In addition to being enormous snakes that may grow to be over 18 feet long and 200 pounds in weight, Burmese pythons also have a ravenous appetite, often consuming animals as big as deer. The ability of pythons to devour such massive animals has now been discovered by a team of biologists from the University of Cincinnati (UC). These biologists have discovered that pythons have evolved extremely stretchy skin between their lower jaws, which enables them to feed on prey that is up to six times larger than similar-sized snakes.
The majority of snakes consume their food whole, thus their mouths need to be quite large to hold such feasts. Snakes’ lower jawbones are unconnected, unlike those of humans, which enables them to open widely.
Pythons have drastically different flexible skin between their lower jaws on the left and right. Stretchy skin makes up, on average, little more than 40% of their whole gape area, according to research main author Bruce Jayne, a UC Biology professor. “They have a huge gape, even after you adjust for their large heads.”
As constrictors, pythons bite and encircle their food with strong coils to stop its essential blood supply before devouring it whole. The bigger the prey, the more energy the snakes get from a single meal. Because of this, pythons do not need to hunt very often, which may be quite perilous in a world full of busy highways and other deadly predators.
Python newborns have an early advantage over other snakes of comparable size in that they can devour a wider variety of food, since little snakes gain more in relative mass prey from even a slight increase in gape size.
In addition, larger size helps snakes from being eaten by a variety of predators, including minks, raccoons, wading birds, alligators, and other snakes. Professor Jayne said, “Once those pythons get to a reasonable size, pretty much only alligators that can eat them.” And alligators are eaten by pythons.
Due to the release of captive animals from the exotic pet trade in the 1980s, Burmese pythons are now wreaking havoc on the environment of Everglades National Park, where they were introduced.
“Due to a single species, the Burmese python, the Everglades ecosystem is changing in real time,” according to study co-author Ian Bartoszek, project manager for environmental research at the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
Luckily, they don’t often assault humans. Bartoszek claims that he has only ever engaged in defensive combat with wild pythons when they were females defending their nests. He came to the conclusion, “Driving there is way more dangerous than working with the snakes.”
The journal Integrative Organismal Biology publishes the research.