Does he love me, or is he hungry?
I have been the owner of an adult male Ball Python for 2 months. I've never had a snake before, so i'm not sure what behaviors are considered normal or abnormal. I'd like to ask you about something he recently started doing.
It started earlier this week. at random times during the day, i would get up and wander around my room, just doing my thing. He used to not care, but now, sometimes, i see him poke his head out of his cave and start watching me with his tongue constantly flicking. He seemed very interested this morning when i started pacing around, and he even moved his head to follow my movement. All the while, he kept flicking his tongue. Last night i assumed the behavior was due to hunger, so i fed him a rat. But like i said, he's still doing it today.
Thinking he just wanted some attention, i opened the doors of his terrarium and stuck my fingers in a little. He didn't really move and just stared at my hand. I was sort of scared that he thought my hand was food and planned to strike at me. When i put my hand a little closer, he shied back, but after i stroked him a bit, he came closer and licked my hand. Then he backed away for good, so i left him alone.
I'm concerned about this, and wish i knew what the watching and tongue-flicking meant. My guess is that he's either fond of me, or is thinking of eating me (as if he could). I'm kind of doubting the second one because i've held him about 4 times before without any trouble, and he's interacted with humans a lot in his life. He was a breeding dad in his last home. I would think by now that he knows the difference between humans and food.
Do you know what might be on his mind?
Benton County Washington
Thank you for your question. Your snake's behavior is normal. Snakes are predators and, depending on how hungry they are, are naturally attracted to movement. The constant tongue flicking is the snake's way of sampling the air to help it determine what's out there. The snake is able to pick up odors in the environment on its tongue, transfer these stimuli to two vomeronasal organs, called the Jacobson's organ, located in the roof of the snake's mouth. Molecules adhere to the two tines of the tongue, and the snake can interpret concentrations of molecules on each tine to determine proximity and direction of potential mates, prey and predators.
Here are some excellent books on snakes and one on everything you need to know about the ball python (Python regius):
Greene, Harry W. (1997). Snakes - The Evolution Of Mystery In Nature. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Lillywhite, Harvey B. (2014). How Snakes Work: Structure, Function and Behavior of the World's Snakes. New York: Oxford University Press
Barker, David G. and Tracy M. Barker. (2006). Ball Pythons: Their History, Natural History, Care and Breeding. Boerne: VPI Library.
These books are fairly expensive, but should be available through interlibrary loan.
Hope this answers your question, and thank you for contacting Ask an Expert.
If he is watching me move and smelling me, does that mean he sees me as possible food? Or is he expecting me too feed him? Should I give him another rat?
No, he does not see you as possible prey. He is just reacting to the movement. If you just fed him a rat last night, he doesn't need another one this soon. An adult ball python should be fed about every other week. After the snake eats, you should not handle it, but give it a few days to rest while it digests its food.
Also, if you are handling the mice or rats, make sure you wash your hands thoroughly before attempting to handle any snake. While small snakes won't mistake you for prey, the scent of mice or rats on your hands may cause them to bite.