Here’s How a Python Jaw Can Fit a Whole Deer

Here’s How a Python Jaw Can Fit a Whole Deer

The invasive Burmese Pythons that scurry through the Florida Everglades eat nearly everything they can get their jaws on–and it’s quite a lot. Small mammal populations have declined as they have increased in numbers. However, larger animals are not always safe. People have seen pythons eating white-tailed deer and alligators. How can a snake with a mouth only a few inches in diameter eat something so large?

Answer : They open wide their mouths with the help of some new stretching power. Recent research has shown that the mouths of Burmese pythons can stretch out four times wider than their skulls. This creates a gaping maw that is four to six times larger than that of a similar-sized brown branch snake ..

Most snakes are unable to take bites and must swallow their prey whole. A snake will open its jaw joint at the middle to eat. The two halves of the snake then flare out to the sides. The skin and muscle between the two halves stretch to accommodate the food. Bruce Jayne, University of Cincinnati vertebrate pathologist, says that the skin eventually snaps back but that “after they swallow a very large meal, [their] chins are baggy for awhile.”

Some snakes can open wider than other. For their study in Integrative Organismal Biology, Jayne and his colleagues examined Burmese pythons from Florida and brown tree snakes from Guam (where the latter are invasive). After measuring the anatomy of the snakes after their deaths, the researchers stretched the reptiles jaws using funnels of increasing sizes. The scientists then stuffed potential prey, including young anesthetized alligators, through the funnels. Finally, they measured deer remains taken from a python stomach.

The experiment revealed how wide each species could open their mouths. What is the secret to the Burmese Pythons’ exceptional skill? The tissues between their jaw bones have more stretch. Some 43 percent of their gap width capacity could be attributed to this tissue, compared with the tree snakes’ 17 percent.

Marion Segall, a London-based herpetologist and not part of the study, said that the two closely related invasive snakes are a good comparison. They have both evolved to catch large prey for their size. Future research will examine the properties that make the jaw skin of pythons so flexible.

Just cause a Python can eat whole deer does not mean that venison is on the menu. Segall states that most tree snakes and pythons are opportunistic, and will catch any prey they see. Even a large deer should not sleep with one eye closed in order to avoid such an opportunity in Everglades.


    Bethany Brookshire is a freelance journalist who covers physiology, neuroscience and human-wildlife interactions. Follow Bethany Brookshire on Twitter

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