There are many myths about snakes of all shapes and sizes, but one popular myth is about whether ball pythons climb or spend most of their time on the ground.
Many people believe that ball pythons do not climb, or at the very least, do not prefer it. But this isn’t the case. Ball pythons can and likely will climb if given an enriching enclosure with branches or ledges.
In the Wild
Before we talk about if ball pythons will climb, it’s important to look at what their natural habitat is like. In the wild, ball pythons inhabit Central and West Africa.
This is a large area! Unsurprisingly, this means that ball pythons inhabit both grasslands and sparse woodlands.
The savannas of Africa are tropical grasslands, meaning that it is very warm with more rain in the summer. This is perfect for ball pythons which require warmth and humidity to thrive, and it also provides plenty of places to hide in the grass and burrows.
There are sparse trees throughout the grasslands, but they are never frequent enough to form a canopy, so the sunlight always reaches the ground. This is also great for ball pythons as they can come out and bask in the sunlight if they need to!
This environment is often why people believe ball pythons do not climb, as the savannas of Africa are open and flat. But that isn’t all that Africa has to offer!
There are also many areas with trees and sparse woodlands, and ball pythons also live in these areas. In fact, in many of these wooded areas, ball pythons are found in the trees more often than on the ground! They are strong snakes, especially for their smaller size, and are therefore excellent climbers.
They also make use of platforms and shrubbery in the wild, which they climb onto and into, both to bask in the sun and to hunt. Ball pythons are ambush predators, so they prefer to sit and wait for food to come to them, and their diet consists of mainly rodents and birds.
So they can climb into this shrubbery and wait for rodents or climb into a tree and wait for birds.
There does seem to be a preference between males and females, however. Males are more often seen in and around the woodlands of Africa while females are more often found in traditional grasslands.
Even so, they are both capable of climbing various types of terrain and will do so for travel, basking, and hunting.
There are many different ways to house our pet snakes, and there is a lot of debate about what is right for them. About ball pythons in particular, many people say that short, long enclosures are best, ones that provide no space for climbing.
This sort of setup can be done by using plastic tubs, as many are available for cheap. There are benefits to this, as it can be easier to keep the humidity at the right percentage in a plastic tub with no mesh lid like glass terrariums have.
However, many people who keep their ball pythons in this sort of enclosure provide little to no enrichment for the snake. They may have a water bowl and a warm hide, but that’s it.
They say that’s all their snake needs because ball pythons are inactive and spend all of their time “balled up” in their hides. Well, if you were kept in an empty house with no furniture other than a bed, you may find yourself spending a lot of time in that bed, too!
So in this sort of environment, no, we do not see ball pythons climb, but that is because they aren’t given the opportunity.
Jumping to the other side of the spectrum, some people keep their ball pythons in something called a bioactive setup. This means that they use more natural substrates, have live plants, include led and uvb lighting, leaf litter on the ground, things to climb on, and even bugs like springtails and isopods in the substrate!
Bioactive enclosures try to mimic a more natural setting for the snake. Owners that keep their ball pythons in these types of enclosures more often see their snake out and about. You may see your snake climbing more at night as it explores, or moving around more before mealtimes, and you may even see them out climbing during the day as they look for a warm spot to bask and sleep!
A common belief is that ball pythons live in termite mounds, and because of that prefer burrows and living underground in dark spaces. While that isn’t entirely untrue, it isn’t entirely true either. As mentioned earlier, we do see more females in flat grasslands while we see more males in trees in the wild, and the open grasslands are often where you find termite mounds. Female ball pythons may very well be seen living in these places, and are most often nesting, but we also see a wide range of critters living in termite mounds, including lizards and other snakes. So yes, it is true that you will see ball pythons living in termite mounds, but that isn’t proof that they don’t climb.
If you look up what the inside of one of these termite mounds looks like, you will see that it is a sprawling system of tunnels and ledges. A ball python would have to climb if it wanted to live there! There are plenty of places to climb, explore, and yes, to hide. If ball pythons preferred not to climb at all, it wouldn’t make sense for them to make a termite mound into their home because they wouldn’t feel comfortable or safe.
Technically? No. Climbing is not a basic need for ball pythons to live. In fact, ball pythons kept in barren plastic tubs may very well live out a long life. But it won’t be a fulfilling one. Snakes kept in barren, dark setups may not eat regularly or go on food strikes for long periods of time. If a snake isn’t eating, there’s a reason why. Sometimes they just don’t feel hungry and may go months without eating yet not lose any weight, sometimes it can signify a health problem, and other times it can tell you that there is something wrong with your snake’s environment making it uncomfortable or making it feel unsafe.
Things to climb on may not be a necessity for your snake to live, but providing them things to climb on and explore will provide an enriching environment for them that they actually like to explore. This will vary snake to snake, though, and may vary based on gender since we see males in trees more often than females. Some snakes just have crazy personalities and you may be surprised by their behavior. The best course of action is to provide your snake with a wide range of things to burrow under, climb on, or even branches for them to use, and see what they like.
Earlier we talked about barren plastic tubs versus bioactive terrariums for your ball python, but these aren’t the only ways to house your snake. While bioactive setups are wonderful and may even save you money in the long run, they can be very expensive to start. Good news, you don’t have to have a bioactive setup to make your snake happy! You can use branches and cork logs, you can use pvc pipes and bury it under the substrate to create underground tunnels, you can even use bowls or paint trays to make hides for your snakes. While some of these options won’t look natural, the point is that you can and should provide your snakes a variety of things to explore and hide in for them to have a fulfilling and healthy life. With lots of things to explore and climb, you may even notice your ball python gaining more muscle!
So, while there is evidence that ball pythons life in flat open areas, we also see them climbing in the wild. Females may climb more in termite mounds when nesting while males can be found climbing in trees in the more heavily wooded parts of the African savannas. If you have a pet ball python, consider trying out different obstacles in their enclosure! Branches, cork logs, bowls, hammocks, and pvc pipes can be excellent sources of enrichment for all snakes, not only ball pythons. If you pay attention to your ball python soon after the sun sets, you may see them coming out more since you’ve given them more to explore. You may find that your ball python prefers the ground, but you just may find out that your ball python loves to climb!