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Ball Pythons

Whenever I get asked what is the best kind of snake to get for a beginner keeper, I always answer with Ball Pythons (Python regius). Ball Pythons, or Royal Pythons as they are called in the UK, are slow moving, docile snakes that are readily available in the pet trade. These amazing reptiles do not grow very large, with females maxing out at 5-6 feet, while the smaller males only reach around 3 feet. Due to their small size, their enclosures don’t take up that much space, which is another reason they are a great first snake. In the wild, these snakes are native to Central and West Africa, where they spend the hot days hiding under rocks, in burrows, or even in gigantic termite mounds. 

Monty, my Ball Python (Python regius)

 Ball Pythons are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night. They don’t have very good eyesight, so they rely on heat sensing pits on their upper lip to find food. These pits pick up the heat from their surroundings and enables them to “see” heat, such as the warm body of a mouse. This incredible ability allows them to hunt even in pitch black. In captivity, young Ball Pythons are usually fed pinky mice (newborn mice) or fuzzies (young mice that have just grown their fur) while adults are fed adult mice or rats, depending on the size of the snake. Young Ball Pythons should be fed around twice a week, while adults usually go a week or two between feedings.

A close up view of the heat pits on a Ball Python’s upper lip.

These are long lived snakes, living up to 40 years in captivity, so they require some commitment. Ball Pythons are great pets for people with dog or cat allergies, as they have no hair and don’t cause any allergic reactions. They are also perfect therapy animals for people with autism and similar conditions because of how calm Ball Pythons are, since the hyperactivity of a dog or the quick movements of a cat could be stressful for the person.

My Dad “bonding” with Monty.

 Ball Pythons pose no threat to humans, as they are non venomous and have small teeth, and even though they are very muscular, they are not strong enough to hurt a human. If you are planning on getting a Ball Python, make sure you do a lot of research, and get information from multiple credible sources before buying a snake. With proper care, a Ball Python could be an amazing first snake for anyone looking to get into exotic pets!

My cousins hanging out with their favorite snake.

Ball Pythons make amazing pets.

Chinese Mantis

Chinese Mantis

The Chinese Mantis (Tenodera sinensis) is the largest species of Praying Mantis in North America, with adult females being able to see reach 6 inches in length. As the name implies, these insects are not native to the US, but rather they were accidentally introduced here from Asia in 1896.  Chinese Mantises are voracious predators, eating any creatures small enough to overpower. Large adults are even able to eat small mammals and hummingbirds! Mantids have superb eyesight. Their huge compound eyes give them an almost 360 degree view. They also have three simple eyes on the top of their head called ocelli. Mantises rely almost entirely on sight to find food. Once a mantis has a prey item, such as a housefly, in sight, it will slowly creep towards the fly, swaying as if it were blowing in the wind. Once the fly is in range, the mantis will, in the blink of an eye, grab the fly with its raptorial front legs and immediately start to eat it. The front legs of a praying mantis are modified to catch prey. They are both lined with sharp spines, which hold prey tight and prevent escape. They also use these legs for self defense, as they are very strong. A large mantis can even draw blood if provoked enough. Chinese Mantids are very docile, and do not bite or pinch unless they feel that their life is in danger. They much prefer to run away than stand and defend themselves. The adult males can fly, while the bulky females are usually too heavy to lift off the ground, the extra weight coming from unlaid eggs. If a mantis is cornered, and it’s escape is blocked, then it will go into what’s called a threat display. This is when the mantis rears up to full size and spreads its front legs out to the side to appear larger. Adults will put their wings up, which are usually colored on the inside and sometimes have large black spots, which mimic the eyes of a much larger creature. The goal of a threat display is to startle the threat long enough for the mantis to make an escape. It that doesn’t work, the mantis will bite and pinch the attacker in hopes of discouraging it and scaring it away. Perhaps the Chinese Mantises best means of defense is its amazing camouflage. For a predator, the hardest part of eating a mantis is finding it. Mantids will stay completely still in tall grass and plants, almost invisible to predator and prey alike. Their elongated bodies and the striped pattern of the adults helps them blend in with dense, tall grass. 

Mantises are considered to be beneficial insects, since they feed upon pest insects such as aphids, grasshoppers, and hornworms. In the fall, Chinese Mantises lay large egg cases, each filled with around 200 eggs. Come spring, the egg case will release hundreds of baby mantises, each one born ready to fend for itself. The nymphs, as immature mantids are called, are around 1-2 centimeters in length when they hatch. Over the course of a few months, the nymphs will molt around 8 times to make it to maturity. Chinese mantises, like most mantids, have a short lifespan, living around 7-9 months.

Chinese Mantis nymphs right after hatching. These are nymphs from only one of the egg cases.

Jumping Spiders

Jumping Spiders

Jumping Spiders are very common in most parts of the world, but their abilities are almost completely unique to their family, Salticidae. Not only are they the only spiders that use sight to aim and leap onto prey or from place to place, but some species can jump up to 50 times their own body length. That would be like a 5 foot 6 inch tall human jumping over a Boeing 747 jet airliner without a running start! There are about 5,000 species of Jumping Spider throughout the world, ranging in size from a few millimeters to over an inch, and can be any color imaginable. Jumping spiders are Araneomorphs, meaning that their fangs face each other, and bite in a pincer movement, as opposed to Mygalomorphssuch as tarantulas, whose fangs run parallel to each other and strike downwards. Jumping Spiders also have a very elaborate mating dance. When a male Jumper spots a female, he will attempt to get her attention, and then start moving side to side with his front pair of legs waving in the air while slowly moving forward. He will continue this until the female runs away, chases him away, attacks and eats him, or he gets close enough to mate. Because Jumping Spiders can see so well, the males are often very colorful to help improve their chances. Jumping spiders are like walking radar stations. They are covered so thickly in sensory hairs that they appear furry and almost puppy-like. They also have 8 strategically placed eyes that give them 360 degree vision that makes it near impossible to sneak up on them. Their front eyes are very large, giving them amazing eyesight and allowing them to see almost as well as humans! They can also see in three color patterns, meaning they see colors just like most people do. The combination of a furry look and big round eyes also makes them adorable looking to many people!

What is Molting?

Molting is an essential part of a tarantula’s life cycle, it’s how they grow! When a tarantula starts to prepare for a molt, it goes into a state called premolt. When a tarantula is in premolt, it becomes sluggish and refuses food, and if the “skin” under the abdomen is visible from hair kicking, you will notice its abdomen will change to a much darker color. Premolt can last a few days for fast growing spiderlings to months for adults of slower growing species such as the Arizona Blonde Tarantula (Aphonopelma chalcodes).

 Before the molt, a tarantula will lay down a molt mat, which is essentially a sheet of non-sticky silk that protects a tarantula during molting. When a tarantula is ready to molt, it flips upside down on the molt mat. Many beginner keepers see their tarantula upside down, and assume that it is stuck, so they flip it right side up. This could actually be fatal for the tarantula, causing it to get stuck in its molt, at which point there is not much you can do for it. After flipping over, the tarantula will slowly begin to push out of its old exoskeleton. This can take hours to accomplish and is very exhausting for the spider. The video shown was filmed over a course of around 6 or 7 hours. 

After molting, a tarantula is very soft and completely defenseless. This is when a tarantula is at its most vulnerable state. It may take anywhere from one day to harden up for very tiny spiderlings to weeks for some of the largest species. The tarantula in the video, a Burgundy Goliath Birdeater Tarantula, took 2 weeks from the molt to when her fangs finally completely hardened. When a tarantula molts, it can also regrow stomach linings, hairs that have been kicked off, and even lost limbs!