Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Man-Eating Snakes

Snake architecture is superfically quite simple. Snakes are basically a long tube of muscle and gut, with a toothy mouth on one end and a pooper on the other.

This image can get pretty creepy when the snake is longer than a grown man and as big around as Mike Tyson's thighs. It turns out that the prospect of being eaten by something can drive a pretty strong evolutionary phobia. Some scientists even say that the reason our binocular vision is so acute is because of growing up with—evolutionarily speaking—big snakes that could eat you.

John Voight’s binocular vision couldn't save him from being eaten—then regurgitated and re-eaten—by a mammoth snakein the 1997 movie Anaconda.

Of course, anacondas don’t actually get that big. But they get plenty big. The anaconda—a denizen of swamps and rivers of Central and South America—is the world’s most massive snake, meaning it’s the heaviest but not the longest.


What can I say? Men in groups like to carry huge anacondas around.

Scientists debate the particulars, but the anaconda that takes the record was about 28 feet long, with a 44-inch circumference. What weight does that translate to? Probably about 500 pounds. Sheesh, that’d gobble up some serious human.

Of course, the majority of anacondas—even the biggest—content themselves on a diet of fish and wetland mammals, because these snacks are much more abundant than humans, and maybe also because anacondas prefer eau d’poisson over body odor. But could an anaconda occasionally eat a human?

Who better to ask this question to than Dr. Jesus Rivas, who has been studying anacondas in the wild for 20 years? 

Jesus Rivas examines a large female anaconda.
Rivas says that there are no documented cases of anacondas eating humans, but that might be partly because anacondas, especially the big ones, tend to live in remote areas with few humans. However, he describes two cases in which his field assistants have been stalkedunsuccessfully, phew!by their study animals. It was even caught on camera:

An anaconda stalks a scientist in the Venezuelan Llanos. www.anacondas.org

One thing is for certain: anacondas eat big stuff. Rivas has witnessed them eating white-tailed deer and crocodilians.  

An anaconda swallows a caiman.

If your interest in anacondas is piqued, Rivas has written a book on them, coming out in 2013. In this book, he shares an account in which he himself was stalked by a 15-foot anaconda affectionately named Lina. 

Rivas, J. A. 2013. Natural history of the green anaconda:  Two decades disentangling the secrets of the world’s largest snake. Oxford University Press.

In the meantime, check out this video of a large female anaconda puking up a cow!

If anacondas are the heaviest snakes, what are the longest? Reticulated pythons from Southeast Asia take that trophy, uncontested. The longest recorded “retic” is about 33 feet—yes, that’s five or six people laid end to end. Burmese pythons and African rock pythons can exceed lengths of 20 feet and are also quite formidable predators. These python species along with a few others star in the smorgasbord of online images of snakes eating large prey items.

A python has eaten a sheep.
A non-native Burmese python in the Florida Everglades ate an American alligator. The likely story is that the meal was too large and killed the snake, then scavengers noshed open the snake's belly.

A python kills a cow.

An olive python fixes to eat a wallaby.

But, do pythons eat humans? Let’s start with rock pythons, which—despite their penchant for eating lots of birds and non-human mammals—definitely have been known to occasionally include a human in the picnic basket.

Wikipedia cites a number of fatal attacks, in which a rock python killed a person but didn’t end up eating them. In at least two cases, the pre-teen prey was too large to get down the hatch; in another case a farmer was dragged up a tree by a python and rescued when he managed to call for help on his cell phone. In a few cases, however, the python managed to gulp down the prize: a 10 year-old was swallowed in 2002 in South Africa, and in the 1970’s a Portugese soldier was found inside the stomach of a snake.

A rock python has eaten a very large meal (not a human, however) and become stuck in a fence.

A close-up of the fenced snake, just for the awesomeness of it.

I asked Dr. Graham Alexander of The University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa to tell me about any close encounters he’s had with rock pythons during about eight years of studying them in the wild. Dr. Alexander said that the largest thing he ever witnessed a python eat was an impala, but that spending time in the wild with these huge snakes could be unnerving: 

“After tracking pythons for many years and not experiencing anything like a predatory attack, I felt pretty confident that they just didn’t do it (and I told many people that pythons don’t attack people). However, that all changed towards the end of 2010 when I was tracking both pythons and Puff Adders. I had about 30 telemetered snakes going at one time and tracking took all the day light hours – and I was often pretty rushed trying to get to all the snakes in a day. On three separate occasions in that season I was bitten on the leg by large female pythons that were lying in ambush. In these cases I had been pretty sloppy – moving in on the signal way too fast under time stress and probably with less caution than I should have – and accidently walked past the snake. My interpretation was that the pythons had struck and bitten me because they thought I was a meal. In only one of these cases did the python start trying to constrict, but even this one released me as soon as it realized that I was not an impala – or that’s how it seemed. In the other two cases, the python bit and released immediately without initiating constriction. In all three instances I was on my own and got the fright of my life. The bite comes out of nowhere and really does take you by surprise. I can really imagine what it is like for a real prey item. And that probably gives the snake a very large advantage.

I am afraid that those are the only experiences that could possibly be predatory attacks. I still think that we are not really on the menu of Southern African Pythons, though they do get pretty large and do consume meals of up to about 50 kg.”

A rock python has swallowed a prey item much larger than the width of its head.
Last but not least—let’s look into the maw of the star of the show, the retic.

Reticulated pythons, the longest species of snake alive, have munched on theirshare of people. Wikipedia lists a few instances of people being eaten by retics, some confirmed, some not: several people walking through the Malaysian bush got nabbed by 20+ foot pythons, including a Burmese jeweler in the early 1900’s who was eaten feet-first; plus a number of captive retics along with Burmese pythons have decided to eat their owners or their owners’ children.

The fact that it is the longest species alive today isn’t the only reason the reticulated python has notoriety among man-eating snakes. It holds the distinction of having had its man-eating tendencies studied thoroughly by an interdisciplinary team of scientists. A herpetologist (Harry Greene) got together with an anthropologist (Thomas Headland) and they found stuff out about man-eating snakes, stuff that neither would have been able to totally figure out on their own.  Awesome. 

Thomas N. Headland and Harry W. Greene. 2011. Hunter–gatherers and other primates as prey, predators, and competitors of snakes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 108:E1470-E1474. 

They studied the Agta Negritas, a tribe that was still pre-literate in the Philippines as of the 1970’s. The Agta hunted reticulated pythons for their meat, netting 25kg+ of meat per snake.

Agta Negrita hunters in the Philippines pose with a 20+ foot-long reticulated python in 1970.
But the hunter often became the hunted. From in-depth interviews with the Agta, the scientists discovered that large pythons had indeed tried (and sometimes succeeded) to eat tribe members. Over a period of time extending from the 1920’s through the 1970’s, the Agta reported 18 men that were unsuccessfully attacked by pythons, and six people that were killed by pythons.

So there you have it. Those are the records that we have of man-eating snakes in modern and ancient times. The numbers are small and the photos are few. 

This is the point where I should hear some of you calling bullshit. What’s that you say? You’ve seen photos online of giant snakes eating people?  

Take this photo of a large retic with a human-sized bulge captured in southeast Asia. Is this real?
Drumroll… Yes it is! But… that’s no human in the belly. This photo is often accompanied by the image below, allegedly showing the unlucky teenage boy cut from the snake’s guts.

A reticulated python has noshed a teenage boy… or has it really?

Except that the two snakes are clearly different animals. Whoops. I mean, who’s gonna notice a paltry detail like that when faced with a human body being cut from a snake’s stomach? 

Anyway, the question comes down to this: is this photo real? 

Killer photo opp. You can tell the photo is faked because the boy's body is not covered in digestive goo, but also because of the presence of the large bag or piece of fabric between the boy's head and the snake's guts. 
I'm not sure which is more awesome, thougha freshly ingested human body being cut from the belly of a retic, or a kid with enough cajones to stick his head and torso inside a dead snake's belly. 

I’ve saved the best for last. Here is a photo of one of the few allegedly real instances documented by photo in which a snake killed a human.

This unfortunate soul was killed by a reticulated python, but then the story goes that the meal was too big for the snake to take down—gobs of goo covered the man’s head but the snake couldn’t make it past his broad shoulders.

So, could it happen to you? I've always thought it would be an interesting way to die. But our chances of being eaten by a giant snake, even when wading through a flooded plain in Venezuela or spelunking in the Philippines, are lower than the chances of being struck by lightning at the exact same time as winning Mega Millions. 

Your chances might be a little higher if you encountered one of the beasts below coiled in the crook of an ancient swamp tree. At over 40 feet in length and weighing in at over a ton, Titanoboa—recreated by the awesome people at the Smithsonian—would definitely have noshed a few humans.

Smithsonian visitors view a scale model of Titanoboa.

Good thing for us that we didn’t evolve for another 55 million years.

Author's note: If you can identify the photographer of any of these photos, have information about them, or have a good story or photos of a man-eating snake, please let me know (snakeymama@hotmail.com). I will update the blog post with new information.


Unknown said...

So now the real question is if Titanoboa and megacroc got into a fight, who would win?

Andrew Durso said...

Nice post! This is such a common question, it's good to have all the scholarly information on the topic in one place.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad that these snakes are not in TN. I would not be able to go outside alot. Scarey creatures yet they help out alot.

Unknown said...
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Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

Absolutely brilliant I'm really impressed

Anonymous said...

hi, great post!
i was searching for the information about man-eating snakes after i've seen post about a drunk man eaten by a python. then i found versions (with the same pic) about woman in south africa and this one:


now i'd wanna know what's with the photos under this news... one of them is one with the boy - you nailed it. what's with the rest? could you help me?

Unknown said...

All those photos appear to simply be snakes that ate large prey (deer, for example). None of them are verified humans. Of course, it is difficult to know what actually happens just from media coverage.



Anonymous said...

Anyone know where I could find, or anyone that has a giant snake to eat me? I do not mind the pain, or the cost. I am willing to pay for the experience. shwpony@yahoo.com serious inquiries only.

Unknown said...

I beg to disagree on the "Fake" verdict for the boy out of the python's belly. The position of the hand is completely unnatural and cannot be kept unless the bones are broken in various places, which is consistent with constriction prior to be swallowed, and a dead body.

I have seen real people killed by animals (I manage wildlife reserves in Africa), and numerous forensic pictures of other human fatalities from animals. This one looks perfectly genuine to me. Moreover, it would be extremely difficult to stretch a dead python and stuff your head inside like that...


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David said...

There are rumours of extremely long anacadonas deep in the jungle, as terrifying as it is, I don't see why they couldn't be true when you considor how much of the world we haven't explored.

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Moreninha76 said...

I would say that big snakes like the reticulated python, green anaconda or the african rock python are perfectly capable of killing humans, eating an adult human is possible but unlikely.

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expertshelp said...

There is nothing that i fear more than a snake, but am glad that you decided to share. I hate to see the photos of people being devoured by these snakes but its just nature. Keep on sharing.
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Anonymous said...

You should update your article. Apparently there is 2 case of retic python swallow a grown human in Indonesia. With a video as evident. Maybe even more case happenig in the past. It just can't make it to the news. Thanks to the affordable cellphone with camera, now we can see it.

DLong66 said...

Snakes cant eat people? Tell that to the Indonesian woman who was eaten recently by an Anaconda. You do your part to save them and I'll do my part..to chop every single one that gets near me into little pieces.

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