Saturday, April 4, 2015

Meet Kahn

Basking comfortably in the warmth of his large cage in the Nature Center at World Bird Sanctuary, you will find Kahn, the albino Burmese python.  Kahn has been a resident of the sanctuary since about 1998, when he flew to St. Louis from Rapid City, South Dakota in the coat pocket of Walter C. Crawford Jr.

Kahn, World Bird Sanctuary’s Albino Burmese Python (photo: Dawn Griffard)

Kahn is an albino Burmese Python (Python bivittatus).  The term albino refers to the fact that this particular animal lacks pigment in his skin.  In animals, albinism is a hereditary condition characterized by the absence of pigment in the eyes, skin, hair, scales, feathers or cuticles.  It is a recessive gene (meaning the gene’s traits are rare to see) passed down by one of the parent animals.
Unfortunately, albino animals do not fare well in the wild.  They fall easy prey to predators since they have much difficulty camouflaging their bright body color. 
Normal color Burmese Pythons may be pale tan, yellowish-brown or gray.  On top of this base color are large reddish blotches outlined in cream or gold.  Kahn does have the Burmese Python blotches, but they are the same yellow as the rest of his body and are outlined in white.  His eyes are pale red instead of gold.

Burmese Pythons are one of the largest snakes on Earth, averaging 16-23 feet in length and up to 200 pounds.  Their girth can be as big as a telephone pole.  Female Burmese Pythons are the larger of the two sexes and usually have a different coloration and a smaller head relative to the body.
If you are considering a Burmese Python, remember that they can reach 23 feet long, weigh up to 200 lbs., and live as long as 30 years--are you ready for that responsibility?

Our Kahn weighs about 70 pounds and is 12 feet long.  He was the runt of his litter and was not doing well when he was hatched at Black Hills Reptile Gardens, so Executive Director Walter Crawford, offered to bring him back to WBS for some focused attention.  He arrived at the sanctuary when he was only 12 inches long.

The life span of these snakes is 20-30 years.  Since our Kahn is only about 16 years old, he has a long life ahead of him!

Burmese pythons are indigenous to southern China, Burma, Indochina, Thailand, and the Malay Archipelago. These snakes generally live in rainforests near streams, although they survive in a variety of habitats, such as grasslands, swamps, marshes, and rocky foothills.   Populations are dependent upon a permanent source of water.  Interestingly, Burmese pythons are excellent swimmers and can stay underwater for up to 30 minutes before surfacing for air.  They use their powerful body muscles to flow gracefully in the water.

Kahn in his swimming pool (photo: JoHanna Burton)

They have very poor eyesight, but can use the special chemical receptors on their tongue and the super-sensitive heat-sensing pits around their mouth to find food.  Pythons are constrictors, which means they grab their prey with their teeth and coil their muscular bodies around it and squeeze until the prey is suffocated.  Because they don’t use venom, they do not have fangs.  However, they do have many rows of backward curving teeth that allow them to grab prey and not allow it to escape.

In the wild, Burmese pythons will eat small mammals, reptiles and birds.  They swallow their prey whole and spend the next several days to weeks keeping warm enough to digest their meal.  Like most snakes, Burmese pythons can unhinge their jaws and have special ligaments that allow them to swallow an animal four to five times as wide as their heads.

Our Kahn eats pre-killed food items, which are much safer than live prey.  Snakes that are born into and live in captivity generally lose some of their wild inborn ability to catch and kill prey items quickly and efficiently.  Because of this, they can often be bitten by that prey animal.  In turn, that bite may turn into a dangerous infected wound.  The snake may also react to such an attack by learning that the smell of that prey animal means “fear and injury” instead of “food”; subsequently becoming a problem eater.

Closeup of Kahn (photo: Dawn Trainor Griffard)

The plight of the Burmese python in the wild is extreme.  Native populations are considered to be threatened and are listed on CITES (Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species) Appendix II.  Although the snake is widespread throughout their range, they are diminishing in numbers.

Hundreds of thousands of these snakes are killed for their skins – which are made into accessory items such as shoes, boots, belts and other items.  Their blood and gall is used in folk medicine, and for “snake wine” in Viet Nam.  Young snakes are captured and sold in the pet trade.  Some snakes are commercially bred for these purposes, but too many are still removed from the wild.

Conversely, non-native populations of Burmese pythons are booming as an introduced species in southern Florida.  Populations begun by overwhelmed and irresponsible pet owners, who thought it was a good idea to release their pet snakes when they got too big to handle, have flourished in the warm and humid Florida climate.  These unnatural introductions are having devastating consequences on the Florida ecosystem.  Preying on many different native species and therefore competing with the native natural predators, these Burmese Pythons are seriously impacting the natural order of the ecological community.  Over 2,000 Burmese pythons have been removed from Everglades National Park.   Although the Burmese Python will likely never be eradicated from south Florida, the National Park Service has been taking great strides to manage the existing population.

If you are considering a snake as a pet please remember that this species grows too large for most home environments (Photo: Gay Schroer)

Considering these grim facts about our wild Burmese pythons, it seems they will never be seen in a good, respectful light.  Snakes are often not seen as desirable, important creatures overall, but they serve a great purpose to their native environments, as rodent control for one example.

Our Kahn is an important symbol for the exploited native wild animal populations that are disappearing quickly on our planet, and as one who has unwittingly become a “nuisance animal” as an introduced species by the irresponsible human hand.

Please consider showing your support of this troubled species by adopting Kahn into your family today.  Your $50.00 adoption fee will help feed, house and care for Kahn in the coming year.  Your donation will make a great difference.   Kahn does not yet have a family of his own, and it would be wonderful to have his nobility recognized!

Submitted by Dawn Griffard, World Bird Sanctuary Naturalist

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