© AMNH / Denis Finnin
Striking with open jaws, this python loops its body around its prey. Then--slowly, irresistibly--it tightens the coils.
This patterned skin helps the python blend into shadows on the forest floor--but also makes the animal a target for human hunters. The fashion for python--leather accessories threatens this species' survival. Females are larger than males--and manufacturers prize large skins--so females are most at risk.
A snakes bumps, or spurs, are the remnants of hind legs, and their presence reflects evolutionary history: pythons evolved from animals that walked. Today, males use spurs to stimulate females during mating.
© Dr. John Cunningham / Visuals Unlimited
X-ray of vestigial spurs
A female loops coils around her eggs. If the temperature drops, she "shivers." This motion generates warmth and keeps the eggs alive. But it's hard on the mother; she may lose half her body weight while nesting.
Many snakes have extremely flexible skulls that permit them to swallow prey much larger than their own heads. For example, the bones of their lower jaws move independently, instead of as a unit, the way they do in most animals.
Like many very large snakes, pythons may eat only once in a while. But when they do, they may eat a lot--up to one-and-a-half times their body weight. Digesting this meal may take five to 10 days; during that time, the snake is motionless.
A snakes teeth are sharp, but they're not for chewing. They face backward, like the tire-puncturing spikes at the exit of a parking lot, and they keep prey moving in the right direction--towards the stomach.
Meet the Family
Pythonidae--about 35 species, mostly in Australia and Papua-New Guinea--includes some huge snakes. Most are longer than six feet and weigh more than 45 pounds. That's the weight of an average six-year-old child. Several species can exceed 20 feet and one, the Reticulated Python, sometimes grows to 30 feet and over 300 pounds! The earliest known fossil pythons are about 15 million years old.
© Belinda Wright/DRK Photo
Carpet Python (Morelia spilota)
Carpet PythonMorelia spilota
This Australian python is swallowing a bat. The snake is active at night, and it also eats birds and other small vertebrates. Pitted scales around its mouth are associated with heat sensing.
© John Cancalosi / Peter Arnold, Inc.
Green Tree Python
Green Tree PythonChondropython viridis
This species looks a lot like the Emerald Tree Boa (Corallus caninus) in color pattern and in the way it drapes itself on branches, but the two aren't closely related. Key differences-pythons lay eggs and boas bear live young-tell scientists that the similarities arose independently in South America and in Australia/New Guinea.
© Fletcher & Baylis / Photo Researchers
Reticulated python (Python reticulatus)
Reticulated PythonPython reticulatus
Another giant in competition for the title of longest living snake, the Reticulated Python can get up to about nine meters (30 feet) long. It lives in southeastern Asia and Indonesia, where it is hunted for its hide.
NAME: Burmese Python; Python molurus
SIZE: Up to 7 meters (23 feet)
RANGE: Tropical southern Asia
DIET: Rodents and other mammals
How do you measure up?
Ever tried convincing a huge snake to stretch out for a photo? We have--and it isn't easy! The roughly eight-year old Burmese Python measures about four meters (14 feet). How many of YOU would it take to make one of IT?
- A newly hatched Burmese Python? It's 45 to 60 centimeters (18 to 24 inches) long--about the length of a newborn human baby.
- A two-year-old Burmese Python? As much as 3.5 meters (12 feet) long. That's more than two grown men.
- The largest living snake ever recorded? A 10 meter (33 foot) Reticulated Python. That adds up to almost six grown men-standing on each other's heads!