Ball python terrarium decorations are more than just furniture or accessories to make a reptile’s terrarium look prettier. While they can serve an important aesthetic function, they enhance a reptile’s quality of life by mimicking their natural environment and providing mental stimulation (or as zoos call it, “enrichment”). And since ball pythons like to hide, feel free to clutter it up! Contrary to popular belief, snakes are not stupid creatures that can be perfectly content living in a virtually empty box. They are complex animals that science is just beginning to understand. For a more in-depth discussion on this topic, I recommend reading Environmental Enrichment For Reptiles: What? Why? and How?
Many people believe that ball pythons in particular don’t need enclosure decor or even a spacious enclosure because they “spend all their time in termite mounds” and never venture beyond them. But ball pythons are terrestrial, not fossorial, and their morphology (the way that their bodies are built) looks nothing like snakes who actually spend all of their time underground. According to snake biologist Henry Astley:
“Coming from my background (snake biomechanics) NOTHING about the ball python morphology is consistent with an animal which ‘spends all their time in a termite mound’. Their skulls have no reinforcement or digging adaptation, their eyes aren’t reduced, they have distinct ‘necks’ (as opposed to the robust ‘train locomotive’ morphology of most burrowers), and have no specialized digging rostral scales. Anyone who claims they spend their whole lives in termite mounds needs to go take a look at Loxocemus and Calabaria to see *real* burrowing morphology, then defend how balls can have that lifestyle claimed with zero morphological adaptations.”
Heavy water dish
Ball pythons thrive when they have access to a large water dish full of fresh water. Aside from drinking a lot, they also like to soak on occasion, especially before shedding. Choose a heavy ceramic bowl or equivalent so the snake doesn’t accidentally knock it over and soak their substrate.
As a rule of thumb, ball pythons need at least 2 hides: one on the cool end of the enclosure, and the other on the warm end. But it’s better to offer as many as you can possibly cram into the enclosure. For best results, fill one or two of the hides with moist sphagnum moss to facilitate shedding.
Ball pythons are primarily terrestrial and crepuscular, which means that they need somewhere on/in the ground where they can hide from the sun (and predators!) during the day. They prefer to spend the majority of their time in a cramped, dark space, and accommodating that preference is the best way to keep your snake healthy and minimally stressed.
Another factor that needs to be considered here is thigmotaxis, or the tendency to hug walls. Humans might get claustrophobia, but there is nothing that a ball python loves more than to be cramped in a space where its whole body is pressing against walls, because that means that a predator can’t get in. In other words, the hides that you choose for your ball python must be small enough that your ball python will feel “squished” inside. Roomier hides just make them stressed out.
It’s true that ball pythons like to hang out in burrows, but they like to hang out in burrows made by other animals. Their heads simply aren’t shaped for digging their own burrows, and it’s much more efficient. What would you rather have — a house built by someone else, or a pile of materials for you to build your own?
The ideal shape for a hide is low and wide, and preferably at least partly buried in the substrate — just like a burrow! Cork flats and cork rounds work great for this, but you can also do it with plastic hides. For details and photos, look through this post by Zack Tippie in Not Just a Pet Rock.
Install at least one or two sturdy branches that the snake can safely slither over. This is a great way to encourage exercise, which improves muscle tone, fights obesity, and can improve appetite. It is a common misconception that ball pythons are strictly terrestrial, and simply too clumsy to risk offering them climbing opportunities. The truth is that ball pythons are very capable climbers! In the wild they will emerge from their burrows at night to go hunting in the trees.
This behavior has been recorded in several accounts, one of which being “Jebels by Moonlight,” described by Charles Sweeney as follows:
“It was not until I was returning to my camp that I saw the royal python about ten feet high in the tree, an old mahagiya (Celtis integrifolia). Its four-foot length was half hidden in a hole in the trunk. I waited and watched nearby.
“In a few moments the reptile emerged from the hole, pulling the forepart of the body out by wrapping its tail round a branch. I expected it to have caught some prey but apparently it had found nothing in the hole. Next the python moved slowly to the end of a branch before turning back to the main truck where it paused for a moment, then moved to a higher branch. Here there was another hole into which it inserted its head, but again it found nothing. By this tedious process the snake investigated most of the tree, spending almost half an hour from the time that I came upon it, but without finding any supper. If this was its usual method of finding its prey then there must have been many nights when the python went hungry and it was just as well for the animal that it could live without eating for months.
“The snake came close to the ground, lowering its length until, suspended by only the prehensile tail, it dropped the last few inches.”
This habit is most often attributed to males, but many females have also been reported to be avid climbers, so provide climbing opportunities regardless of sex.
Although a bit of greenery often makes an enclosure look more attractive, foliage is not just for aesthetics. These can assist in shedding, as well as provide more places for your snake to hide. Artificial plants tend to be better because live plants tend to be too fragile to withstand the traffic that a heavy-bodied snake creates during its nighttime wanderings.
This is a mostly aesthetic item, but can be very useful if you are keeping your ball python in a glass terrarium. A background should be used to cover 3 sides of the terrarium, helping your snake feel more secure in its environment. PetBackdrops.com has a huge variety of background images to choose from. One step up from that, Universal Rocks creates 3D backgrounds with ledges that your snake can actually climb on, maximizing the space in your enclosure.