Trigger warning: Nature red in tooth and claw.
Reader Richard sent a link to an article by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) showing an olive python swallowing a juvenile wallaby (the species of wallaby is unspecified). The ingestion took place near the town of Katherine, 320 km. south of Darwin.
Quotes from the article are indented; all photos are by Paul O’Neill/NT Parks and Wildlife:
Paul O’Neill, a ranger at the Nitmiluk National Park near Katherine, was on patrol early on Monday when he noticed a cacophony of bird noises nearby the tourist visitor centre.
Upon investigating the scene, Mr O’Neill found an olive python in the throes of attempting to swallow an agile wallaby joey.
He managed to take these photos of the python doing its best to chow down on the not so bite-sized meal.
Greg Smith from the Territory Wildlife Park said the snake had almost bitten off more than it could chew with this particular menu item.
“That is about the biggest prey it could eat,” he said.
“That wallaby would take about five to seven days to digest completely and the snake would go and hide for at least a month.
“The snake is of medium build and would probably start to hunt for more tucker within four to eight weeks, depending on the snake.”
Mr Smith said from past experience with breeding and dealing with hundreds of snakes, they have different appetites.
“Some snakes will start looking for food even if they are overweight and have just eaten, but on average that meal would be sufficient to sustain that snake for at least three months,” he said.
It downed the damn thing!
The olive python (Liasis olivaceous) is described by the site Snake Ranch as “a large, powerful snake, and is not recommended for beginners, or young keepers.” It adds that
We would not recommend it as a first snake due to the combination of large size and aggressive, and sometimes borderline psychopathic, feeding response. But for the experienced and capable keeper who can work around these tendencies, this is a very attractive species that shows a lot of character. But make no mistake – this is a species with one thing on its mind every time its enclosure is opened: food!
The last part sounds a bit like Hili! I’ll ask Greg to comment about this incident and the snake’s swallowing abilities.
Comments by Greg: Snakes are famous for their ability, unlike most other animals, to eat things bigger than their heads. This is because their skulls (unlike, say, ours) have many points of mobility: their jaws (both upper and lower) are not sutured to one another in front, allowing them, especially the lower, to gape very widely; the upper jaw is only loosely attached to the braincase; each jaw has multiple bones that can move relative to one another; and the quadrate bone of the skull, upon which the lower jaw articulates, can move relative to the rest of the skull. When feeding, a snake “walks” its jaws over the prey, alternately moving the right then left sides forward on the prey, with the recurved teeth preventing the prey from slipping or pulling out of the mouth. The body and digestive tract are also quite stretchy. Here’s a picture I used in a previous discussion of this topic here at WEIT:
The one thing in the account that didn’t sound right to me was the claim that the wallaby would be digested in 5-7 days– this seems awfully fast. Checking some literature quickly, I see a hare digested by a python in warm temperatures in that time frame, but a hare is a lot smaller than a wallaby. I’d guess it might be up to twice as long as that, but it would depend on the temperataure; digestion rates do vary a lot with temperature. It is true that pythons will take a lot of time off between meals. I’ve often heard it said, but don’t know how good the data to support it is, that a really big constrictor will eat one very big meal a year.
As far as pets go, I wouldn’t recommend an olive python, but I do recommend ball pythons (Python regius). They don’t get very big, whole animals (rats, mice) provide a balanced diet, they don’t bask (so do not need special lighting), and almost all are captive bred (no conservation concerns, plus they are docile and readily eat already dead food items). In fact, they’re what I recommend to beginning reptile enthusiasts.
For more on the basic biology and natural history of snakes, I recommend: Greene, H.W. 1997. Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature. University of California Press, Berkeley; and Ernst, C.H. & G.R. Zug. 1996. Snakes in Question. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.