Boa constrictors don’t so much suffocate prey as break their hearts. It turns out that the snakes kill like demon blood pressure cuffs, squeezing down circulation to its final stop. The notion that constrictors slay by preventing breathing turns out to be wrong.
The snakes don’t need limbs, or even venom, to bring down an animal of their own size. “Imagine you’re killing and swallowing a 150-pound animal in one meal — with no hands or legs!” animal ecologist Scott Boback tells his students at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., to convey what extraordinary hunters snakes are. Speed matters with prey flailing claws, hooves or other weaponry the snake lacks. Embracing prey into heart failure is faster than suffocating it and appeared in different forms multiple times in snake history.
Ambushing birds, monkeys and a wide range of other animals from Mexico south to Argentina, the iconic Boa constrictor attacks in much the same way each time. The snake cinches a loop or two around the upper body of prey, pressing against its victim hard enough to starve organs of oxygenated blood.
“It’s not some unbelievable amount of pressure,” says Boback, whose arms get snaked now and then. “It stings a little — you can kind of feel the blood stop,” he says.
Within six seconds of looping around an anesthetized lab rat, a boa constrictor squeezes enough to halve blood pressure in a rear-leg artery. Blood that should surge through the artery lies dammed behind snake coils in the rat’s upper body. And back pressure keeps the rat heart from pumping out new blood. Circulation falters and fails. Boas release their grip after about six minutes on average, Boback and his colleagues report in the July 15 Journal of Experimental Biology.
Then the boa swallows the catch whole. A rat about a quarter of the snake’s weight disappears down the gullet in a couple of minutes. Moveable bones in the head help the snake make the gulp, as does a dimple of stretchy cartilage that lets the chin open wide. But what people most often tell Boback — that snake jaws must separate at the back — is just another serpentine myth.