Snakes, such as ball pythons, are known for their burrowing ability. They can hide in old mammal burrows, or even make a makeshift burrow of their own. Their behavior is easy to understand if you think about their surroundings in the wild.
Snakes burrow to protect themselves when they feel vulnerable. This is normal behavior, although you’re less likely to see a ball python burrow in captivity. They would rather rely on pre-made burrows, like those of mammals, or hide in their enclosure.
If you notice that your ball python is trying to burrow, don’t worry. It’s likely normal behavior. But it could also mean that your pet feels vulnerable, or is burrowing because it’s ill.
Do Ball Pythons Burrow?
Ball pythons are terrestrial snakes. That means they live on the ground, unlike arboreal snakes, which live in trees. When a snake exhibits a particular behavior in the wild, it usually exhibits it in captivity.
But just because they live on the ground, that doesn’t mean they burrow. The same applies the other way around. They don’t live in trees in the wild, but can enjoy sitting on branches in captivity.
Burrowing is an uncommon behavior. While ball pythons do prefer being hidden away, they aren’t instinctual burrowers. They prefer finding a burrow rather than making one. There are many such burrows to be found in their natural habitat.
Even so, some ball pythons are capable of burrowing. They can do so both in the wild and in captivity. They will nudge their head into the substrate and push it from side to side. They will then slither their bodies underneath the substrate.
They aren’t capable of creating a burrow like a mammal would make. To do that, you’d need to move the soil out of the tunnel you’re digging. Mammals do this with their claws, pushing the dirt away. Snakes don’t have the right ‘tools’ for the job to create that kind of burrow.
Do Ball Pythons Make Burrows in the Wild?
Ball pythons live in sub-Saharan Africa. The area they inhabit is tropical and subtropical grassland and savannah. These areas offer lots of places to burrow, from leaves and sand to light soils.
Wild ball pythons don’t usually burrow. Rather than digging their own burrow, they use those of other animals. Mammals in all regions of the world dig their own burrows to live in.
Once the mammal moves on or dies, the burrow remains, at least for a while. It’s these old burrows that ball pythons live in.
It is also possible for a ball python to craft their own small hiding place. They may nudge their head under some kind of cover like leaves. They’ll then slither underneath as best they can. This makes them more difficult to spot.
However, this won’t be a burrow per se. A burrow is a set of tunnels that an animal makes for it to hide in. They often have a larger excavated area for the animal to sit comfortably, and a narrow entrance.
Snakes are physically and mentally incapable of making a structure as complex as this. They don’t have claws or feet that they can use for digging.
Why Do Ball Pythons Burrow?
The reason for burrowing behavior is consistent across all snake species. Snakes that burrow and hide do so for safety. Even when only under leaves or grass, the snake is more difficult to see.
There is even less chance of being found when in a proper burrow. Burrows are narrow and dark, and often have a concealed entrance. Any snake, or any animal generally, is safer in a burrow than when on the surface.
Burrows are defensible. If the entrance is narrow, the snake can sit near it and strike at anything that tries to get in. This will make even bigger predators think twice about attacking the snake.
Captive snakes share the same instincts as wild ones. They haven’t been tamed over thousands of years like other pets have. They burrow for the same reason as their wild cousins.
Is It Normal for Ball Pythons to Burrow in Captivity?
Burrowing is unusual behavior for a captive ball python. You aren’t likely to see them do it. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a sign of anything bad.
Rather than burrowing into a substrate, a ball python prefers a hide. A hide is more like the natural places they would hide. Many snake species choose rock formations as well as disused burrows.
If the snake doesn’t have a hide, this may increase how often it burrows. The burrowing activity also depends on the substrate you use. Some substrates can be burrowed into while others can’t.
In the wild, ball pythons live near lots of potential burrowing substrates. If their cage is lined with carpet or paper towels, they won’t be able to burrow effectively.
Ball Python Burrowing under Bedding
Your snake’s bedding, or substrate, is the perfect place for it to burrow. Many substrates are designed for burrowing reptiles, and they hold their shape after the snake makes its hole.
Aspen is one such bedding. It is a kind of substrate made from wood shavings. Aspen holds onto moisture well, and retains its shape after burrowing. It’s perfect for a burrowing reptile.
Even so, your ball python may not burrow into it. It will still prefer concealing itself in a hide rather than making its own burrow.
Ball Python Burrowing under Water Bowl
It’s unlikely that your ball python would want to burrow under its bowl. Bowls are solid, for a start. But they also don’t typically have dark gaps underneath that look like a place for it to hide.
What’s more likely is that the snake knocked into it. If your snake is an adult, its enclosure may be slightly too small. Or, it may have tried to bathe and knocked the bowl over as it got out.
If the bowl looks like a natural part of the snake’s environment, e.g. a rock, then it is more likely that the snake may have tried to burrow under it. But even so, it isn’t likely.
Is a Ball Python Burrowing Suddenly Bad?
If your ball python has suddenly begun to burrow frequently, this may be a bad sign.
It suggests that your snake feels vulnerable. Ball pythons burrow because they feel threatened, or when they’re in an open area. It’s your job as their owner to prevent them from feeling that way.
The main reason why a ball python might feel unsafe is that they have no cover. In the wild, a ball python would have foliage to hide under. If each of the walls of their tank is bare, and they have no foliage or branches in their tank either, they will be nervous and nippy.
The same applies if the snake doesn’t have a hide. A hide is an essential part of any pet snake’s tank. Without one, the snake will never have anywhere to feel safe.
Another reason that a snake may suddenly feel vulnerable is if it has an illness or disease. A sick snake is a snake that could be more easily attacked by predators. There isn’t anything that could attack your snake in captivity, but your snake doesn’t know that.
Ball Python Not Burrowing
If you never see your ball python burrowing, that’s not a problem. Most owners report that their ball pythons never actively burrow. Instead, they rely on their hide and any foliage to remain ‘hidden.’
This still applies even if your snake used to burrow. Perhaps they feel more secure than they used to. If you recently added a new or additional hide, for example, that would help with their nervousness.
Or, it could be something they grew out of. Not everything is a sign of something bigger or more important. It certainly isn’t a sign that they’re ill, for example.
What to Do If Your Ball Python Starts Burrowing
If you notice any change in your ball python’s behavior, try to see if there’s a reason for it. It’s unlikely that there will be a health-related cause to your snake’s burrowing, but possible. You should check your snake to see if there are any new health problems. Potential issues include:
- Mouth rot. This is where the snake’s tooth falls out and the wound becomes infected.
- Scale rot. This is where the snake develops an ulcerated wound on their underside.
- Respiratory infection. This is like a cold, where the snake’s airways become blocked with snot.
Your snake may have become cage aggressive for the same reason as their burrowing. If so, use a snake hook to take them from their enclosure before inspecting them.
If you can’t find anything wrong, you may want to take your snake to the vet. Pick a vet that specializes in snakes, or at least reptiles. Reptile anatomy is different from that of other pets, so a regular vet may not be able to diagnose your snake’s health issues.