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Friday, September 4, 2015

Serpentine Giants

"The stories of anacondas 70 feet long seem to be quite incredible.  Yet I have heard from the witness's own mouth a circumstantial account of how a specimen of this astonishing size was killed.  Having questioned and cross-questioned my informant for several days, I am as convinced of his sincerity as if I had witnessed the incident myself.

- Bernard Heuvelmans, On the Track of Unknown Animals

When my size-obsessed former curator set out on his crusade to find our zoo the biggest snake possible, we didn't know exactly what he was going to be coming back with.  The question of what is the biggest snake in the world - and exactly how big that is - are kind of up in the air as far as reptile keepers are concerned.
  • What exactly does biggest mean?  Longest?  Heaviest?  Some interplay between the two?
  • How do you count a species as "the biggest?"  If snake species "A" is bigger 95% of the time, but one specimen of snake species "B" is bigger than the biggest "A", which is bigger?
  • How would you even really know if you found "the biggest?"  It's pretty unlikely that the biggest individual snake that ever lived is current in a zoo or aquarium or private collection right now
  • And who really cares, anyway?
Item 3 is of special interest to me.  We read a lot of the old explorers' journals detailing snakes sixty feet or longer and think, "Man, guess no one invented measuring tape back then..."  But that got me to thinking...  A lot of snakes (along with lizards and crocodilians) were hunted pretty heavily for their hides for many years.  It would make sense that the biggest ones would be the most heavily hunted.  You have to consider that this might have had some impact on the population, whereby it became "survival of the runtiest", and the smaller snakes thrived while the big ones died, taking their genes for "bigness" with them.  (Similarly, you don't see nearly as many elephants with massive tusks anymore in Africa).

This young anaconda, curled up in a display cup at a reptile show, is dreaming of the day when he will be big enough to eat you and everyone you love...

(It is kind of weird though, the tremendous size variation you see among reptiles.  You ask someone how big a bald eagle is, or how big a warthog is, and they can answer it.  Ask how big a Komodo dragon or a saltwater crocodile is, and it turns into more of a discussion about how big they can get.)

As to Item 4... a lot of people do.  A big snake is a huge draw for a zoo.  Ironically, I've found that the bigger snakes actually are the best for helping people overcome their fear of snakes.  Burmese pythons, though massive, tend to be very tractable snakes - their huge size, striking colors (including an abundance of color morphs), and docile nature have made them favorites among handlers.  I've interacted with thousands of zoo visitors using Burmese pythons, some in excess of 15 feet... and let me tell you, it's a lot easier to get people to touch their first snake when they know that their hands are 10 or 12 feet away from the biting end.

If there was a count down of the five biggest snakes in the world, it would be pretty jumbled, affair.  Heading  up the countdown would be the rock pythons, sometimes listed as two species - the African and the Asian - and sometimes as four (each has a subspecies which is sometimes listed as a full species - the Central and South African rock pythons, the Burmese and Indian pythons).  These are massive snakes of legend and folklore.  The Indian rock python is Kaa from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (who, despite his shoddy treatment in the movies, is actually one of the heroes of the book).  Kipling must have had a softspot for heroic rock pythons, because it was an African rock python who saves the inquisitive protagonist from another Kipling story, "The Elephant Child."

The Number 2 honor probably goes to the reticulated python of Southeast Asia and Indonesia.  The retic, as it is often known, is the longest snake in the world, with a (reasonably confirmed) maximum length of 33 feet reported.  Like most pythons, the retic is fairly arboreal (tree-dwelling as a youngster); unlike many of the larger snakes, it keeps at least partially to the trees as it grows.  To help it do so, however, it has a relatively light body weight... which is why it ultimately loses out on the Number 1 spot to...

The green anaconda is generally considered the world's largest snake.  It's not the longest... might not even be the second or third longest.  It is massive, though.  Unlike the retic, the anaconda eschews life in the trees.  It hunts in the water, gulping up caiman and capybara.  Life in the water has allowed the snake to grow massively heavy, up to 500 pounds, or about twice as much as the slender reticulated python.  But even the anaconda isn't the biggest snake ever...

Titanoboa cerrejonensis was, scientifically speaking, a pretty damn big snake.  How big?  Imagine five big anacondas, wrapped together into one snake about a time-and-a-half as long as a reticulated python.  That big.  Titanoboa is now extinct, but many zoos have capitalized on its newfound fame by creating models and statues of it, for use in highlighting the living giant snakes.  And who knows?  Titanoboa might not even be the biggest snake that ever lived - just the biggest that's been found.

Which goes to remind us, as far as pythons and boas go, we never know what giants are still out there.  Maybe somewhere in Malaysia, there is a reticulated python that's forty feet long.  Maybe a super monster of an anaconda in the llanos of Venezeula tops the scales at 1000 pounds.  We just don't know... but there always might be a bigger snake out still in the grass

1 comment:

  1. This article is really fantastic and thanks for sharing the valuable post. the subject of biggest snakes has always fascinated me.