"In the Python's Grip"

Film 2
(one hour special)

November 11th-November 30th 2001

Location of OBA film3:2
North & Northeast India

(mouse-over for view of India)


Python molurus & Python bivittatus

The Burmese and Indian rock pythons were treated as two subspecies of the Asian rock python (Python molurus). The Sri Lankan rock python (P.molurus pimbura) has fallen in and out of favour as a valid taxon, sometimes being treated as a third subspecies, sometimes being synonymised within the Indian rock python.

This project concerned only the mainland forms and at the time of filming their status was that of two subspecies, the Indian rock python (P.molurus molurus) and the Burmese rock python (P.molurus bivittatus). Until the 1990s their ranges were thought to be fairly clear-cut, the Indian rock python occurred on the Indian Sub-continent in India, southern Nepal and Pakistan (leaving asside the status of Sri Lankan populations) while the Burmese tock python was an Indo-Chinese species found from southern China, throughout mainland Southeast Asia, south to peninsular Thailand, and west into northeastern India and Bangladesh, where presumably there was either a barrier or an overlap zone with the nominate Indian subspecies. This situation changed when in 1991 I captured three pythons in far western Nepal, in the Royal Bardia National Park, and identified them as Burmese rock pythons* rather than the expected Indian rock pythonsand 700 km west of there previously believed western limit in Assam (download a copy of the report here).

There are several differences between the two 'races'. Often quoted are differences is colouration, the Indian python being 'yellowish' while the Burmese python is 'greyish', and the extent of the light-coloured lance-marking on the dorsum of the head. A more important difference is the presence or absence of a subocular scale (see below). I also noted that Burmese pythons seem to have a preference for wet riverine/grassland habitats whilst Indian pythons appeared to inhabit more arid, sandy locations, at least in the north of their range, so the two species may actually be isolated by habitat. I later went onto suggest the differences between the two subspecies were not very different from those between the two former African rock python subspecies and those were now recognised as separate species (Python sebae and P.natalensis) and that the Indian and Burmese pythons may also be separate species**. In 2009 the Burmese python was elevated to specific status as Python bivittatus (while at the same time a subspecies from Sulawesi was described)***.

Both species are large snakes and may achieve lengths in excess of 7.0 m although specimens larger than 6.0 m are probably very rare due to human pressures. Even the largest specimens are eclipsed by the Reticulated python (Python reticulatus) which occurs throughout much of the range of the Burmese python and for which historical records of 10.0 m appear to exist.

Indian rock python,
Python molurus
Burmese rock python,
Python bivittatus


* O'Shea 1998 Herpetological results of two short field excursions to the Royal Bardia region of western Nepal, including range extensions for Assamese-Indo-Chinese snake taxa. in De Silva Proceedings of the International Conferenced on the Biology and Conservation of Amphibians and Reptiles of South Asia. pp.306-317.
** O'Shea 2007 Boas and Pythons of the World. New Holland & Princeton University Press. pp.81-87.
*** Jacobs, Auliya & Böhme 2009 Zur taxonomie des Dunklen Tigerpythons, Python molurus bivittatus Khl, 1820, speziell der Population von Sulawesi. Sauria 31(3):5-16.


Identifying Asian rock pythons
Indian rock python,
Python molurus
Burmese rock python,
Python bivittatus

Head scalation of a Asian rock pythons
the all important Subocular scale (SubO)
click to enlarge these diagrams

There are nine scales around the eye in both species. These comprise a large Supraocular (SupO) over the eye, three Preoculars (PrO) in front of the eye, and four Postoculars (PoO) behind the eye. However, in the Indian rock python the 6th Supralabial (SL) is in contact with the eye as the 9th scale, while in the Burmese rock python the 6th Supralabial is excluded from contact by a single Subocular (SubO) scale.
Click on the diagrams above for enlarged views of the head scalation of the Asian rock pythons.

Distribution of the Indian rock python, Python molurus, (blue) and
Burmese rock python, Python bivittatus, (red) in South and Southeast Asia


Map of northern West Bengal, northeast India showing primary and secondary locations
(click on map for enlarged view)
Map of Chhattisgarh & Madhya Pradesh States, central India showing primary and secondary locations
(click on map for enlarged view)
Map of Rajasthan & Madhya Pradesh States, northwest India showing primary and secondary locations
(click on map for enlarged view)

The Film Crew and Expedition Participants

From the UK:
Hugo Smith (Director)
Thomas Viner (Producer)
Mark O'Shea (Presenter)
Mark Stokes (Camera)
Terry Meadowcroft (Sound recordist)

In India:
Dr Asif Ali "Smokey" (expedition doctor)
Pradip Asharya (location manager)
Rashil Charles "Chips" (unit assistant)
Minto Choudri (W.Bengal guide)
Kamlesh Kashyap (bear expert)
Dr Reena Mather (monkey expert)

Deepak Mitra (Calcutta herpetologist)
Dr Subramanian Bhupathy (Bharatpur herpetologist)
Dr RJ Rao (crocodile specialist)


Mark O'Shea with a 5.3 m Burmese python and the crew,
(l-r) Mark O'Shea, Pradip Acharya (location manager), Hugo Smith (director), Terry Meadowcroft (sound recordist), Mark Stokes (cameraman), Asif Ali (expedition doctor), Thomas Viner (producer), Minto Choudhri (local guide)
click to enlarge

The Expedition

The aims of the expedition were primarily to investigate the two Asian rock pythons, then subspecies of a single species, now full and separate species, and their amazing ability to undergo prolonged fasts and then feed on a large meal without ill-effect, a characteristic of large constricting snakes that would be impossible for similar sized mammals. This process requires and incredible 'gear shift' in metabolic activity.

We also aimed to investigate my theories that the two pythons demonstrated different habitat preferences which could add credibility the my idea that they should be considered as separate species. The differences in scalation between the two were significant, and if the two species were reproductively isolated then specific status should be afforded to them, as happened with the two African rock pythons, formerly subspecies of the same species but now treated as valid and separate species: Python sebae and P.natalensis.

The expedition was also interested in other predators, from large dangerous species such as Indian leopard (Panthera pardus fusca), Sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) to small predators such as the tiny Ant Lions (Myrmeleontidae), and examined the injuries inflicted on humans by both leopards and bears.

We travelled far and wide across India, by "trains, planes and automobiles", and boats too, from northern West Bengal and its jungles, to the river valleys of Chhattisgarh, north-central India, the arid sandy woodlands of Madhya Pradesh and the deserts of Rajesthan, from east to west across the sub-continent. We met rhesus macaque and langur monkeys, roving snake charmers, visited temples and rocky outcrops, searched by day and night for our quarrey.

The primary locations around India visited during filming in 2001/2 were:

1. West Bengal:
a) Gorumara National Park
b) Jaldapara Wildlife Sanctuary
c) Kolkata

2. Chhattisgarh:
a) Pendra
b) Near Pendra

3. Madhya Pradesh:
a) Chambal River

4. Rajasthan:
a) Jaipur
b) Keoladeo National Park

Filming schedule & itinerary:
Sunday 11th November - Arrive Bagdogra, Darjeeling, West Bengal
Monday 12th November - Jaldapara WS, West Bengal
Tuesday 13th November - Gorumara NP, West Bengal
Wednesday 14th November - Gorumara NP, West Bengal
Thursday 15th November - Kolkata, West Bengal
Friday 16th November- Train to Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh
Saturday 17th November - Pendra, Chhattisgarh
Sunday 18th November - Pendra, Chhattisgarh
Monday 19th November - Pendra, Chhattisgarh
Tuesday 20th November - Pendra, Chhattisgarh
Wednesday 21st November - Pendra, Chhattisgarh
Thursday 22nd November - Pendra, Chhattisgarh
Friday 23rd November - Japalpur, Madhya Pradesh
Saturday 24th November - Morena, Madhya Pradesh
Sunday 25th November - Chambal River, Madhya Pradesh
Monday 26th November - Jaipur, Rajasthan
Tuesday 27th November - Jaipur, Rajasthan
Wednesday 28th November - Keoladeo NP, Rajasthan
Thursday 29th November - Keoladeo NP, Rajasthan
Friday 30th November - Dehli, NCT

At the end of each expedition of Season Three the Directors were asked to write a short "director's take" on the project. They were called "Director's Notes". Read the contribution from "In the Python's Grip" Director Hugo Smith here.


Expedition Results include a full life-list for 2nd 2001 expedition to India.