats that live in total darkness have no use for vision so they've evolved to become blind since the use of sight is of no value to them. I think ball pythons use their vision to help aid in navigation when there are no prey in the vicinity. When they emerge from their hiding places at night to hunt for prey, most of the surrounding objects in their path are still warm and give off strong heat signatures. If the ball python relied solely on its heat pits and tongue then it would be challenged to navigate at night due to the excess build up of heat most objects received during the day. I think they use their eyesight in these situations to navigate the terrain and employ their heat pits prior to a strike and possibly to identify warm areas needed for thermo-regulation.
Again, these are just my personal thoughts and I welcome your comments.
I put the mouse in the cage and she was immediately interested. Knowing before that she only ate in the dark, I turned all the lights off in my room so I could catch. To give me a little extra light, I turned on my infrared lamp so I could see and the moment I did that, she struck towards the light twice. Although she knew it was feeding time, she relied more on the heat signature than anything else to feed despite the fact that she was lying directly on the mouse I placed in the cage.
After that, I had decided that I would heat the mouse hot water instead of just warm water...that way, she would be able to "see" it much better.
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