Amethystine Python: Australia's Largest Native Snake

By: Desiree Bowie  | 
A black and green snake coils around a tree branch
The amethystine python (Morelia amethistina) is a nonvenomous but nontheless lethal hunter lurking in Northern Australia. Mark Newman / Getty Images

In Australia's rich array of wildlife, encounters with the amethystine python, also known as the scrub python, are a stark reminder of the country's diverse reptilian inhabitants. For example, in late 2023, a man came home to find one of these massive pythons posted on the kitchen counter of his North Queensland abode.

Native to Northern Australia, the python is one of the world's largest snakes and among the longest. This fact was strikingly illustrated in an incident at Cape Tribulation in the Daintree Rainforest, where reptile enthusiasts captured pictures of an amethystine python crossing a busy road.


The photograph encapsulates the adaptability and presence of these pythons in their natural environment. Living alongside human communities, they continue to thrive in their native habitats, showcasing the unique and sometimes unexpected coexistence of wildlife and urban life in Australia.


The amethystine python (Morelia amethystina) belongs to the class Reptilia, which is indicative of its reptilian characteristics. Within this class, it is part of the order Squamata, which includes lizards and snakes, due to shared features like scales and the ability to shed skin.

The species belongs to the Pythonidae family, commonly referred to as pythons. This group of snakes is characterized by being nonvenomous and using constriction to subdue prey. They capture and suffocate their prey by coiling around it rather than relying on venom for hunting.


Within the Pythonidae family, this python is placed in the genus Morelia, a group of large (and typically arboreal) pythons found in Australia and surrounding islands. The genus is known for its diversity in size and habitat preferences.

The Amethystine Python Complex

The amethystine python complex is a collection of closely related python species within the genus Morelia. They were initially grouped under a single species or subspecies, known collectively as Morelia amethistina.

However, further scientific study revealed distinct differences, leading to their reclassification as five separate species within the same genus.

The pythons in this complex are native to Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Members of the complex share common traits such as nonvenomousness, constriction behavior, carnivorous diets of the same prey type and climbing abilities.

That said, each species within this complex may exhibit unique adaptations to its specific environment and slightly differ in behavior and physical characteristics.

The recognition of these pythons as a complex of closely related yet distinct species highlights the importance of detailed taxonomic research in understanding biodiversity and the evolutionary relationships among different species.

It also has implications for conservation strategies, as recognizing the distinctness of each species can lead to more targeted and effective conservation efforts.


Physical Features

As we've mentioned, amethystine pythons are among the largest snakes in Australia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea, with some individuals reaching over 26 feet (8 meters). However, most are typically between 10 and 16 feet (3 and 5 meters.) Their considerable size makes them formidable predators in their natural habitats.

One of the most notable features of this snake species is its coloration. They have a base color ranging from dark green to dark brown or even black, overlaid with an intricate pattern of lighter markings. The scales have a milky iridescent sheen, which, in the right light, displays hues of amethyst. This shimmering effect adds to their mesmerizing appearance and aids in camouflage among the foliage. Their bodies are muscular and robust, adapted for their constricting hunting method.


Despite their size, they are agile climbers, enabling them to navigate through trees and even rocky terrains. Their head is distinct and slightly wider than the neck. These pythons have flexible jaws and sharp, rearward-facing teeth adapted for gripping prey.

The snake's eyes are relatively small with vertical pupils, an adaptation for their nocturnal lifestyle. These snakes are primarily active at night, which also influences their physical characteristics.

Like many snakes, this species has heat-sensing pits on their faces, allowing them to detect their prey's body heat in the dark. This adaptation is beneficial for locating warm-blooded animals in their environment.


Native Habitat

Amethystine pythons live in a broad geographic range that extends across various regions in the Indo-Pacific. This species is predominantly found in Australia, particularly in the northern areas, including Queensland, the northern parts of the Northern Territory and Western Australia.

Their presence is notably significant in rainforest areas but also various other habitats, including savannas and areas near human habitation.


Beyond Australia, the range of this species extends to parts of Indonesia, including the islands of Sulawesi, Maluku and several smaller surrounding islands.

They are also found in New Guinea, where they inhabit coastal and mountainous regions, adapting to various environmental conditions. The snake species may also dwell in the eastern part of the island, known as Papua New Guinea, and the western part, which includes the Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua.

New Guinea's dense tropical rainforests offer an ideal environment for the python, providing abundant prey and lush foliage for camouflage. As a top predator in its ecosystem, this python plays a vital role in controlling the population of its prey, such as small mammals and birds, thus maintaining the ecological balance.



The amethystine python exhibits fascinating hunting behaviors that reflect its position as an adept predator in its natural habitat.

These pythons are primarily nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night. This nocturnal lifestyle allows them to take advantage of cooler temperatures and the cover of darkness to approach their prey stealthily.


Their hunting strategy primarily involves ambush predation. They are patient hunters, often waiting motionless for long periods, camouflaged against the forest floor or in the trees, for unsuspecting prey to come within striking distance. Once a potential meal is close enough, they strike quickly, using their speed and surprise to their advantage.

After capturing their prey with their sharp, backward-curving teeth, the Aussie snakes employ their powerful constricting abilities. They wrap their muscular bodies around the prey, applying pressure to suffocate it.

This highly efficient method allows them to subdue animals that are often much larger than themselves. Being skilled climbers, they are open to ground-dwelling prey. Their arboreal abilities will enable them to navigate trees to hunt birds or bats, but they may also lurk near rivers or streams to attack prey seeking drinking water.



The diet of the wild amethystine python generally consists of small mammals like rodents, bats and possums. These arboreal snakes also consume birds and other reptiles, including smaller snakes.

Larger specimens can take down bigger prey, such as wallabies and even small deer in some cases. Their flexible jaws facilitate their ability to consume large prey relative to their size.


Ultimately, their diet varies depending on their habitat. For example, pythons living near human settlements might also prey on domestic animals like chickens.

The frequency of their feeding varies, depending mainly on their size, age and availability of prey. Larger pythons tend to eat less frequently but consume larger prey. In captivity, however, their diet is often simplified and consists primarily of rodents. A balanced diet is crucial for their health, especially in captivity, to prevent obesity and other health issues.


Mating Season

The python's mating season typically occurs in the late dry season and early wet season. In Australia, this usually translates to the period from July to November, though the exact timing can vary depending on the specific location and environmental conditions.

During this time, male amethystine pythons seek out females using scent trails. Males may travel considerable distances to find a mate, and it's not uncommon for several to converge on a single receptive female.


This can lead to male-to-male competition, where the males will engage in "combat," which is nonviolent and involves the males intertwining their bodies and trying to subdue each other. The winner, generally the larger and stronger snake, earns the right to mate with the female.

Once a male has won the right to mate, the copulation process can last for several hours. Several weeks later, the female python will lay a clutch of eggs, typically ranging from a dozen to several dozen.

The female exhibits maternal care by coiling around the eggs to protect them and regulate their temperature through muscle contractions, known as "shivering thermogenesis," to keep them warm.

The egg incubation period lasts about two months, after which the young hatch. The hatchlings are independent from birth, receiving no further care from the mother. These baby scrub pythons are born with the ability to hunt and fend for themselves.


Conservation Status

The species status of the amethystine python is currently listed as "least concern" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List. This classification indicates that the species is not at immediate risk of extinction in the wild.

The population of the amethystine python is considered stable, and no significant threats pose an immediate danger to its survival.


This relative security is partly due to the python's wide distribution across various regions in Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. Its adaptability to different habitats has also contributed to its stable status.

However, it's important to note that, like many wildlife species, the amethystine python could face future threats from habitat loss, climate change and the illegal pet trade. Conservation efforts and monitoring are essential to ensure that its status remains stable and that any emerging threats are addressed promptly.


Snake on a Plane

In 2013, passengers on a Qantas airline flight from Cairns to Port Moresby were surprised to see a 9-foot (2.7-meter) scrub python clinging to the wing of their plane. This unexpected incident, reminiscent of a scene from Samuel L. Jackson's cult classic "Snakes on a Plane," occurred about an hour into the flight.

A passenger glanced out the window and noticed the snake struggling to survive against the wind and cold temperatures outside. Despite the startling sight, there was no panic among the passengers.


An expert later identified the snake as a scrub python, the longest species in Australia. It's believed that the snake might have crawled up into the landing bay and then into the wing assembly.

Herpetologist David Williams noted that these pythons are common in areas around Cairns airport. Unfortunately, the snake did not survive the ordeal.

This article was written in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.