are white lipped pythons aggressive?

Are White Lipped Pythons aggressive?

Are White Lipped Pythons aggressive? Well, there reputation says they are, but like many less widely kept species they are probably misunderstood…

Last updated on February 1st, 2023 at 09:26 am

White Lipped Pythons are not aggressive – they’re defensive. In sharp contrast with many other pythons, they’re also agile and fast-moving, which makes them seem a little scarier than they are. Like most snakes, you can tame them with regular handling, but you will need a snake hook to help diffuse their defensive behavior.

White Lipped Python temperament

Appearance-wise this species is stunning. With a black back, golden flanks, and white lips it has a unique color scheme. When factor in the shimmering iridescence from head to tail you get an incredible-looking animal.

 It’s only natural that us herpetoculturists would want to keep it as a pet, and make it a center piece of our collection. The only problem is that lots of us are put off by its grouchy reputation.

Is it really warranted, though? In this article we’ll take a closer look at whether White-lipped Pythons really are aggressive, how bad their bites are, and how to handle them.

are white lipped pythons aggressive?

Fast-moving, nervous pythons

The main thing that makes people think White Lipped Pythons are aggressive is that they are nervous and fast-moving. Watching them move, and you could compare their foraging behavior and defensive displays to those of Rat Snakes or Racers.

They make my beloved Ball Pythons look like slugs by comparison, being more streamlined, active, and alert.

This difference in behavior (and body shape) is mainly down to the fact that they are more used to using speed and defensiveness to escape predators than hiding.

At this point it’s worth mentioning that two main species exist in captivity: The Northern White Lipped Python, also known as D’Albertis’ Python (Bothrochilus albertisii) and the Southern White Lipped Python (Bothrochilus hoserae).

Their husbandry is pretty much the same, but most keepers agree the Northern species is a little more nervous. It’s also the most common species in captivity.

*Note: there’s actually several other species and subspecies, which taxonomists don’t always agree on. I’m not going to pick sides, but you can read more about it in this study: Revision of the Genus Leiopython Hubrecht 1879 (Serpentes: Pythonidae) with the Redescription of Taxa Recently Described by Hoser (2000) and the Description of New Species

Are White Lipped Pythons aggressive?

The difference between “aggressive” and “defensive”

When dealing with snakes and other reptiles, it’s important to distinguish between aggression and defensiveness. When a snake rears up and strikes at you, it’s not being aggressive, and doing it out of spite. It’s doing it because it’s afraid and thinks you might be a predator.

Aggression is less commonly observed in reptiles because it isn’t directed at us. It usually occurs between them when competing for mates, space or food.

It is also usually more mild than defensiveness, despite the terminology. When male snakes fight, they generally just have a wrestling match, but aren’t stupid enough to actually hurt each other (unlike humans, for example).

Reptiles are generally more often defensive, and bitey, towards us because they stay safe by assuming everything wants to eat them. That’s the best way to survive in environments like New Guinea, where White Lipped Pythons live, after all.

In equatorial environments like that, there’s a lot predators, and prey is good at hiding. This means competition is tough and every time a snake goes out to forage, it must be ready to defend itself.

Interestingly, this defensiveness is genetically ingrained. Snakes like the White Lipped Pythons are born ready to rumble, and it takes a lot of gentle handling to get them to relax.

All this to tell you that White Lipped Pythons are not aggressive – their defensive – and they can’t help it.

Let’s look at some differences between aggression and defensiveness in reptiles:

Examples of AggressionExamples of Defensiveness
– fighting potential competitors for mates– striking at predators/threats that want to take their home/territory
– fighting potential competitors for food– striking at predators that want to eat their eggs/young
– fighting potential competitors for refugia (hiding places)– striking at predators that want to eat them
are white lipped pythons aggressive?

The difference between wild and captive-bred (in temperament)

If you know anything about Green Tree Pythons, you’ll know that this is a familiar story: a snake species gets imported and then gets a reputation for being ill-tempered purely because people are buying wild-caught individuals.

This is pretty much what has happened with White Lipped Pythons. Lots of the ones you see for sale are still wild-caught to this day. As you’d expect, they arrive stressed, irritable, and frightened; a combination which sends their defensiveness through the roof.

Captive-bred ones on the other hand calm down nicely if handled regularly from a young age. The difference is big, almost as big as the difference between wild-caught and captive-bred Green Tree Pythons and Carpet Pythons.

Wild White Lipped Pythons live a tough life, so it’s kind of unsurprising that they don’t arrive all cuddly.

Wild-caught animals also commonly have a range of other problems, including:

  • internal parasites
  • dehydration
  • external parasites
  • depressed immune system
  • viral diseases
  • protozoan diseases
Are White Lipped Pythons aggressive?
Scars like this are often a sure-fire sign of a wild-caught snake

Using a snake hook for handling

If you can get your hands on a healthy, captive-bred hatchling, then it’s important to learn how to use a snake hook to handle it as it grows.

The main point at which White Lipped Pythons become defensive is when you go to remove them from their enclosure. They rear up, hiss, and sometimes strike. This makes them almost unapproachable from the front.

If you have a snake hook, nonetheless, you can diffuse this threat display, and kind of snap them out of it. Obviously, I’m aware this sounds a little far-fetched until you try it yourself.

At this point, it’s also a good idea to mention that the snake hook needs to be long enough. I recommend a two to three foot hook for juveniles and subadults, then a three foot hook for adults.

There’s two main ways to break the defensive behavior using a hook:

  1. Lightly touch the snake on top of its head when in the threat display. This doesn’t always work, but when it does, the snake goes into retreat and you can gently grasp its body while it crawls away.
  2. Put the hook under the middle or lower half of the snake’s body while it’s in the threat display, and pull it out of the enclosure. More often than not, it will try to slither back into its home when it realises it’s being removed, and you can gently grab it by the body.
Are White Lipped Pythons aggressive?

White Lipped Python bite

Using a snake hook like I’ve describe above will help you avoid being bitten. But guess what – accidents happen!

You’re going to get bitten by a snake at some point if you keep them. You’ll get bitten by any type of animal eventually if you keep them long enough – it’s part of the deal.

Fortunately, being bitten by either the Northern or Southern White Lipped is a scratch at the worst. Being slender snakes, their bite isn’t that bad.

Given the size of their heads, they can manage a bite about as mean as a Ball Python. Whilst this is obviously more painful and definite step up from the bite of a Corn Snake or Milk Snake, it isn’t all that bad.

The most common result is a few puncture wounds that need washing with soap and water. It’s nothing that will cause severe injury.

Are White Lipped Pythons aggressive?

White Lipped Python feeding response

With most species of snake, your riskiest moment is when feeding them. Boas especially are known having a strong feeding response and occasionally grabbing a finger rather than the rat on offer.

This doesn’t seem to be the case with White Lipped Pythons, though. They generally feed well, but don’t fly out of the enclosure at you. Which is good, because I’ve had a few near misses with other species swiping right past my face.

White Lipped Pythons seem reasonably shy about feeding too. Some keepers have even told me that their Northern White Lipped Pythons will refuse to eat if they watch them.

Nonetheless, you should always feed with tongs, just to be on the safe side. All-in-all though, it does seem like these pythons are most likely to strike at you when you try to handle them, rather than when you feed them.

Are White Lipped Pythons aggressive?
Northern White Lipped Python (Bothrochilus albertisi) wrapped around a branch. Both species are accomplished climbers, despite having a fondness for water

Are White Lipped Python good pets?

White Lipped Pythons are great pets, so long as you are comfortable with a snake that takes more work to tame, and will always be nervous. Overall, the rest of their care is pretty straight-forward.

Some people find it upsetting when their pet sees them as a constant threat, or tries to escape when they hold it. If this is you, you might be better off choosing one of the more popular pet snakes for beginners that I’ve discussed on this site.

A nip is always a possibility with a defensive species. Again, if this really worries you, it might be best to gain experience with a small pet snake species first.

Are White Lipped Pythons aggressive?
A wild White Lipped Python. In captivity, you can produce specimens that are much brighter and irredescent than this one by providing a diet of healthy rodents

Are White Lipped Pythons aggressive? The bottom line

Neither Northern or Southern White Lipped Pythons are aggressive. Rather, they’re defensive snakes that get nervous when you approach them.

A compounding factor is that many of the ones you see for sale are wild-caught. Wild caught reptiles are almost always more defensive, and more problematic than captive-bred individuals.

Personally, I find that it’s generally possible to tame captive-bred White Lipped Pythons, and you should not let their irritable reputation put you off. It will be a case of repeated, gentle handling from a young age.

You might get a nip along the way, but it’s worth it to keep one of the most stunning python species on the planet.

H2 FAQ relating to White Lipped Python temperament

Are white lipped pythons good for beginners?

Really, White Lipped Pythons are not good for beginners – but they aren’t terrible either. They just have few points which are more easily addressed by experienced keepers. First off, they need reasonably high humidity (around 65-70%) all the time. They are also nervous and defensive, which means they need a confident handler.

Are White Lipped Pythons aggressive?

How big does a white lipped python get?

The two most common species in captivity, the Northern and Southern, differ quite a bit in size. Northern White Lipped Pythons get around 6 feet (1.80m) long, whereas Southern White Lipped Pythons get up to 9 feet (2.7m) in length.

Overall, they are both slender, meaning that despite their length they aren’t as heavy as Boa Constrictors or true pythons (those in the Python genus).

Which python is the most aggressive?

The most aggressive python in the wild is probably the African Rock Python, which is confident taking down large prey like Gazelles on a regular basis. “Aggressive” might not be the best term, though, as this is just their hunting instincts.

In captivity, every single species of python can become tame and safe with regular handling. This author feels that the White Lipped Python’s reputation as one of the most “aggressive” species is an exaggeration.

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