African Rock Pythons: Explaining Snake That Killed Boys

Giant constrictor known for ill temper, not a good pet, expert says.

An African rock python in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve.

Two boys found strangled to death by an African rock python in New Brunswick, Canada, on Monday were victims of one of the world's most vicious snakes.

There are 26 species of pythons, and even among that group, rock pythons have an especially nasty reputation, said Kenneth Krysko, senior herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.

Africa's largest snake, the 20-foot-long (6.1-meter-long) African rock python can't be easily tamed like other snakes, such as the more commonly kept Burmese python, Krysko said.

They're so ill-tempered that "they come out of the egg striking," he said in a 2009 interview.

"I personally don't see why people need to have these things as pets—they're not good pets and look at what ends up happening," Krysko said today. "I was shocked to hear about this."

The snake escaped from its enclosure and through the ceiling of the apartment where the boys were visiting.

Dangerous Reptile

In its native habitat of sub-Saharan Africa, the African rock python eats small mammals, antelope, warthog, herons, and other animals.

On rare occasions, rock pythons are known to have attacked people, and there are at least two verified reports of people being killed by rock pythons in the wild.

In recent years the rock python has invaded parts of Miami, Florida, a state already being overrun by alien snakes.

Pet breeders unprepared for the pythons' ferocity may have released them, Krysko said. (Watch a video of a rock python eating an antelope.)

Like the Burmese python, the African snake is a constrictor. Lacking venom, it kills animals by encircling and literally squeezing the life out of them. The African rock python also has long, curved teeth that can inflict deep wounds, according to the Jacksonville Zoo.

An African rock python can eat almost any warm-blooded animal that is small enough to get down their gullet. Pythons have flexible jaws and skin that allow them to consume large prey—for example, they can open their mouths wide because their lower jaws are loosely attached to their skulls. (See a picture of a Burmese python that exploded eating an American alligator in the Everglades.)

It's unknown why the snakes attacked the boys, but Ian Recchio, the curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo, told National Geographic that "when [snakes] go through all the trouble and exert all the energy to bite something and constrict it, it's because they're hungry generally."

Added Krysko: "Down here in Florida we're focused on animals in the wild. Sometimes we just forget about what can happen when you actually have them in captivity—now you're forcing them to be around people.

"It's really horrible."