Super-Sized Serpent: The Reticulated Python

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Snakes are sources of veneration and fear in cultures from across the globe. There is something about their limbless bodies and lidless eyes that many find unsettling. While it would seemingly make sense to be at least a little wary of venomous species, it is the giant constrictors that seem to generate the most visceral responses in people. The anaconda is often believed to be the world’s biggest snake and while it is indeed the largest by weight there is one serpent that exceeds it in length, the reticulated python.

How long are reticulated pythons?

The reticulated python is not only the world’s longest snake, it is the world’s longest living reptile. Like all python species, it is sexually dimorphic with females being markedly longer and heavier than males. They grow to an average length of 13 to 21 feet and weights of 150 pounds, with the biggest individuals stretching nearly 25 feet and tipping the scales at over 300 pounds. Despite claims to the contrary no living snake has ever been documented at 30 feet or longer although two species from the fossil record, Gigantophis and Titanoboa, could achieve lengths of 35 and 45 feet, respectively.

Where do reticulated pythons live?

Reticulated pythons inhabit a broad swathe of South Asia from Pakistan and India in the west to Vietnam in the east and down through Thailand and Malaysia. Thanks to their remarkable ability to swim, they have been able to successfully colonize the many islands in the Indo-Australian Archipelago such as Java, Borneo, Sumatra, among others, as well as Indonesia and the Philippines. They prefer rainforest and woodland habitat, particularly in riverine areas. Reticulated pythons can also be found in grasslands and even some urban environments, such as downtown Bangkok.

What do reticulated pythons eat?

All snakes are hypercarnivores and the reticulated python is one of the few species that is considered a true apex predator. They are masters of ambush predation, relying on their netlike markings to camouflage them from potential prey. The pit organs on their lips allow them to sense heat, which aides them in seeking warm-blooded targets in low light levels; they can even snatch bats out of the air in total darkness with pinpoint accuracy. Thanks to their size, reticulated pythons can take a wide variety of prey items. Their diet includes rodents, birds, small carnivorans like civets, monkeys, pigs, and deer. Individuals living near humans are known to go after domestic livestock and pet dogs. One specimen was documented to have consumed a small bear. Reticulated pythons are constrictors and their six rows of recurved teeth serve only to hold prey in the mouth while the coils do their work. When a snake constricts, it squeezes on the prey’s circulatory system and causes a dramatic rise in blood pressure. Death is caused not by suffocation, but by cardiac/circulatory arrest and systematic organ failure. One prey was been killed, the python will then swallow it whole. Thanks to a highly kinetic skull, a double-jointed jaw, and maniples connected by elastic ligaments, a snake can engulf an animal three to five times the width of its head and up to its bodyweight.

Are reticulated pythons dangerous to humans?

Of all snake species, the reticulated python has the best authenticated record for man-eating. It takes a very large snake to swallow an animal the size of even a small adult human, a serpent of at least 16 feet. Few species reach such dimensions and the reticulated python is one of them. Humans’ broad shoulders do provide a bit of a challenge, but the biggest pythons can have a gape of nearly two feet and if the victim is laying on their side they present a much narrower, albeit taller, target. Being a generalist predator, there is no reason why a python should discriminate between a human and any other animal and many species are known to prey on primates. An anthropological study of the Aeta people of the Philippines found that over a 40 year period, over a quarter of the men had been survived being attacked by pythons and six had been killed. There is an account of a foraging python entering a hut and eating a child. In the past two years alone, two people in Sulawesi have been cut out from the stomachs of reticulated pythons after being devoured. It is believed that as the deforestation of Southeast Asian continues to make way for palm oil plantations, potentially lethal human-python interactions are likely to increase as the snakes run out of natural prey and habitat.

Can you keep reticulated pythons as pets?

Despite the potential dangerous, reticulated pythons have become very popular in the exotic pet trade. A number of different color patterns, known as morphs, exist and some have even been selectively bred for smaller size. Due to their size, power, and temperament, they are only recommended for experienced snake keepers. A bite from an agitated python can open blood vessels and lacerate tendons and it is advised that larger individuals be handled by at least two people for safety reasons. However, many keepers claim theses snakes become more mellow as they age. Many captive pythons suffer from obesity as a result of being fed too frequently—wild pythons only eat a few meals a year—and not getting sufficient exercise being kept in a cramped terrarium.

Is the reticulated python endangered?

At the time of this writing, the wild population of reticulated pythons has not been assessed. While they are targeted by the leather industry for their exquisitely-patterned hides and some people do hunt them for their meat, it is not considered to be threatened or endangered.

 

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