In captivity, pythons can live for two or three decades. Some live much longer than this -- and pythons tend to live longer than many other snake species do. However, because it is difficult to study snakes in the wild, the natural life spans of wild pythons remain unclear.
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One Size Does Not Fit All
While pythons are a rather closely related group of snakes, they do exhibit considerable diversity in terms of body size, lifestyle and ecology. Accordingly, the life spans of the various species vary. AnAge, a database containing animal aging and longevity records, gives the following maximum-recorded life spans for these commonly kept species:
- Children's python (Antaresia childreni) – 25.7 years
- Green tree python (Morelia viridis) – 20.6 years
- Reticulated python (Python reticulatus) – 29.4 years
- Carpet python (Morelia spilota) – 19.6 years
- Sumatran short-tailed python (Python curtus) – 27.8 years
However, it is important to understand that the maximum-recorded life span is not necessarily indicative of the average life span of a species. For many species, reliable data are rare. For example, according to the database, the maximum recorded life span for the scrub python (Morelia amethistina) is 13.8 years, but these snakes almost certainly reach older ages than this.
A ball python (Python regius) holds the record for the longest documented life span among snakes. Acquired by the Philadelphia Zoo in 1945, the snake lived at the zoo for 48 years. The snake's skin and skeleton now reside at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.
In 2009, a pet Burmese python (Python bivittatus) died at the age of 43. The snake, which belonged to a Salt Lake City snake enthusiast, surpassed the previous record holder for the species by 10 years.
The Biology of Longevity
Many factors influence both the average life span of a species and the exact life span of an individual. Although these factors vary widely and influence the life spans of species in various ways, zoologists have deciphered a few common patterns. In the absence of concrete data, these models may be instructive but do not provide definitive answers.
While exceptions exist, most snakes that mature rapidly produce large litters and live relatively short lives; by contrast, those that mature slowly tend to produce smaller litters and live long lives. This general principle appears to apply to many snake species. Additionally, species exhibiting low adult mortality tend to live longer lives than species who exhibit high adult mortality.
It is important to consider the possibility that conspecifics from different areas may have different average life spans. Herpetologists have not yet demonstrated this phenomenon in pythons, but some garter snake populations (Thamnophis elegans) yield two types of individuals: Some live long lives in high-elevation meadows, while others live relatively short lives in low-lying, damp habitats. These differences have a genetic basis; in 2014, researchers Anne Bronikowski and David Vleck demonstrated that these differences manifest in the snakes' metabolism and oxygen consumption.