How do they do this? Burmese pythons open wide for oversized prey

As any video of a large clamp eating impossibly large prey will tell you, snakes have absolutely massive mouths. A recent study set out to determine just how open these huge food holes really are.

The study investigated potential aperture size in relation to body ratio for Burmese pythons and found that it is not the size of the snake that counts, but the size of the aperture.

One of the largest snake species found in the world, the Burmese python can grow to an impressive length of around 3-5 meters (10-16 feet) and weigh around 90 kilograms (200 pounds). So it is no wonder that they are sometimes seen in the wild eating large prey such as deer or even alligators.

Contrary to popular belief, snakes do not have the ability to “unhook” their jaw, instead their lower jaw functions in two separate pieces, connected by an elastic joint in the middle that allows for this impressive extension.

Burmese python blank, with brown tree inlay. Image credit: Jayne et al., 2022, Integrative Organismal Biology

Thanks to a reliable organ called the glottis, snakes are unable to choke on their food. Placed inside their mouth above their trachea, this organ can be moved upwards while the snake eats, meaning that regardless of the size of the prey, its trachea will never be obstructed.

For the study, 37 Burmese pythons were collected from southern Florida, where they are considered a highly invasive species. In total, 43 Burmese pythons were euthanized for the study.

Using a variety of 3D-printed plastic probes, the largest of which was 22 centimeters (9 inches), the researchers measured the maximum gap of the pythons and compared it to the sample’s mass to determine a relationship between mass and potential size his prey was consumed.

A snake 4.3 meters (14 feet) long and weighing about 59 kilograms (130 pounds) was the only one in the study that managed to tackle the largest of the probes. The researchers observed that at full extension, the mandibles appeared almost vertical in lateral view.

While Burmese pythons have the ability to consume prey that exceeds their body weight, it can be a life-threatening undertaking.

Eating and digesting large prey is costly to a snake’s precious energy levels, as well as making it difficult to escape quickly. Additionally, due to their slow digestion rate, large prey can begin to rot while being digested, leading to infection and possibly death.

The study is published in Integrative Organismal Biology.

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