On Ball Python Cohabitation

Hi y’all. I’m Wes.

I’ve been wanting to write a post on ball python cohabitation, because it seems to me that the “ball pythons are solitary” line is partly a conventional wisdom that has been perpetuated through the zoological and hobby communities with little in the way of documented research and evidence.

My expectation is that many of you will consider this post reckless. However, I ask that you approach this discussion with an open mind…and specifically consider the substance and experience underlying your own views on the subject. If you have experiences that challenge my observations, post 'em! I’m here to learn, and I hope you are too. Unsubstantiated “this is wrong” comments aren’t very helpful…I strongly favor science and data.

I also want to start with a few caveats:

  1. I’ve only tried cohabitation with baby and juvenile females in large and resource-rich environments.

  2. I keep all of my pythons in either vivarium tanks or vivarium racks, with great temp/humidity regulation and lots of natural hides both in foliage and cork burrows. I take great care and cost to make my pythons feel secure. (does anyone else do this with racks? it works super well and provides a much richer environment…upfront cost is higher, but maintenance is much lower)

  3. I have plenty of space to separate them, and have only kept them together for social experimentation.

  4. In my loose experiments, every stage of interaction - from initial supervised meeting outside of habitat to sharing a vivarium - needed observational validation before increased complexity - adding a snake, letting them interact unobserved, sharing the environment, etc.

  5. I never feed them together. Python feeding response is a strong behavioral override, and I’m pretty confident just from bringing feeders into the room that they would strike and coil on the same prey. I’ve seen videos of pythons competing for prey, and I don’t want to risk that.

Ok, now that those things have been said. I’m becoming increasingly confident that ball pythons are NOT strictly solitary. I started to realize this possibility merely by reading many threads on the subject…where lots of people strongly suggested otherwise without evidence, but dozens of observational anecdotes tended to be along the lines of “meh, mine seem to do fine” rather than “yeah, mine wouldn’t eat and tried to kill each other”. In one case, a family kept a large open tank in a vivarium room and their two pythons regularly returned to the tank to sleep together despite resources spread across the room. That really got me thinking, and I slowly scaled into experiments that left me with a very different view than most: just as we tend to underestimate their intelligence and arboreal nature, we drastically underestimate their capacity for socialization.

My current understanding is that ball pythons share burrows in the wild with some regularity (I’ll go back and find some citations, but I read a comprehensive census somewhere showing both this and a surprisingly high arboreal count). In addition, they are often kept together at scale in the African pet trade and in human settlements in Benin without strong stress expressions (hissing, nipping) from the videos I’ve watched.

In my own experiments, I’ve found they will typically choose to share proximity despite sufficient and distributed resources. This, along dozens of more subtle observations, makes me think that what is interpreted as ‘resource competition’ is often a form of willful interaction…and that pythons overwhelmingly socialize through touch.

For instance, I have three female juveniles (220g, 650g x2) in a single 55gal vivarium for study. It has multiple heat sources and 4 cork burrows spread across the temp gradient (two well-covered burrows on each side that measure identically for temp and humidity). Despite sufficient resources and space, these girls overwhelmingly choose to share proximity the majority of the time. When I pull one out, the others get very curious and poke heads out to watch. When I return a snake, they typically cozily meander to their shared space. I regularly watch them accommodate each other - by leaving burrows temporarily to make space for another, relaxing coil to provide a secure spot for the smallest, etc. Two of them in particular are virtually inseparable…when I bring feeders into the room, they’ll poke their heads out together in a stack, showing substantial comfort with each other while waiting to ambush prey.

The same is true for two baby sisters I keep in a 50qt vivarium rack…even when they want to be in different places, they stretch out so they continue touching at nearly all times (sometimes this looks absolutely absurd, I’ll try to take pics). And they watch sooo intently while you handle the other.

Virtually all of my observations are along these lines. I see no objective signs of increased stress in these animals. Objective is operative word - they never miss a meal and are extremely docile and relaxed during handling (my three juveniles hardly even tense up when removed from a burrow). They shed great. They NEVER nip or hiss at each other in discomfort. Any initial jerky reaction to being explored by another dissipates within like…an hour of introduction (!). Their behavior does not read to me as strictly ambivalent - very often it seems both aware and interactive.

So. I’m not here to strongly claim that I’ve found some deeper truth. I especially suspect things are testier with males or gravid females. But I think it’s worth considering the possibility that in many cases, given a rich and secure environment, pythons can share space successfully. Moreover…I think it’s a very real possibility that they can thrive with social contact, such that they feel more secure than in a solitary environment. Every single snake that I’ve tested seems to prefer being together with another.

Thoughts?

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Seems like an interesting test. Personally i would not try till there are a few other people that have/will try this. I am very curious about how long you have been running these tests, and if it would be a way to keep a small group of hatchings in one tub or tank till they reach a certain size where this might not work for the size of snakes at play. I would love to hear the input from some of the people that have been in this hobby/business for a long time, since i have only been keeping snakes for just under a year.

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I like that you are keeping the questioning attitude, its one of the things that is needed to make sure we are always improving our keeping! Personally my only experience with this was my Juvenile Male and Female that shared a tank for a few months. The Male was about 300g and the Female only about 120g. I was still very new to keeping and noticed the same behavior with them always seeming to be together. Looking back and pictures and more experience it seems like it may have been more of a dominance thing. By staying nearby the male was always in a position that if food were to present itself he would’ve been first to strike. First started to look at it that way after a coworker told me about their Rosy Boas behaving similarly until the smaller snake eventually gave up on eating and died. Certainly nothing definitive just my small experience and hypothesis!

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@yaboibill
Yeah there is one possibly negative event I should expand in detail. I noticed behavior that felt a little like dominance when I introduced a baby snake into the vivarium with (at the time) two comfortable juveniles, and I separated her back out quickly. I didn’t like the two observations on one day where the 200g snake was on top of the 80g snake, both because of where it occurred in the ‘exploration/basking’ space in the tank and given the 200g had previously been the “top” of a 200g/600g pairing. But I didn’t have high confidence in my ‘dominance’ interpretation, given the runt’s stress was low enough that she fed on two frozen hoppers right after that…she was a bit underweight from delivery so I had to stack her meals pretty closely.

However in my current setup, the now-250g snake is always comfortably on top or beside one of the 650g snakes…introducing a third juvenile worked much better. Similarly with the runt, she’s comfortably with her sister now.

There is the possibility of subtlety in this - that is to say, their social behavior has complexity - where they might dominate if they feel one is much weaker, or if they’re unsure of food availability in the environment. I’ve noticed that my pythons seem to habituate around a food schedule after a little while.

@slithermetimbersreptiles
Only about two months - definitely a limited observation set in a carefully controlled environment, but also a decently large number of positive observations. I absolutely don’t think these observations generalize to all setups.

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I dont think I could make a thorough enough response to this but just my quick opinion. I do not believe they are social with eachother or should be housed together.
@osbornereptiles @stewart_reptiles @wreckroomsnakes @t_h_wyman

These people are more than fit enough to reply to this post. I know that everything they say comes from there experiences and things they have noticed while keeping balls.

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Firstly, welcome to the forum Wes :blush: :wave:

You are likely right that you will see a lot of apposition to your views, however this sort of discussion is exactly the type that is needed for education. Hopefully it is productive.

I’m with @nathan_e, as I have extremely limited experience in this topic but I would like to tag @t_h_wyman in hopes of getting his personal views and hope he may have a documented study tucked in a pocket🤞.

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How could I forget Travis?! He too of course is someone who knows what they are talking about.

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Yes in the wild Ball Pythons can be found together, it obviously by choice.

In captivity by keeping them in such a small environment it is no longer their choice but yours, what you are observing when occupying the same the same space is dominance.

Does cohabitation cause stress? Yes especially with the species in questions.

Has stress caused cannibalism in this species yes it has been documented in young individuals and published.

Do I house animals together? No I do not, I have no need for it nor do I see any benefit in doing so unless it is when breeding of course which means 2 snakes of the opposite sex sharing the same space for 2 days at the time.

Do I believe people that ask if they can house their snake together should do it?
Absolutely not if one has to ask than obviously they lack the knowledge to do so and it will go down the hill fast. In my experience those who ask that question on forums are new owners that barely understand their animals or are capable to troubleshoot them on their own wich is why it would do be recommended.

Do I care either way what one does with their snakes? Not particularly if they are experienced and that works for them and the snakes are thriving, that is THEIR choice, and if one day it does not work anymore hopefully they will adjust accordingly.

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I think I know of the forum posts that are being referenced which document cases of cannibalism. To my knowledge they all contain pages of posts on the obvious malnourished state of those animals or the carelessness with which they were introduced (en route to trade shows…), suggesting that bad husbandry was a significant factor. It is very easy to emphasize the outliers without identifying root cause and while ignoring the majority of cases…by my count the vast majority of anecdotes from people who had tried were positive (somewhere between 10:1 and 25:1, probably).

So I do understand this introduces a risk…I’ve tried to quantify it pretty well, and I feel like it falls within an acceptable range to support further study. Because with all things risk, there is the possibility of reward…in this case the prospect of better quality of life for the animals if it proves that pythons actually have complex social behaviors. If in fact it’s a matter of understanding these behaviors more deeply to practice proper social husbandry, then we simply have a lot to learn to become responsible stewards of these animals. And my bet is simply that we have a lot to learn.

There’s a pattern that I know emerges where people project the totality of interactions down to 1 dimension of ‘dominance,’ and I want to explain why I have trouble accepting that answer. Dominance is by definition a complex social behavior…it’s defined as a relatively subtle interaction along a gradient of threatening or defensive behaviors. While I think strong ‘instinctual’ overrides exist (esp in the cases of sex, feeding, starvation => cannibalism)…most organisms that exhibit social behaviors exhibit a diverse range and spend at least part of their time with others. This is why understanding their wild behaviors matters - if they don’t live solitary in the wild, then we’re stripping them of one of their most complex evolved behavior patterns. That’s rarely ideal…my perspective is we should absolutely be learning from nature to create harmonious environments for these animals.

If dominance exists, then according to our growing understanding of complex organisms, other social behaviors are likely to as well…I think the probability that pythons exhibit dominance but not positive social interactions is very low given our observations across species IF they more commonly share proximity in the wild than the hobby has assumed. That’s a big if, and I’d like to see more content that describes their wild behaviors in high fidelity. I really haven’t found nearly as much as I would have expected.

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You have completely misread my post which was an answer to @nathan_e wanted me to share my thoughts not and answer to your particular case :+1:

LET’S TRY AGAIN WITH THE IMPORTANT KEYS TO TAKE AWAY

Do I believe people that ask if they can house their snake together should do it?
Absolutely not if one has to ask than obviously they lack the knowledge to do so and it will go down the hill fast. In my experience those who ask that question on forums are new owners that barely understand their animals or are capable to troubleshoot them on their own wich is why it would do be recommended.

Do I care either way what one does with their snakes? Not particularly if they are experienced and that works for them and the snakes are thriving, that is THEIR choice, and if one day it does not work anymore hopefully they will adjust accordingly.

I think I know of the forum posts that are being referenced, though, which document cases of cannibalism. To my knowledge they all contain pages of posts on the obvious malnourished state of those animals or the carelessness with which they were introduced (en route to trade shows…)

Not referring to that at all but a documented case in an actual old book (don’t recall the little) and I said documented not wide spread either.

Again I have experimented many things over the last 20+ years as a keeper and 14 as a breeder and don’t care either way.

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I dont think Deb at all made any inclination that you weren’t experienced and like she said I ASKED for her to share her views as well as one of the other mods and two others who I know have much experience with ball pythons. If you decide to go ahead and keep ball pythons together than go ahead you do you. All she was sharing was her personal experience and views. She even stated that if it works for you than go ahead.

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Sorry, I did misread and infer too much from your post - edited my response. <3

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Not a problem like I always say there are many different ways to do things based on once knowledge.

What might work for a person with experience that is capable to observe and understand their animals which you are apparently capable of will not be the case for someone that just bough their first snake and think it may get “lonely” and want to get two instead.

Knowing your animals is key before experimenting whether it is housing, temperatures, breeding etc.

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Yeah, I think it’s important to emphasize that this is ‘hard mode’…with uncertain outcomes given my understanding that require a lot of attention to observe. I have these setups right in front of me all day, which isn’t practical for most people.

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I am going to agree with @stewart_reptiles here. Yes they have been found together on multiple occasions sharing burrows, but again this by choice and maybe a necessity at the time. We do know ball pythons are Typically solitairy animals and do better in the hobby enviroment when kept separately.

While co habbing can be done for a period of time without any complications, all it takes is for one bad hair day for things to go very wrong and one animal to be badly injured or killed. Why risk it if you have the resources and knowledge to keep them properly and safely.

One other thing to point out is your observations while interesting are of younger smaller none sexually mature animals. You may have a very different outcome once your animals become ready to breed and territorial behaviors become more apparent.

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Always nice to see some open discussion about our animals and putting some common believes to the test. Ball pythons are kept for so long in captivity that a lott is already know but to me it’s never bad to keep an open mind because knowledge is not a static thing.

I’m in the middle in a lott of subjects about keeping ball pythons just out of own testing, which is not really long because I only keep them for about 2,5 years but at least enough to see something. I do see difference between them in personality which I can not only explain by instinct. Some love to climb, some crawl though their enclosure every evening, some only put their head out of their hide and never come out. Some do really well in vivariums, but some stop eating straight away and start behaving very nervous and do much better in tubs. I do keep decorated tubs and vivariums with hides, cork and fake plants. I have the idea they have a preference for the cork because out of 15, 14 use the cork every day. Most lie their head down on it every evening and most prefer it to the plastic or stone hide. The fake plants is for an established snake nothing special but for a new one some extra cover when they feel unsecured. But I do like it myself so I still put it inside their tubs and vivariums. This as an aswer on your first post.

I don’t co-habitate my snakes but when we take them out I regularly let them crawl together, mostly snakes of about the same age together so they do see each other regularly. At least each week. The attention they pay to each other is zero. They don’t avoid each other but also don’t seem to care one bit about each other. The reaction they have meeting each other is nothing more or less than meeting any other item around like a book, a toy or anything else. When I put them outside in the grass they at first don’t pay attention to each other but when they had enough they do crawl together in the same hiding space and really pile up. I don’t really see dominance, aggression our any other emotion. I get the idea it’s simply the nicest place to relax if your a snake. I don’t have any fear they will try to eat each other, although it might be a thing when one smells like rat and the other is hungry. Just a case of mistaken identity just like one snake a few weeks ago tried to eat my hand.

A friend keeps ball pythons together in tubs for about 15 to 20 years and he never had a case of snakes trying to eat each other or any form of aggression. He did keep other reptiles together with a lot more problems. I think many people might not agree to how he is doing it, and to be honest I also would never keep them the way he does. But he believes they like it because they do lie down together. To me it simply looks overcrowded and it’s because of lack of better space but the snakes don’t look to stressed either. He does seperate the adult males from the adult females but the juveniles he keeps mixed. Most eat and shed well although some do have eating problems. Feeding he does in a seperate tub. He did breed them but the female he wants to breed he keeps alone in a tub. His brother kept two adult females and a male boa together which didn’t end well for the male because he breed himself literally to death. To me that is really a terrible thing that should be avoided at all time.

My own conclusion based on the information I have till now is that for most it’s not really bad or stressful, when you have either juveniles of about the same size and age or snakes of the same gender without, in case of males with no females around. But adult males and females should not be housed together to protect both for overbreeding. So I don’t see it as terrible as some people in other forums try to make it, at least for some time when they are young. But that said, I will not house them together myself and just keep it to a meet up when they are out of the enclosure. To be honest, if someone asked me I wouldn’t promote it either. Just a case of “better safe than sorry”.

Lizard I really don’t promote keeping together, even leopard gecko’s. It goes well for some time till you see one getting really stressed and once you seperated them you see the difference. One leopard gecko even really visible get stressed when she sees her former mate, even when they are only together on the sofa…poor thing, and they are of the same age and were together since they where babies.

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There is a lot to unpack here, but I want to address things around this statement which is the Achilles heel in your argument, you are anthropomorphizing behaviour

Deb and Mary covered a fair amount… Now, I am going to throw a bit of a monkey-wrench into things, because that is what I do.

Both of the ladies above argued that when balls are found communally in nature it was by choice. I disagree. I believe the reason is necessity. There is sort of a fine line that differentiates the two and I am not sure I can fully articulate it but basically it boils down to the animal does not know good/bad, it simply knows “this is what I must do to survive” and sometimes that means taking refuge in a location that already has an inhabitant or two (or more). Might there be other locations? Sure, but for one reason or another, those locations are not conducive to survival.

Now, as to whether or not balls can be co-habbed… Here is where I will break from Deb and Mary.

I think it is possible, but the real question should be: Is it feasible?

If I had a 245cm x 76cm enclosure with extremely intricate architecture incorporating over a dozen well-spaced and varied hides/shelters AND multiple basking locations AND multiple locations that allow for an animal to fully stretch out AND multiple locations for water AND many, many visual barriers AND the ability to monitor behaviour from any point in the enclosure at any time… then I MIGHT be willing to give it a try. But that is a lot of conditions that are not exactly easy to accomplish.

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Awesome post thank you @wesjohnson87 very interested to read about something a little “different.”
I have no desire or need to Try this, and especially as @t_h_wyman mentioned I certainly Do not have proper infrastructure ready to go either.

Once in a great great while I may get 2 of mine out at the same time with me in the couch or whatever and they don’t seem to even acknowledge each other’s presence, don’t seem to be looking at each other, smelling, anything. So I’m interested to read your observations…but do not have much opinion myself except I’m never starting out 50/50 on something like this I give a benefit of doubt to that conventional wisdom…but that doesn’t mean it is always right! Very interesting stuff thanks for sharing.

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I’m gonna post some pics of my observations along the way to help facilitate discussion.

First, the younger sisters. Eleven strongly prefers the top of the cork hide, while Twelve prefers the ground. Yet they also seem to prefer being adjacent and ‘softly entwined’ like in the top pic. So very often, the compromise seems to be the bottom pic…lightly touching, relaxed postures, and stretched between their preferred zones.

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I only tried cohabitation once when I took in a male/female pair off of craigslist on a whim and didn’t had two individual enclosures set up. They had already been cohabitating for over a year in their previous home and so as a temporary measure I put them together in a 75 gallon tank with multiple hides, water bowls and two “hot spots”. I fed them separately in boxes outside of the tank.
They did very much make the choice to be in each other’s personal space all of the time, sharing the same hide, drinking out of the same water bowl and hanging out on the same area of the same branch. While it may have looked like cuddling and enjoying each others company, I am not so convinced it was friendly companionship and not competition. To me it seemed more like they were staying close in order to benefit from each other if one of them had found some sought after resource. “snuggling” can look an awful lot like resource guarding. It makes sense that in an environment with finite resources, they might choose to stay close so that if one should find a nest of mice, or a particularly nice burrow, the other could move in on it. We haven’t even managed to breed out resource guarding in highly domesticated species, much less pythons.
While nothing bad happened during their cohabitation, it’s not likely something I would ever try or recommend, because things could go downhill very quickly. It’s difficult to assess stress levels in a ball python outside of determinants like whether they are feeding, hiding, etc, but I’d be willing to bet if you measured stress levels in cohabitating ball pythons they would be higher.
If it works for you, that’s great, but I don’t think it’s usually ideal.

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