Papuan Olive Python: New Guinea's Behemoth in the Rainforest

By: Desiree Bowie  | 
Olive green snake in an aggressive stance
The Papuan olive python (Apodora papuana) typically presents as olive-green, but it can shift to yellow or shades of black. I Wayan Sumatika / Shutterstock

The Papuan olive python is known for its ability to change colors, a trait that adds to its intrigue in the natural world. This species usually presents as olive-green, but it can shift to yellow or black shades, often displaying two colors at once.

The reasons behind this color variation are not fully understood, but it may be linked to the snake's response to stress or agitation. This color-changing ability is not unique to the Papuan python; it's a characteristic seen in several other snake species, although the exact biological mechanisms are still a topic of research.


Python Classification

This tropical serpent, scientifically known as Apodora papuana, belongs to the Pythonidae family, which includes some of the largest snake species in the world. This family is characterized by nonvenomous constrictor snakes that subdue their prey through coiling and suffocation.

Unique within the Pythonidae family is the genus Apodora, of which this python is the only species. This monotypic genus is distinguished by its large, heavy-bodied snakes that are adept at camouflage, thanks to their coloration.


The "Papuan" part of its name indicates its native range in Papua New Guinea and the greater New Guinea area, while "olive" points to its typical olive-green coloration.

Sometimes, this species is also known as the Irian python — a nod to its presence in the regions of Papua and West Papua in Indonesia, which form part of New Guinea. These areas, formerly known collectively as Irian Jaya, were renamed to better recognize and respect the local Indigenous populations and their cultural heritage.


Physical Features: Species Size and Colors

The Papuan python is renowned for its impressive size and distinctive coloration. It typically has a robust and muscular body, a common trait among pythons.

Papuans can reach considerable lengths, with adults growing around 13 feet (4 meters) and some specimens growing even larger. This exceptional length ranks them among the most sizable snakes in their native environment (and some of the biggest snakes on the planet).


A fully grown adult Papuan python, typically weighing around 50 pounds, may see its weight fluctuate depending on age, health and environmental conditions. Larger specimens, especially those with plentiful food resources, can exhibit substantial weight, reflecting their muscular build.

Coloration and Skin

The Papuan python has scales with a smooth texture, contributing to its sleek appearance. While it can change color, its coloration is usually close to olive green, which is where it gets its common name.

The shade of green can vary slightly among individuals, ranging from an almost brownish, dark olive hue to a lighter, more vibrant green. Some individuals may have an underside distinctly lighter than the rest of the body.

The snake's head is distinctively python-like and somewhat broader than its neck. Its eyes are typically small with vertical pupils, characteristic of nocturnal predators. The python's face may exhibit slightly different coloration, with some individuals showing darker markings around the jaw and near the eyes.

As a constrictor, the large snake possesses significant physical strength. This strength is primarily in its body, which it uses to coil around and subdue prey. Unlike venomous snakes, it relies on this physical prowess to hunt.

The python's skin is also noteworthy for its sensory capabilities. Like other pythons, it has heat-sensing pits located around its mouth. These pits are a crucial adaptation, allowing the snake to detect warm-blooded prey, even in total darkness.


Where Do Papuan Olive Pythons Live?

The Papuan olive python has a native range primarily concentrated in New Guinea. This large island, situated north of Australia, is politically divided between two regions: the eastern half, forming the nation of Papua New Guinea, and the western portion, known as Papua, a province of Indonesia.

In these regions, the largely terrestrial snake is found in various habitats, but they are particularly associated with tropical rainforests, which cover large parts of the island.


These rainforests provide an ideal environment for the python, offering ample cover and a diverse range of prey. These forests' dense foliage and humid climate suit the snake’s needs as a stealthy, ground-dwelling predator.

While the python's presence is most notable in mainland New Guinea, they may also inhabit some offshore islands around New Guinea. These islands, sharing similar ecological characteristics with the mainland, could support the snake's life cycle and hunting habits.


Hunting Behaviors

As a constrictor, the Papuan olive python employs a method of hunting that involves ambushing their prey. They use their camouflaged coloring to blend into their surroundings, waiting patiently for an unsuspecting animal to come within striking distance.

Once the prey is within reach, the python quickly strikes, seizing it with its teeth. It then coils around the prey, constricting it until it succumbs. (As nonvenomous snakes, their primary mode of prey capture is through constriction rather than venom.)


Due to its size and strength, the large are capable of subduing and consuming relatively large prey. Their diet typically includes mammals and birds native to their rainforest environment. This can consist of small- to medium-sized mammals like rodents, marsupials and possibly even larger animals, depending on the snake's size. Birds, particularly ground-dwelling species, are also potential prey.

While these serpents exhibit impressive strength when in attack mode for mealtime, they are generally considered relatively inoffensive animals. It typically does not show aggression toward humans unless provoked or threatened.


Diet and Feeding Habits

The Papuan's diet and nutrition are characteristic of giant constrictor snakes, focusing on a carnivorous diet that primarily consists of various animals found in their native habitat in New Guinea.

Like many large snakes, they do not need to eat frequently. Their metabolism is slow, allowing them to survive on a meal for weeks or even months before needing to feed again. Their feeding frequency largely depends on the size and availability of prey in their environment.


The diet of these pythons provides them with all the necessary nutrients they need to maintain their large size and muscular physique. The protein-rich diet derived from their animal prey supports their growth, muscle maintenance and overall health.

Papuan Python vs. Olive Python: What Are the Differences?

New Guinea's Papuan python and the olive python from Australia have distinct differences in habitat and appearance. The Papuan python, which can grow to an average length of 13 feet (4 meters), is known for its color-changing skin. In contrast, the olive python, also reaching lengths of up to 13 feet, is characterized by its consistent olive-brown coloration.

While the New Guinea python prefers secluded rainforests and grasslands, its similarly hued counterpart adapts to diverse Australian environments like rocky areas and woodlands.


Regarding behavior and captivity, the Papuan snake is reclusive, feeding mainly on small mammals and birds, and is less commonly kept in captivity due to its demanding habitat needs. The olive python, more widely encountered and with a varied diet, is a popular choice among experienced reptile enthusiasts for its adaptability to captivity.

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