Wild Things

The weird and wonderful in the natural world

Sarah Zielinski

Wild Things

Wild Things

For a python, every meal is like Thanksgiving

Burmese python

The Burmese python can go weeks or months between enormous meals of entire animals. 

Sponsor Message

For millions of Americans, Thanksgiving is an excuse to gorge on turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, despite the warnings that overeating, even for a day, can be incredibly unhealthy. But for a Burmese python, enormous meals are the norm. These huge snakes — they can reach up to 6.7 meters in length — may go weeks or months without eating, so they have to make their meals count. And they have many adaptations that let them consume quantities of food that would be impossible for a human to take in.

Captive Burmese pythons live on a diet of small animals, like snakes and rabbits, but in the wild, they’ll eat animals as large as deer and alligators. Pythons swallow their meals whole, a feat made possible by a jaw that can separate, allowing the snake to chow down on a creature four or five times as wide as its head.

Researchers X-rayed a snake digesting an alligator and watched as the gator’s soft tissues got eaten way (which took three days) and its body completely dissolved within a week. To digest such a big meal, the python’s body must undergo enormous change. As soon as it ingests its prey, the snake’s gut tissues begin secreting digestive acid and enzymes. The stomach produces large amounts of hydrochloric acid, and gut pH drops from a slightly alkaline 7.5 to a very acidic 2.

A Burmese python can eat an alligator whole. ojatro/YouTube

The python’s metabolic rate increases dramatically, reaching a spike within the first 48 hours and not returning to normal until digestion is finished. And the bigger the meal, the faster the snake’s metabolism. If the python has eaten something equal to its own weight, the snake’s metabolism will increase to 44 times faster than its rate at rest.

Cardiac output ramps up, reaching levels higher than what is seen even when the snake is on the move. Blood flow to the gut increases. And the heart muscle itself also gets bigger, with its mass increasing by 40 percent in just two days. It’s not the only organ to increase in size; the pancreas, liver and kidneys grow as well. And the cells that line the small intestine — the ones that absorb nutrition from the digesting meal — increase in volume by 50 percent.

Digesting this meal takes a lot of energy, and as much as 37 percent of the energy derived from the meal goes to the digestion process itself. By the time the snake poops out what it can’t digest — about one to two weeks after it first consumed the meal — its intestine and the rest of its digestive tract have returned to their normal, fasting states.

This knowledge won’t help any of us survive overeating on Thanksgiving, but scientists hope that it may one day lead to medical therapies for human heart disease. Enlarged hearts may be normal for Burmese pythons, but they are a real problem for people.


Ecotourism could bring new dangers to animals

By Sarah Zielinski 7:00am, October 12, 2015
The presence of kindly tourists could make animals more vulnerable to predation and poaching, a new study warns.
Animals,, Evolution

How the giraffe got its long neck

By Sarah Zielinski 2:30pm, October 7, 2015
A new study of fossils suggests that the giraffe’s defining feature may have started evolving long before modern giraffes came on the scene.
Animals,, Oceans

What happens to animals in a hurricane?

By Sarah Zielinski 12:33pm, October 2, 2015
Hurricanes can be devastating to animals on land and in the sea, but they can also provide opportunities.
Animals,, Climate,, Oceans

Some seabirds will be hit hard by sea level rise

By Sarah Zielinski 11:24am, September 30, 2015
Seabird species that nest on low-lying islands in stormy winter months could see huge losses as sea levels rise, a new study finds.
Animals,, Plants,, Earth

Life in the polar ocean is surprisingly active in the dark winter

By Sarah Zielinski 6:00am, September 28, 2015
The Arctic polar winter may leave marine ecosystems dark for weeks on end, but life doesn’t shut down, a new study finds.

How to see sea turtles — without bothering them

By Sarah Zielinski 12:00pm, September 23, 2015
Sea turtles come out of the water to lay eggs on beaches. It’s a great time to see the reptiles — if you know what you are doing.
Animals,, Evolution

Blue-footed boobies dirty their eggs to hide them from predators

By Sarah Zielinski 6:00am, September 21, 2015
Blue-footed boobies lay bright white eggs on the ground. Dirtying the eggs camouflages them against gulls, a new study finds.
Animals,, Plants,, Ecology

Why we need predators

By Sarah Zielinski 7:00am, September 17, 2015
It might be easy to say that we should wipe out species that can kill us. But the effects of such action would be far ranging.
Animals,, Sustainability

Shipwreck provides window into Tudor-era cod fishing

By Sarah Zielinski 5:00am, September 13, 2015
In the 1500s, England was feeding its navy with fish caught far from home, a new study finds.
Animals,, Evolution

How a seahorse dad is like a pregnant woman

By Sarah Zielinski 1:00pm, September 10, 2015
Live birth has evolved at least 150 times in vertebrates, including in seahorses and humans. And there are some surprising similarities between the species.
Subscribe to RSS - Wild Things