The Burmese python’s secret to swallowing prey larger than itself


While at the start of 2022, an extremely rare American snake was found dead suffocated by a giant centipede, the Burmese python or Burmese molure python (Python bivittatus) seems far from this problem: it can devour prey as big as a deer. However, according to a study published in the journal Integrative Organismal Biology this August 25, 2022 and conducted by biologists from the University of Cincinnati (Ohio, United States), it would not only be due to the size of its head of its body – which can reach more than five meters and 90 kilos. The snake is also said to have hyperextensible skin in the lower jaws.

⋙ After a fierce fight, an almost 6-meter Burmese python captured in Florida

Disconnected and extendable jaws

The Burmese python is one of the largest snakes in the world. And he has a unique way of catching and devouring his prey. Not being provided with a good sight, it hunts it first using the chemical receptors present on its tongue and the heat sensors which cover its jaws. Once the desired animal is spotted, the reptile uses its sharp, pointy, backward-curving teeth to grasp it, then wraps its long body around it, gripping it with its powerful rings. He thus cut off his blood circulation and asphyxiated him. This technique is the prerogative of constrictor snakes.

The snake feeds mainly on small mammals and birds… or pigs or goats. Because the bigger the loot, the more energy is taken from the meal and the less hunting is required. Moreover, like many other species of its genus, the Burmese python swallows its prey whole. It therefore has lower jaws that are not connected, in order to open its mouth more widely. But researchers have just discovered that it has also evolved very stretchy skin, allowing it to consume prey up to six times larger than similarly sized snakes.

⋙ A jaw of 205 million years would have belonged to a giant reptile

A major advantage

To reach this conclusion, they compared the abilities of Burmese pythons to those of “brown tree snakes” (boiga irregularis) smaller. “The stretchy skin between the left and right lower jaws is dramatically different in pythons. Just over 40% of their total open area on average comes from stretchable skin”, explains in a press release Bruce Jayne, lead author of the study and professor of biology at the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Cincinnati. From an early age, Burmese pythons have a definite advantage in terms of the opening of their jaws… and their size.

By being large, snakes can exploit a wider variety of prey than smaller snakes.

Because the size is indeed a size advantage, precisely: it prevents the Burmese python from becoming the prey itself. “Once these pythons have reached a reasonable size, they are practically only the alligators who can eat them. And pythons eat alligators”, continues the biologist. Researchers regularly find deer hooves and the remains of other large animals in their stomachs. They even observed a juvenile specimen consuming a baby deer that weighed 60% of its total weight. Fortunately, this reptile does not attack people, they remind.

The Burmese python, an invasive species

However, just like the “brown tree snake” – introduced in the 1950s in Guam (Micronesia) and responsible for the annihilation of many species of birds, the Burmese python is an invasive species. Introduced to the Everglades (Florida) due to the release of captive snakes from the exotic pet trade in the 1970s-1980s, it is wreaking havoc on the biodiversity of the national park. By studying and knowing the upper limits of prey these reptiles can “gobble up”, the study authors hope to better understand how they influence the region’s food web.

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