Butt Bite Inspires Study Into Why Snakes' Eyes Are Bigger Than Their Stomachs

The 'prey' was 12 times heavier than the ambitious predator. Reptiles4all/Shutterstock.com

If you’ve ever found yourself surreptitiously loosening a belt buckle after going in on the all-you-can-eat buffet, you might have sympathy for a snake who recently became the star of a study into overindulgent snakes. The 4-meter-long (13-foot) scrub python rose to infamy after launching its teeth into the posterior of Lee-Ann Mears in the early hours of the morning. Mears, who was aware the snake was inside her home, was stunned not just by the rude awakening but also the gall of such a modestly sized snake in attempting to take down a meal it couldn’t possibly finish. Inspired by the gutsy snake’s voracious appetite, a team of researchers looked at reports of predation events where the snakes' eyes’ turned out to be bigger than their stomachs, the results of which were published in the journal Austral Ecology.

Reptile biologist Daniel Natusch was the first to inform Mears of a scrub python approaching her home and suggested she make sure the doors and windows were closed. The snake was being tracked using a radiotelemetry device as part of a study to see how it moved across the land. Natusch felt the warning was necessary as it was known Mears had young children at home, but the door was left open to tackle the heat one evening and our greedy python got in. “The snake was still latched onto my butt,” said Mears to New Scientist. “I had to reach down and put my hand in its mouth and yank its teeth through the flesh to get it off.”

The attack was unusual as while Natusch had feared the snake might go for Mears’ children, he hadn’t expected a 5-kilogram (11-pound) snake to try and take down a 64-kilogram (141-pound) woman. Snakes have been found in the wild to have attempted and fatally failed to bite off more than they could chew, in the most literally meaning of the phrase, which got Natusch and colleagues wondering why these snakes would risk their lives over a meal.

"Don't bite off more than you can chew" might seem like parental nagging, but as these snakes found out it's sound advice. Picture courtesy of Daniel Natusch/Natusch et al 2020 Austral Ecology

They flicked through news clippings in search of similar stories, focusing on 32 specific attacks on record, and found that scrub pythons had been reported trying to ingest prey that was at least their size or bigger on nine occasions, with three of these resulting in the snakes’ death. Exactly why was unclear but it seemed to be a more common occurrence in harsh environments. While these pythons can survive for months without food, a good meal almost always improves an animal’s chances of survival, which could explain the risk-taking behavior. However, this benefit ceases to be a benefit when the said meal causes a fatal esophageal rupture or suffocation. Buffet enthusiasts, take heed.

“This phenomenon may be more widespread in snakes than previously thought,” wrote the study authors, “With the magnitude of the difference between predator and prey likely greatest in the large constrictors (Boidae, Pythonidae).

“In some cases, the snake may only see part of the whole prey item. Once the snake strikes the prey, its natural feeding response ensues even if the prey item is too large to consume.” This could explain how Mears came to be on the menu that fateful night, as the snakes perhaps only saw a leg and later realized its mistake once the feast had already begun. The paper is titled, “Biting off more than you can chew.” A very apt title indeed.

[H/T: New Scientist]

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