Spatial ecology of a threatened python (Morelia spilota imbricata) and the effects of anthropogenic habitat change

D. Pearson, R. Shine*, A. Williams

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

40 Citations (Scopus)


Large predators play important ecological roles, but often are sensitive to habitat changes and thus are early casualties of habitat perturbation. Pythons are among the largest predators in many Australian environments, and hence warrant conservation-orientated research. Carpet pythons (Morelia spilota imbricata) have declined across much of south-western Australia presumably because of habitat clearance and degradation. Information on habitat use, home range sizes and movements is needed to plan for the conservation of this important predator. We studied pythons at two study sites (Garden Island and Dryandra Woodland) with markedly different climates, habitat types and disturbance histories. We surgically implanted radio-transmitters in 91 pythons and tracked them for periods of 1 month to 4 years. Dryandra pythons remained inactive inside tree hollows during cooler months (May-September), whereas some (especially small) pythons on Garden Island continued to move and feed. Overall weekly displacements (mean = 100-150 m) were similar at the two study sites and among sex/ age classes, except that reproductive females were sedentary during summer while they were incubating eggs. Home ranges averaged 15-20 ha. Adult male pythons had larger home ranges than adult females at Dryandra, but not at Garden Island. Radio-tracked snakes at Dryandra exhibited high site fidelity, returning to previously occupied logs after long absences and reusing tree hollows for winter shelter. Many of the logs used by snakes had been felled during plantation establishment >70 years ago, with little subsequent regeneration of source trees. In contrast, Garden Island snakes usually sheltered under dense shrubs. Habitat usage was similar among different sex/age classes of snakes at each site, except that juvenile pythons were more arboreal than adults. Although carpet pythons demonstrate great flexibility in habitat use, certain habitat elements appear critical for the persistence of viable populations. Fire plays a central role in this process, albeit in complex ways. For example, low-intensity fires reduce the availability of hollow logs on the ground at Dryandra and fail to regenerate shrub thickets required by prey species. Paradoxically, high-intensity fires stimulate shrub thickets and fell trees creating new logs - but might also threaten overwinter trees. Thus, the impact of disturbances (such as wildfires) on the viability of python populations will be mediated in complex ways by alteration to important microhabitats such as vegetation cover or log availability. At Dryandra, landscape management should include occasional fire events to generate new logs as well as shrub thickets used by prey. Strategic burning may also be required at Garden Island to regenerate some vegetation communities.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)261-274
Number of pages14
JournalAustral Ecology
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - May 2005
Externally publishedYes


  • Carpet python
  • Fire
  • Geographical variation
  • Habitat use
  • Movement
  • Seasonality
  • Telemetry

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