No one knows an animal as well as someone who has kept it for some time, and Animal Scene sought out industry experts Melvin So and Pitlair to answer questions about the green tree python.
With editing by Charlene Bobis
Photos by Jeffrey C. Lim
Q: Can you give us a basic introduction to the green tree python and how it came to be in the Philippines? How big can you expect it to grow, how long is its lifespan, and what other basics should those interested in it know?
Melvin So: The green tree python (morelia viridis) is also known as the Chondro—it’s a name derived from its former genus name Chondropython. The appearance of a mature green tree python is mostly green, with white, yellow, and blue spots all over the body. It may also have blue striped markings. Green tree pythons or GTPs are also widely found in different islands of Indonesia and Australia; those living in each locality have their own color and pattern traits.
Baby to Juvenile
GTPs are yellow, orange, red, brown, or dark brown black. As they mature, you will notice that they will change in color to green; some go straight to blue, and some will retain their bright yellow juvenile color. It’s always exciting to keep these gems as you never know how they will turn out.
The males tend to be smaller than the females. The average size of a mature GTP is 4-6 feet but others may reach 7 feet when fully mature. Males also tend to be more slender than the females. With proper care and maintenance, they can reach their mid-teens, but some records shows that others reach up to 30 years.
The GTP’s main habitat is in or near a rainforest; they are primarily arboreal and reside in trees, though they can sometimes be found on land when they are resting or want to move to other trees.
The diet of baby GTPs is mostly small lizards in the wild, but in captivity, small rodents are readily available.
Pitlair: Mostly, GTPs came in through our back door, meaning from Mindanao, due to its proximity to Indonesia, which is one of the countries where they are found.
Neonates or hatchlings are born bright yellow or deep red, and at about one year old, they go through a color change called “ontogenesis,” transforming their neonate color to green.While green is the typically what they turn into, but there are specimens with beautiful combinations of yellow and green. There are also different shades and hues of green. The rare ones are solid yellow, solid blue, albinos, and an almost white with a blue tint. Different GTPs coming from different locations look slightly different from one another. Hobbyists refer to this variation as the “locality.” A GTP coming from Sorong Island (in Indonesia) would be referred to as “Sorong locality.”
GTPs are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night. They spend almost all their life on branches and hardly come to the ground. They are slender and can grow to slightly over 5 feet long. As for lifespan, when it comes to captive, well-cared-for specimens, I would say over 10 years, and they may even reach 20 years. Like most exotic animals that are kept in captivity, it is important to know what their natural habitat is like; this will form the basis of how they should be kept.
Since these beautiful snakes lives in the forest, it would then be ideal to have our enclosure replicate these conditions, with daytime temperatures in the range of 27 to 30 degrees Celsius and a few degrees cooler at night. Humidity is an important condition that should be met; that is how it is in the rain forest. Luckily, the Philippines is a very humid country, so a good size water dish and the occasional water misting should more than meet this requirement. As it is an arboreal snake, something to coil and perch on is important; a branch or more is essential.
Q: What for you are the defining characteristics of the GTP, the thing or things that make them special and/or distinguishes them from other, similar creatures?
Pitlair: One is initially drawn in when someone sees a neonate for the first time. They look so adorably small with their bright yellow or deep red color. They are also beautiful display animals, because unlike other snakes that hide, GTPs perch on branches, and with a well-thought-of (and nicely executed) display terrarium, they complete a unique conversation piece.
Another interesting aspect is their hunting style; It is always interesting to see them hang on their branch, waiting for passing prey. Once prey—like a small rodent—pass under them, with a lightning-fast strike, they latch on with their many tiny, long, curved back teeth as they coil around and suffocate their victim then slow swallow them whole, all the while hanging from their branch. I personally like how this predator presents itself, with its intimidating features and striking coloration.
Melvin So: One of the characteristics of the GTP that I like the most is that they undergo an ontogenetic (lifespan) color transformation. From juvenile to adult, every single GTP has its own unique pattern. For me, every single one of them has its own unique beauty and this is one of the primary factors that make them incredibly addictive.
They do have their South American counterpart, the emerald tree boas (Corallus caninus), and some people may have been confused when they see these two species outside of their natural habitat. One of the main differences between the two is that GTPs are egg layers while emerald tree boas are ovoviviparous (live bearers), which means the young are born live, without needing to be hatched from eggs.
Q: Was it difficult for you to raise a GTP? What are the best things you’ve learned about keeping it, in your experience? What challenges did you face in its care, and how did you overcome these?
Melvin So: I won’t say it’s difficult nor easy; you need to follow guidelines to raise and keep your animals healthy. Proper hygiene, temperature, humidity, and clean food sources should strictly be followed. So be sure to do a lot of research on your animals first before acquiring one. I also consider GTPs to be for advanced keepers because they do have special requirements and housing to keep them healthy. One thing I learned about keeping any animal is, you need to be patient and responsible; always have time to look after them and attend to their needs.
Pitlair: Neonates require more effort to care for, but once they stabilize, they are very easy to care for. I’ve learned that they are one of the easier snakes to care for once you understand their needs, but it is always necessary to regularly monitor subtle changes in their behavior in order to take immediate steps if something is off. Also, I now know that they can be tolerant about being handled.
Specimens that only seldom want to eat; normally, what we try to do is employ different environmental interventions such as misting, soaking, etc., then we complement that with a trip to the vet for deworming and vitamin supplement injection. We also offer a variety of prey to try and trigger a renewed feeding response.
Q: Do their care requirements vary from other, similar creatures?
Pitlair: Relative to other constrictors, they are one of easier snakes to care for, owing to the fact that we have very similar climate parameters to from where they come from. Do they need a lot of attention? No. Do they need a special diet? They are carnivores, so rodents are their staple diet, but chicks and the like can also be offered. Given a sufficient area in their enclosure, they will move around at night, which is normally enough for them. Heat, humidity, and a ventilated enclosure are the requirements that need to be met. And since we have very similar climate to where they come from, there is really not much we need to add—a nice shallow water dish whose contents are changed often should suffice.
The branch or a place where they can coil up and hang from is important. Others add live or artificial plants to give a more natural look to their enclosure; the plants also make them feel more secure. Others hang a small hide box near or at the top of the enclosure.
Melvin So: Because they live in trees and need lots of space to climb, they are different from ground dwellers and semi-arboreal snakes. Sufficient space should be available for your pet for proper exercise; make sure you maintain proper heat and humidity for your animals or it might get ill or have problems shedding.
Q: What are the characteristics of a healthy GTP? Conversely, what signs should keepers look out for that indicate when it is sick? What are its common health problems that keepers should watch out for?
Melvin So: Look closely at how it coils on its perch; you will notice a nice, relaxed, tight coil compared to a loose coil. Check the skin if it’s dehydrated; if it has wrinkly skin, it’s a sign you need to check your husbandry.
Check if it makes a wheezing sound, or if bubbles are coming out of its mouth; this may be a sign of a respiratory infection in your snake caused by bacteria and viruses. If you notice this, you need to separate your animals and bring the sick one to your vet so it can undergo proper treatment as respiratory infections can be highly contagious. Look for water blisters on the body; they may be an indication of parasites. Check the mouth or the snout of the snake for stomatitis (mouth rot); and lastly, check the poo of the snake.
Pitlair: A healthy GTP is responsive. Some of the signs to watch out for are loss of appetite, a runny discharge, dull color, and lethargy.
Q: Are there misconceptions about GTPs that you would like to correct among those who have heard of it but who do not know it well?
Pitlair: That they are very aggressive and can’t be handled. Compared to ball pythons, they’re not, but with the correct approach, they can be as docile as any other snake. Also, being arboreal does not mean that their enclosure needs to be very tall; actually, it’s important that they have a sufficient horizontal area in which to stretch out.
Melvin So: A lot of keepers have the idea that it’s hard to keep GTPs in captivity. The problem I always encounter with other keepers is, they always acquire wild-caught GTPs. They should understand that wild-caught animals do carry loads of parasites and they might not acclimatize well in captivity due to sudden changes of environment.My advice is to get captive-bred GTPs; these are available on the market but the price might be slightly higher than that for wild-caught ones. Trust me, it will save you tons of headaches to purchase captive-bred ones.
Q: For someone who is interested in keeping a GTP for a pet, can you give them things to consider before taking the plunge? Who would they make ideal pets for? Or are they better suited to aficionados who want to study them?
Melvin So: Make sure to do tons of research first and get yours from a reputable source. GTPs are quite popular in the pet market because they are unique compared to other exotic animals. Just make sure you are ready for the responsibility and able to provide the requirements they need to be healthy.
Pitlair: Read! There’s so much information on the Net. Books are also a good source of information. Join groups and forums, and don’t be afraid to ask questions. (But be considerate enough to do some reading first before asking.) Once you do decide to pursue keeping one, find a suitable area where they will not be disturbed too much by human activity. Have your cage set up along with the accessories. Your GTP should be the last thing you get.
GTPs have a different appeal from other pets, so this appeal must be strong enough for you personally to keep GTPs as pets. As long as you research about the basic requirements, an intermediate hobbyist will be more than than able to care for a GTP.
Q: How much of a commitment does it take to keep a GTP, and what advice would you have for someone who is keeping them for the first time? Were there any mistakes you made as a beginner that you feel other beginners should learn from?
Pitlair: Neonates require more attention, while a well-established adult only requires feeding about twice a month; then there are the occasional cage cleanings. As long as you can spend a few minutes a few days a week to check on them, and are able to feed them 2 to 3 times a month and clean their cage twice a month, you’re fine keeping a GTP. If you’re a first-time keeper, research GTPs extensively first. I would not recommend that beginners get GTP neonates. Don’t rush into it. Make sure to at least know the signs of a healthy GTP. And this can’t be stressed enough: Research extensively.
Melvin So: In general, GTPs are low-maintenance. Do your research first; make sure you are ready for the responsibility and weekly routine.
At first, I always bothered my very first GTP by tapping the glass. He always struck the glass as a result, and after a while, I noticed he was very stressed and refused to eat for a while. I covered the whole enclosure to let him rest and thankfully, he recovered. Don’t get too excited by the prospect of always bothering your pets; they also need time to rest.
Q: Are there any risks involved in keeping GTPs? If so, what is your advice on how to best avoid or lessen these risks?
Melvin So: They are escape artists. Be sure your enclosure is secure and escape-proof, but very well ventilated. GTPs should be housed individually. If housed in a community enclosure, they could get stressed or might display aggression towards each other.
Pitlair: As for risks involved in keeping GTPs, I would say getting bitten. Accidental or deliberate bites are part and parcel of keeping GTPs if you handle them. Be cautious; using snake hooks and gloves help, as does knowing your snakes and what their subtle movements mean. While it’s not venomous, it has many many fine curved back teeth to latch on to prey. Males always needs to have separate cages.
Q: What, in your experience, are the best tips for taking care of GTPs? Are there any unique situations you’ve encountered and solved?
Pitlair: In addition to what I’ve already mentioned? Keep feeding records; index cards are fine.
Melvin So: Also in addition to what I already mentioned: Don’t overfeed and don’t give them prey that is too large for them. Sometimes we tend to have the idea that our pets are healthy when they eat a lot, but that is not the case, and will cause health issues.
Q: How does the green tree python interact with humans? Can they show affection the way traditional pets do, or do they express themselves another way?
Pitlair: I think human interaction with GTP would be more visual; occasional handling can be tolerated.
Melvin So: In my opinion, GTPs make good display pets, and should not be bothered all the time (touching, handling etc.) although other people like to handle their pet often.
Q: Are they difficult to import to the country? How can a beginner aquire a green tree python legally and safely?
Melvin So: You need to have proper documents to import exotic pets into the country. They are readily available in the market with lots of varieties to choose from. Beginners can ask legit breeders if they are interested in acquiring exotic animals.
Pitlair: If an individual has a farm permit, then they can import it legally. “Difficult” is a relative term; we do have to satisfy DENR (Department of Environment and Natural Resources) requirements as well as the BOC (Bureau of Customs; we know what that entails) as they are not native to Philippines. They are from Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and Australia. If you want one, join a local GTP, snake, or exotic forum. There, you can ask for referrals from other members and have them vouch for the reputation of the seller.
This appeared as “Practical GTP Advice” in Animal Scene’s March 2016 issue.