(CNN) — To say that one is “so hungry you could eat a horse” might not be just a figure of speech, at least not for the Burmese python.
For a long time it was thought that the size of the python’s head and body were what allowed it to devour such enormous prey.
These huge snakes can reach 18 feet in length and weigh up to 200 pounds, and eyewitnesses have seen them swallow deer, goats, and even alligators.
But it’s not just the size of the python that determines its menu, reveals a recent study published in the scientific journal Integrative Organismal Biology. What matters most is the size of the python’s “gap,” that is, how wide it can open its mouth.
“A common misconception is that snakes dislocate their jaws to swallow prey,” Bruce Jayne, a professor of biological sciences at the University of Cincinnati and lead author of the study, told CNN on Thursday.
“The thing with snakes is that they have highly mobile jaws, but they don’t dislocate them.”
Instead of dislocating its jaw before swallowing prey, the python devours animals thanks to an elastic piece of connective tissue that connects its lower jaw to its skull.
The bony structure of the front of the mouth also helps.
“The left and right bones are not fused (in the chin). That’s a profound difference between our lower jaws and those of snakes,” Jayne explains.
The extremely elastic skin around the jaw allows the python’s mouth to stretch further around its prey.
And a python’s mouth has one last trick.
“They have extra bones in the palate, unlike ours, which have teeth,” he added.
While humans have one lateral row of teeth, snakes have this lateral row and one that “goes across,” according to Jayne. These rows of teeth “move back and forth,” dragging prey into the stomach.
impact on wildlife
The scientists examined 43 euthanized Burmese pythons. The team measured its mouth opening using a series of 3D-printed plastic objects of increasing sizes, measuring the maximum width each snake could reach with its mouth.
The largest probe had a diameter of 22 centimeters. Only one snake had a mouth wide enough to swallow the object: a python that measured 4.3 meters and weighed 63.3 kilograms.
Unlike cobras, vipers, and rattlesnakes, the Burmese python is not poisonous. It does not kill its prey with its bite, but by suffocation, coiling around the victim and tightly squeezing its muscles to constrict blood flow before swallowing.
Pythons have recently proven to be a threat to wildlife conservationists in the United States. The Everglades National Park in South Florida was teeming with deer, raccoons, opossums and foxes. But in recent years, fewer and fewer of these animals are seen in the area.
The reason? Burmese pythons.
This led to the return of the annual conservation initiative called Florida Python Challenge, which drew hundreds of professional snake hunters to the Everglades to hunt and kill these non-native reptiles. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the South Florida Water Management District first hosted the 10-day event in 2020, with the support of private and nonprofit partners.
“The Everglades ecosystem is changing in real time based on one species, the Burmese python,” study co-author Ian Bartoszek said in a statement in a news release. Bartoszek is director of environmental science projects for the Conservancy of Southwest Florida.
For more than a decade, Everglades National Park officials have been researching how to effectively remove the invasive species from this fragile ecosystem, according to the US National Park Service website. A 2012 study referenced on the website suggested that the increasing numbers of Burmese pythons, which had likely initially taken hold when captive snakes were released from the pet trade, could be related to severe declines in habitat mammal populations. of the Everglades.
But the latest study led by Jayne suggests that it may not be just smaller mammals that are at risk from python overpopulation, but much larger ones, including deer and alligators.
The researchers wonder if there is an upper limit to the size of some of the largest pythons.
“You always have to be careful when extrapolating data, but I wouldn’t be surprised if a very, very large Burmese python could have a mouth diameter of about a foot,” Jayne said.
Does this mean that if a large python were that hungry, it would be able to eat a horse? “Maybe they could eat a pony,” Jayne said.