Have you ever wondered why ball pythons have holes in their faces? These holes aren’t just for show; they play an important role in a ball python’s behavior.
The holes on a ball python’s face are actually divots caused by scales which are equipped with small infrared sensors inside.
It’s here that ball pythons detect prey’s infrared emissions, which helps them calculate its location for a precise strike.
Their strikes are so precise that a newborn ball python’s strikes result in a secure bite 94% of the time on the first try.1
Without the ball python’s heat pits, accuracy would be impossible.
How do heat pits work?
The heat pits of a ball python allow it to process infrared radiation from its surroundings. Under a thin layer of skin, nerve endings inside the heat pits that give information to the ball python’s brain.
It’s a snake-only phenomenon that has perplexed scientists and even prompted the development of materials that can mimic it.
The heat pits collect data from infrared rays, which allow a ball python to view its environment through temperature variations.
Ball python heat sensors have been shown to detect changes as small as.003°C, according to scientists.2
This sense creates a mental image just like how a bat might see its environment using echolocation. Ball pythons, on the other hand, do not need to create sounds or produce heat to utilize this sense.
The snake’s heat pit organs are still a mystery to scientists, so we still have a lot to learn about them. We already know it’s really complex and extremely precise.
The amazing thing about these infrared sensors is that they can gather information whether the snake is in direct sunshine or total darkness.
The reason for this is that the heat pit’s infrared receptors work in a different way than their visual system.
Both their vision and infrared senses operate together to ensure precise hunting. The infrared senses are so helpful that even a blind snake can accurately strike its prey.
What makes the holes in a ball python’s face?
The holes on a ball python’s upper lip (or any python’s upper lip) are not its nostrils. They’re not even complete holes. They’re scales that curve inward to provide the hollow shape that’s identified as heat pits.
Ball pythons still have nostrils placed above their heat pits, but they serve two distinct functions.
If you look closely, you can see the ball python’s nostrils above those heat pits (two of them, just like us) that they utilize for breathing instead of infrared sensors.
The scales that form the heat pits shed in the same way that the rest of the python’s scales do. The only distinction is that the hollow’s inner layer of skin is significantly thinner than their keratin-heavy scales.
The scales transform into a thin layer of skin that protects their nerve endings and blood vessels, despite the fact that the heat pits appear to be holes leading straight into its mouth.
Scientists revealed that the inside of the pits is made up of a swarm of nanopits under a microscope.
These nanopits are thought to effectively absorb infrared transmissions that deliver chemical signals to the ball python’s brain for processing.
Do Scaleless ball pythons have heat pits too?
Heat sensors are still present in scaleless ball pythons too, but they are not protected by scales.
Instead, their infrared sensors are exposed completely, but they still function properly.
As a result, the answer is no. They lack heat pits, but they still have heat sensors.
Because scaleless ball pythons lack the protective scales that cover their skin, they lack the perforations that cause heat pits.
The scales of a ball python are creases in their skin that contain more keratin than their under-layer of skin, making them firmer. Because scaleless ball pythons lack these folds, their skin does not develop heat pits.
There haven’t been any studies on scaleless ball pythons, although they appear to have the same functions as heat pits without the hollow pits. They still eat, move, and operate regularly, just like any other ball python.
Their skin is smooth and exposed, rather than the hard keratin scales.
This has sparked debate in the pet world, since some believe that a ball python without scales poses a greater risk to the snake, particularly in captivity.
These scaleless ball pythons flourish as long as they are provided with the proper living conditions, just like any other ball python.
They can eat, sleep, and even shed like any other ball python if the temperature and humidity are just right.
Can ball pythons see in the dark?
Ball pythons have the ability to see in the dark, but not in the way you expect.
The optical receptors in a ball python’s eyes are totally separate from the infrared receptors in their heat pits.
Both of these factors work together to provide a ball python with a perception of its environment that extends beyond visible light.
Ball pythons can utilize their infrared heat pit sensors to “see” in the dark without a single ray of light since they work independently.
To hunt their prey, they use heat sense, eyesight, odor, and motion sensing, although studies haven’t established which is the most useful. We think that if one sense is impaired, the others will compensate.
Scientists studied a blind rattlesnake with the same infrared detectors and the rattlesnake was able to properly target its meal.2
Ball pythons will use their other senses to create a picture of their surroundings if there is no visible light.
Ball Python Heat Pit Issues
Red or Pink Heat Pits
Ball pythons commonly have pinkish or pale red heat pits. The reason for this is that a thin layer of skin covers the inner half of their heat pits, protecting blood vessels and other complex components.
The blood vessels can easily peep through, giving it a pink tint.
The heat pits of a baby ball python will be pinker than those of an adult and will darken as their skin thickens in that area and the heat pits deepen with age.
Their heat pits cast shadows that make them appear dark or even black at times, while certain light casts a pinkish hue on them.
Another reason they may be pink or red is when your ball python is shedding.
When they are preparing to shed, certain ball python morphs will turn a pinkish tint, especially in lighter regions of their pattern (such as the underbelly), and the same will happen with their nose and heat pits.
If your ball python’s heat pits are pink, even if they aren’t ordinarily, don’t worry. Most snakes rub their noses against their enclosures, whether to shed or investigate, and this can cause irritation, giving their noses that color.
If you notice blood, pus, or a bright pink tint in their heat pits, contact your local veterinarian.
What should I do if substrate gets into my ball python’s heat pits?
Ball pythons can easily get substrate into their noses, mouths, and heat pits, especially if the substrate is a fine texture.
If this happens, give them a warm bath to loosen it up and let it wash itself out.
You should never poke or probe their heat pits because it can cause considerable stress.
Which snakes have heat pits on their face?
Ball pythons aren’t the only ones who have heat pits. Although not all snakes have heat pits like ball pythons, many others do.
Heat pits are also found in rattlesnakes, vipers, and boas, which are formed by depressions in their scales.
Snakes with heat pits belong to the Boidae and Viperidae families of snakes. The snakes mentioned above, as well as cobras and other python species such as reticulated and green tree pythons, are among them.
Some species’ heat pits are more visible than others, but they all serve the same purpose: to detect infrared emissions from 3+ feet away (up to a meter).
All of these snakes are thought to have the ability to hunt accurately utilizing infrared sensors without using much of their vision.
Ball pythons have a special sense that allows them to detect prey. The holes in their face serve as infrared sensing heat pits, allowing them to hunt with little or no apparent light.
Although the holes in their face are nothing to be concerned about, they may be sensitive to touch or debris since the inside is packed with nerves and sensors that are shielded by a thin layer of skin.
These infrared sensors can detect temperature changes in their surroundings, which is a unique trait in nature.
Scientists are still learning about this complex system that ball pythons and other snake species have, but what we know so far is far beyond anything we might envision with thermal detection.
Hope this helps you understand these cute creatures a little more, and don’t forget to have fun with your reptiles today.
- William G Ryerson, Ontogeny of strike performance in ball pythons (Python regius): a three-year longitudinal study, Zoology, Volume 140, 2020, 125780, ISSN 0944-2006, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.zool.2020.125780.
- Biomacromolecules 2001, 2, 3, 757–764, Publication Date: July 19, 2001, https://doi.org/10.1021/bm015537z.
- Rutland, Catrin Sian, Pia Cigler, and Valentina Kubale. “Reptilian skin and its special histological structures.” Veterinary anatomy and physiology. IntechOpen, 2019.
- Snake vision inspires pyroelectric material design, 06 Nov 2020 Isabelle Dumé. https://physicsworld.com/a/snake-vision-inspires-pyroelectric-material-design/