Heavily exploited but poorly known: systematics and biogeography of commercially harvested pythons (Python curtus group) in Southeast Asia

Scott J. Keogh, David G. Barker, Richard Shine

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Citations (Scopus)


More than 100 000 blood pythons (brongersmai) and short-tailed pythons (curtus and breitensteini) are taken from Borneo and Sumatra each year for the commercial leather trade. Traditionally, all have been treated as a single polytypic species (Python curtus), with three subspecies differing in colour, size and geographic distribution. Analyses of DNA sequences and morphological data clarify the phylogenetic relationships, taxonomy and biogeography of this group. The lineage is monophyletic, and each of the three subspecies differs from the other two both morphologically and genetically. Given the morphological and genetic distinctiveness of each taxon, we here elevate the three subspecies to full species status. Python brongersmai is the most distinctive in terms of colour (of the three, only brongersmai has colour-morphs that are red or orange), size (it grows to 2.6 m, vs. approx. 2.0 m for the other taxa), and scalation (e.g. brongersmai has >166 ventral scales, vs. <166 in the other taxa and has two supralabials over each orbit, vs. one supralabial for the other two taxa). In terms of cytochrome b mitochondrial DNA sequence data, brongersmai is almost as distant genetically from the short-tailed pythons (8.9% divergence) as is the reticulated python (P. reticulatus: 10.3% divergence). The other two taxa (P. breitensteini from Kalimantan and P. curtus from western and southern Sumatra) are closely related (3% divergence), despite their disjunct distribution (separated by P. brongersmai). Sea-level fluctuations provide a plausible biogeographic scenario to explain phylogenetic divergence within this lineage. Given the distinctiveness of the component taxa, and the ease with which even dried skins can be identified to species level (based on ventral counts), the managers of this important commercial resource should no longer treat the P. curtus group as a single biological taxon.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)113-129
Number of pages17
JournalBiological Journal of the Linnean Society
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - May 2001
Externally publishedYes


  • Biogeography
  • Borneo
  • Cytochrome b
  • Kalimantan
  • Malaysia
  • Molecular phylogenetics
  • Snake
  • Sumatra
  • Taxonomy


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