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Temporal range: 70.6–0 Ma Late Cretaceous to Present
Boa constrictor (2).jpg
Boa constrictor
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Superfamily: Booidea
Family: Boidae
Gray, 1825[1][2]


The Boidae, commonly known as boas or boids,[3] are a family of nonvenomous snakes primarily found in the Americas, as well as Africa, Europe, Asia, and some Pacific Islands. Boas include some of the world's largest snakes, with the green anaconda of South America being the heaviest and second-longest snake known; in general, adults are medium to large in size, with females usually larger than the males. Five subfamilies, comprising 12 genera and 49 species, are currently recognized.[3]

The Old Tupi name for such snakes was mbói, which figures in the etymology of names such as jibóia and boitatá (the Brazilian name for the mythical giant anaconda).


Like the pythons, boas have elongated supratemporal bones. The quadrate bones are also elongated, but not as much, while both are capable of moving freely so when they swing sideways to their maximum extent, the distance between the hinges of the lower jaw is greatly increased.[4]

Cloaca region of a Boa constrictor with spurs (rudimentary hindlegs)

Both families share a number of primitive characteristics. Nearly all have a relatively rigid lower jaw with a coronoid element, as well as a vestigial pelvic girdle with hind limbs that are partially visible as a pair of spurs, one on either side of the vent. In males, these anal spurs are larger and more conspicuous than in females. A long row of palatal teeth is present, and most species have a functional left lung that can be up to 75% as large as the right lung.[4][5]

Boids are, however, distinguished from the pythons in that none has postfrontal bones or premaxillary teeth, and that they give birth to live young. When labial pits are present, these are located between the scales as opposed to on them. Also, their geographical distributions are almost entirely mutually exclusive. In the few areas where they do coexist, the tendency is for them to occupy different habitats.[4]

Fossil of Boavus idelmani, an extinct species of boa

Formerly, boas were said to be found in the New World and pythons in the Old World. While this is true of boine boas, other boid species are present in Africa, much of southern Eurasia, Madagascar, New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, so this is not accurate. However, they seem more abundant in evolutionarily isolated areas. South America was isolated until a few million years ago, with a fauna that included marsupials and other distinctive mammals. With the formation of the Panamanian land bridge to North America about three million years ago, boines have migrated north as colubrids (and various Nearctic mammals) have migrated south, as part of the Great American Interchange.

Distribution and habitat[edit]

Most species are found in North, Central, and South America, as well as the Caribbean, while a few are found in southeastern Europe and Asia Minor, Northern, Central and East Africa, Madagascar, the Arabian Peninsula, Central and southwestern Asia, India and Sri Lanka, the Moluccas, and New Guinea through to Melanesia and Samoa.[2]


Prey is killed by constriction; after an animal has been grasped to restrain it, a number of coils are hastily wrapped around it. Then, by applying and maintaining sufficient pressure, the snake prevents its prey from inhaling, so that it eventually succumbs to asphyxiation. Recently, the pressures produced during constriction have been suggested as the cause of cardiac arrest by interfering with blood flow, but this hypothesis has not yet been confirmed.

Larger specimens usually eat animals about the size of a house cat, but larger food items are not unknown: the diet of the common anaconda, Eunectes murinus, is known to include subadult tapirs. Prey is swallowed whole, and may take several days or even weeks to fully digest. Despite their intimidating size and muscular power, they are generally not dangerous to humans.

Contrary to popular belief, even the larger species do not crush their prey to death; in fact, prey is not even noticeably deformed before it is swallowed. The speed with which the coils are applied is impressive and the force they exert may be significant, but death is caused by suffocation, with the victim not being able to move its ribs to breathe while it is being constricted.[6][7][8]


Most species are ovoviviparous, with females giving birth to live young. This is in contrast to the pythons, which all lay eggs (oviparous).


Subfamily[3] Taxon author[3] Genera[3] Species[3] Common name Geographic range[2]
Boinae Gray, 1825[1] 6 32 True boas Central and South America and the West Indies
Candoiinae[a] Pyron, Burbink & Wiens, 2013 1 5 Bevel-nosed boas From Sulawesi through the Maluku Islands, New Guinea and Melanesia to Samoa and Tokelau
Erycinae Bonaparte, 1831 3 15 Old World sand boas and allies South and southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, north, central, west and east Africa, Arabia, central and southwestern Asia, India, Sri Lanka, southwestern Canada, the western United States, and northwestern Mexico
Sanziniinae Romer, 1956 2 4 Madagascan boas Madagascar

Type genus = Boa – Gray, 1825[2]


Pythons were historically classified as a subfamily of Boidae (called Pythoninae), but it was later determined that they are not closely related to boas despite having superficial similarities.[9]

Almost all of the non-boine boids are frequently elevated to their own full family: Calabariidae/inae, Candoiidae/inae, Erycidae/inae, Charininae, Ungaliophiidae/inae, Sanziniidae/inae, and Calabariidae/inae.[9] The taxonomy of boid snakes has long been debated, and ultimately the decision whether to assign a particular clade to a particular Linnaean rank (such as a superfamily, family, or subfamily) is arbitrary.

The subfamily Ungaliophiinae was formerly made up of four genera. Two of these (Tropidophis and Trachyboa) are actually more closely related to red pipesnakes than to boas, and are now placed in the Tropidophiidae within the Amerophidia. The other two genera, Ungaliophis and Exiliboa, are the sister group of the Charina-Lichanura clade, within Boidae.[9][10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Traditionally placed in Boinae
  1. ^ a b Gray, John Edward (1825). "A Synopsis of the Genera of Reptiles and Amphibia, with a Description of some new Species". Annals of Philosophy. 10 (3): 209–210.
  2. ^ a b c d McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T. 1999. Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, vol. 1. Herpetologists' League. 511 pp. ISBN 1-893777-00-6 (series). ISBN 1-893777-01-4 (volume).
  3. ^ a b c d e f "Boidae". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 14 July 2008.
  4. ^ a b c Parker HW, Grandison AGC. 1977. Snakes – a natural history. Second Edition. British Museum (Natural History) and Cornell University Press. 108 pp. 16 plates. LCCCN 76-54625. ISBN 0-8014-1095-9 (cloth), ISBN 0-8014-9164-9 (paper).
  5. ^ Boidae Archived 2008-05-18 at the Wayback Machine at VMNH. Accessed 15 July 2008.
  6. ^ Mehrtens JM (1987). Living Snakes of the World in Color. New York: Sterling Publishers. ISBN 0-8069-6460-X.[page needed]
  7. ^ Stidworthy J (1974). Snakes of the World. Grosset & Dunlap. ISBN 0-448-11856-4.
  8. ^ Carr, Archie Fairly (1963). The Reptiles. Life Nature Library. New York: Time. LCCN 63012781.[page needed]
  9. ^ a b c Reynolds, RG; Niemiller, ML; Revell, LJ (2014). "Toward a Tree-of-Life for the boas and pythons: multilocus species-level phylogeny with unprecedented taxon sampling" (PDF). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 71: 201–213. doi:10.1016/j.ympev.2013.11.011. PMID 24315866. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-12-02. Retrieved 2018-05-14.
  10. ^ Pyron, R. A.; Reynolds, R. G.; Burbrink, F. T. (2014). "A Taxonomic Revision of Boas (Serpentes: Boidae)" (PDF). Zootaxa. 3846 (2): 249–260. doi:10.11646/zootaxa.3846.2.5. PMID 25112250. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2022-10-09.
  • Kluge AG. 1991. Boine Snake Phylogeny and Research Cycles. Misc. Pub. Museum of Zoology, Univ. of Michigan No. 178. PDF at University of Michigan Library. Accessed 8 July 2008.

External links[edit]

Media related to Boidae at Wikimedia Commons