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Mexican Burrowing Python, Loxocemus

Glasgow Zoopark acquired its first Loxocemus, in the early 1980s. (Some are therefore over 15 years of age now!)
A collection of 15 adults (4 females), and 8 juveniles (hatched 1998) has been built up.

Although called the Mexican Burrowing Python, and it does occur along the Pacific coast of central Mexico south to Costa Rica and north-western Honduras, it is probably not really a python, but a member of the Xenopeltids , or Sunbeam snakes. However, it remains classified as a sub-family of Boidae - the Loxoceminae .

In profile, its pointed face is clearly designed for poking under moss and small logs, thus accounting for the descriptive, but incorrect, English name Sharp-headed python , or Spitzkopf python in German.

We have found the young to be dark brown with an iridescent sheen (reminiscent of baby slow worms) and no white markings. We assume these fleckings, which usually cover just a scale or two at a time, are some form of cryptic camouflage, designed to break up the snake's outline in the shadowy habitat it occupies in the wild. Several of our adults, presumably wild-caught specimens, have large healed white areas which seem clearly to be healed rodent, cat, or bird bites.

The nearest relative to this unusual snake is the Calabar Ground Python from West Africa! Ours were acquired from individual Herpetologists and Customs seizures at Heathrow Airport. We have experienced breeding behaviour steadily through the 1990s, with eggs being laid (in clutches of 2-4) from 1994 onward. The early clutches were infertile, but fertile during the period 1995 to date. The mating ritual is surprisingly savage as the males spurs appear to be razor sharp and can cause deep slashes down the flanks of the female - these can be tricky to treat in temperatures of about 27 degrees Celsius. We have experienced some deep slashing cuts, caused by the sharp spurs of the male in courtship of the female, and these can be difficult to get to heal, but when they did so, have not left any scars so far.

We keep all our Loxocemus off-exhibition, in individual holding enclosures, with sheets of newspaper for tunnelling under, and a shallow bowl of water.

The temperature is maintained at 72-78 . They feed usually on mice, and appear to be long-lived - we have several specimens over 15 years of age at least.

Although they have never bitten, they are far from lethargic, taking a keen interest in what is going on, and any changes. The character of individual snakes varies, with some, irrespective of the amount of handling, being more nervous than others. Such snakes tremble and twitch when you pick them up, and may take a couple of minutes to calm down. If they hiss, something is wrong

On one occasion, an imperfect shedding had left an eyescale over the eye, causing the snake evident discomfort. It was clearly relieved when this was quickly removed. During summer months, our loxocemus shed every 4 weeks or so, increasing to 6 or 7 weeks in winter. We don't handle them for two or three days before the shed and for two or three days afterwards. Nor do we handle them for two or three days after feeding.

The older, bigger males become quite heavy for their size - just over a metre in length. Care should always be taken to ensure they body is properly supported along its length.

Once mature, the pattern of white scales over the skin, does not vary from shed-to-shed, year to year. It is easy to recognise favourite snakes at a glance, and photographs could be used to build-up an accurate stud-book, should this ever become necessary.

Anyway, Herpetologist; and Head Keeper, Les Brown appears to have cracked these behavioural problems, with eggs being incubated to almost full term (about 70 days) in 1997, before failing. In 1998, two clutches, totalling 10 eggs were laid by 2 females at the beginning of April, and all developed normally, in the incubators in the Incubation room of the Tropical House (in full view of visitors).

Loxocemus are oviparous, laying small clutches of 2-4 eggs. The eggs are long and thin, 2.5 cms in length by 0.75 cms in width. The dark brown young are 7 cms in length on hatching. Apart from Glasgow, the only other significant captive group in a public collection is, we understand, at the National Zoo in Washington.

Loxocemus Breeding Success


One of the most spectacular breeding success at Glasgow Zoopark over the last few years has been the hatching of Mexican Burrowing python (Loxocemus bicolor) eggs. After many years' work by the reptile keepers at Glasgow Zoopark, seven eggs hatched out of a clutch of eight. This attracted much interest from the media because it probably a first zoobreeding outside the USA, although a private British herpetologist probably also bred this species within the last twelve months. The Mexican Burrowing python is much appreciated by many thousands of our visitors because it has proved particularly suited to close contact sessions. There are few aspects of a zoo's work more fulfilling than convincing visitors of the beauty and value of the so-often despised snake.

All of the 1998 youngsters are a deep coppery colour. We are waiting to record the development of the characteristic, randomly distributed white scales. A tentative hypothesis is that this is related to a change in behaviour, from a largely subterranean habitat to a surface habitat, requiring more cryptic camouflage amongst the moss, dead leaves and shadows. The white tail tip may possibly be a predator distraction strategy. Larger white patches on the bodies of one or two adults, are almost certainly scar tissue from healed rodent or other bites on wild-caught adults, and we would obviously never expect to see these on captive-bred specimens.

We have been interested in Loxos for 20 years now, and still have some of our original animals. The older males are regarded as 'past it', I'm afraid, so even if we tried now, we wouldn't get any activity.

We find some pairs are better breeders than others, but we do swap the males around each year. You can try two males together with a female at the same time, but they must be under CONSTANT supervision. We have experienced horrendous injuries early on caused by the slashing of spurs (See Ross' Python Breeding Manual).

We maintain a constant 30 degrees C when incubating the eggs and usually get at least 90% hatching. A 'good' egg usually hatches.

The females which are laying are all several years old. However, one person who contacted us felt that smaller animals (i.e. less than 60 cms in length) were easier to get to breed.

Sexing

Sexing Mexican Burrowing pythons is problematic, and as difficult, or otherwise as any other python. Males alone have spurs and, if you have several individuals, you can tell their sexes behaviourally.

Husbandry

  • Light is on all the time, as it is also a heat source. They have sheets of newspapers to hide under if they wish, and the bubl is coveredby an opaque plastic luncheon box.
  • Photo period: none, though they know when its winter.
  • Temperature - kept at a steady 28 degrees celcius.
  • Humidity - There is a shallow galvanised bowl of clean water (1 cm deep) in a small cage (1 metre x 1 metre x 15 cms high) at all times. So the conditions are not very humid.
  • Housing: in a small cage (1 metre x 1 metre x 15 cms high), in blocks of 8 with glass fronts which slide up.
  • Cooldown or bumation - very little, but the lower cages are cooler and we utilise this when necessary.

Reproduction

Mate in late December/January. Keep all animals individually, and introduce a male to a female in the morning so we can supervise what follows. We never leave them unsupervised, because the male is capable of inflicting deep slashes in the female with his spurs; these are difficult to treat.

  • Two months from copulation to egg laying.
  • Two months from laying to hatching.
  • Eggs incubated in sterilised vermiculate in a human baby hospitalincubator at 30 degrees celcius.
  • Clutch size varies, but usually 4 or 5
  • Keep babies separate and feed on pinks.
On a final note, the young are a dull coppery colour with no white markings. We suspect these develop later and are a form of cryptic camouflage, designed to break up the snake's outline. The white tipped tail is probably a decoy for predators. More extensive white areas look like healed bite wounds on adult snakes (perhaps rat bites?)

1999 BREEDING SUCCESS CONTINUES WITH MEXICAN BURROWING PYTHONS (Loxocemus),

by Richard O'Grady, Director of Glasgow Zoopark.

A clutch of four Locoxemus eggs hatched at Glasgow Zoo on Saturday 29 May, 1999, after an incubation period of 65 days. After hatching they are kept in a small tank hidden under damp paper towels. This is to allow the full absorption of the egg yolk and the final healing of the umbilical scar. This takes several days, after which the baby snakes will be on the move, looking for food.

Currently Glasgow Zoo possesses four female and thirteen male Loxocemus pythons. Two, perhaps three (we are not entirely sure), have produced eggs that have hatched. The other female's six eggs, laid this year (her first clutch), regrettably did not hatch. It is important that as many females as possible contribute to our gene pool at the beginning of a captive breeding programme, as this allows (mathematically at least) very many more breeding combinations into the foreseeable future without jeopardising the effort by in-breeding.

Interestingly, this year's four youngsters are already almost as large as those of last year. The incubation period was a few days longer and the eggs were also bigger. It may, of course, be that it is a different mother, but, regrettably, with all the moving about from cage to cage and prospective mate to prospective mate, we are unsure whether this is so, or not, at the moment.

Our breeding programme is the result of fifteen years effort, and we now have quite a number of youngsters of differing ages, from two to three years downwards.

Those of you familiar with Fred, the large adult male favoured by Reptile Keeper Tracey for the snake handling sessions, may notice that the young are all a solid, dark copper colour, unlike Fred, who is liberally speckled with white scales in a random pattern. Disregarding the healed scar tissure from rodent bites in the distant past (suggesting Fred is of distant wild-caught origin), these markings strongly suggest a cryptic camouflage adaptation for life amongst the dead leaves on the shadowy forest floor. The youngsters, on the other hand, probably burrow more and tuck themselves away in the darker, earthy areas under stones.