Jaw-dropping: So how does a snake eat a man? | Pursuit by The University of Melbourne

The news that a snake swallowed a man on an Indonesian island leaves more than an uncomfortable lump in the throat. Images that cannot go unnoticed, including a six-minute video of the snake being sliced ​​open to reveal a fully clothed, completely dead human being in its stomach, fuel the horror film’s hysteria.

Dr. Sasha Herbert, who heads the exotic pet unit at the University of Melbourne’s U-Vet Werribee, sees beyond the macabre in the death of a 25-year-old Sulawesi palm oil plantation worker. Although snakes that eat humans are rare, Dr. Herbert says it’s also just an extreme example of nature in action.

“It’s terrible for that person and the people around them. but it is equally horrible that the antelope is devoured by the lion. our world is a food chain. This is nothing special or unusual for an animal, I was just taking advantage of an opportunity.”

Reticulated pythons are the world’s longest snakes and one of the heaviest. This specimen in captivity is eating a chicken. Picture: Wikipedia

Setting aside the grisly YouTube footage, there’s fascination aplenty in the science of this tragedy. In short the why, and particularly the how. Dr Herbert, who worked in zoos for a decade including six years in Singapore, notes that the continuing creep of humans into the habitat of wild animals is an open invitation for such encounters.

“there are less and less of these poor animals because we have invaded more and more of their habitat. anywhere you have a predator that is big enough, you have the potential for humans to prey on it.”

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In this case, we’re talking about an eight-meter-long reticulated python that could weigh more than 100 kilograms, depending on its fat storage (which in pythons can be very large).

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dr. Herbert says they are “ambush predators…not hunters”; They lie in wait for their meal, and in Southeast Asia they eat anything from rodents to deer and a myriad of mammals in between. they generally feast at ground level, as they are too heavy to reach trees.

While the victim had a back injury that could have been caused by a bite, Dr. Herbert wonders if some other misfortune may have befallen him before the python encountered what he would have seen as “a big, tasty morsel that will do.” me for quite some time.” pythons can attack defensively, to lacerate and ward off danger, or grab and hold when they intend to eat what they hit. they’re not poisonous, but unlike the cartoon of two fangs, they have many teeth: two rows on top and one on the bottom.

then comes the fatal squeeze.

“They strike their prey to grab it, then quickly wrap nooses around the body to hold that prey in place,” says dr. herbert. “They are holding on and slowly with each breath they hold on tighter and tighter, so it is the suffocation that kills the prey.” a strong and fit person might be able to fight it off, but not if the python’s first strike was effective enough to establish an unbreakable hold.

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Reticulated pythons are one of the few snakes that grow large enough to swallow a human. once they have contracted their prey, their incredible jaw comes into play, which in a quirk of evolution features bones found in our inner ear.

Reticulated pythons are sometimes found on the outskirts of Bangkok, and often require two people to carry them. Picture: Wikipedia

“Their jaw can open wider and doesn’t have the same hinge that we have, which allows them to eat something as big as their skin can stretch,” Dr Herbert says. Muscle power forces it down, aided by a journey through the esophagus, stomach and intestine that’s literally more straightforward than ours. They always swallow their catch head-first, which offers greater lubrication and less friction than the alternative.

Although they can go six months or even a year without eating, dr. Herbert points to studies showing that a malnourished python’s gut becomes so devoid of cells that it becomes almost translucent, like sticky film. Even a party carries risks. It would take a month for a human-sized, unclothed mammal to digest and feed the snake for up to a year, but the inability to break the victim’s attire would likely have killed the python, even if the villagers hadn’t.

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dr. Herbert remembers doing a necropsy on a python whose owner had fed his pet a thawed rat placed on a remnant of an old T-shirt, only for the snake to swallow it whole. “The python got a clog, just like a Labrador eating your socks. the fabric can not be digested, does not pass, causes ulceration and infection. that may have been the result for this python. it may not have been a good ending.”

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since it surely wasn’t for the Indonesian villager. In happier news, dr. Herbert says that while Australia has many species of pythons (the largest being the Morelia carpet python), none of them grow large enough to eat a human. As for the schlock horror notion that giant snakes could have a taste for humans, that’s just ridiculous. In captivity, pythons can learn to like only the rats they feed on, but in the wild they take what they can get.

“There are always myths and magic going around. people are not easy prey and are mostly too big for even the largest pythons. they usually don’t slow down or are quiet enough to grab easily. it is nonsense to say that pythons could develop a liking for humans. it’s just that they happen to be big enough to try if the opportunity arises.”

cover image: pixabay

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