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Can a snake eat a human?

A 14.85m (49ft) python is seen at a zoo in Kendal, in Central Java, Indonesia, 29 December 2003.Image copyright AFP
Image caption Indonesia is home to some of the world’s biggest snakes – this 14.85m, 447kg python was caught in a forest in Sumatra

Indonesian police say a farmer in Indonesia has been eaten by a python, which was later cut open to retrieve the man’s body.

The 25-year-old was seemingly attacked and swallowed at a palm oil plantation near his village in West Sulawesi.

But the extraordinary case has prompted a number of questions.

How could it do it?

Reticulated pythons of this size – it was reported to be 7m (23ft)-long – are very powerful. They wrap themselves around their prey and crush it, killing it by suffocation or cardiac arrest.

Eating it is another matter.

Pythons do not chew their food, they have to swallow it whole, but their jaws are connected by very flexible ligaments so they can stretch around large prey. Even so, there are limits.

“The restricting factor is human shoulder blades because they are not collapsible,” Mary-Ruth Low, conservation & research officer for Wildlife Reserves Singapore and a reticulated python expert, told the BBC.

So while reticulated pythons – the longest snakes in the world – have attacked humans very occasionally in the past, experts have long questioned whether they could ingest an adult man.

Image copyright West Sulawesi Police
Image caption Video showed the snake being cut open with a long knife

What about other large animals?

“Pythons are almost exclusively mammal feeders,” Ms Low points out, though they do occasionally eat reptiles, including crocodiles.

Typically they eat rats and other small animals, she says, “but once they reach a certain size it’s almost like they don’t bother with rats anymore because the calories are not worth it.”

“In essence they can go as large as their prey goes.”

That can include animals as large as pigs or even cows.

Sometimes the size of the meal can be misjudged. In 2005 a Burmese python tried to swallow an alligator whole – it burst in the process and both died, their bodies later being found by Florida rangers.

But these opportunistic hunters can be surprisingly picky too. If they don’t see suitable prey, they can go long periods on very little food until they see something big enough.

But humans are still not normally on the menu.

In 2002 a ten-year-old boy was reportedly swallowed by a python in South Africa, but even that case did not involve an adult or a reticulated python – the species said to have been involved in the Indonesia incident.

Image copyright West Sulawesi Police

So is this a first?

It could be, but perhaps more in terms of the evidence for it.

It is not the first report of a man-eating python, but previous claims often involved hard-to-prove cases that happened some time before they were reported, in remote areas and without reliable witnesses.

It could simply be this is the first case to happen with mobile phones on hand to verify it.

Read more

What were the legendary man-eating snakes of Borneo?

Giant reticulated python gets a health check

‘Longest-ever’ captured python dies in Malaysia

Anthropologist Thomas Headland, who spent decades among the Agta, a group of hunter-gatherers in the Philippines, has claimed a quarter of the tribe’s men have been attacked by reticulated pythons at some point.

Though almost all fended them off with machetes, adult Agta – who are physically small – were occasionally eaten, his research said.

But in the modern world, attacks are very rare and usually only occur as a result of a snake acting in self-defence.

Snake expert Nia Kurniawan from Indonesia’s Brawijaya University, told BBC Indonesia that pythons are sensitive to vibrations, noise and heat from lamps, so they normally avoid human settlements.

But they do, he said, remember hunting grounds.

It could simply have been the victim’s misfortune that his field was once a forest and that he stumbled into an ambush normally set for an entirely different prey.

The reticulated python (Python reticulatus)

  • Is the longest snake in the world
  • Is believed capable of reaching over 10m (32ft) in length
  • The longest in captivity is held in Kansas City, US, and measured 7.6m (25ft) in 2011, according to Guinness World Records
  • Lives in forestry, is normally fearful of humans and is rarely seen
  • Is often treated as a sacred animal in parts of Indonesia when caught
  • Is one of dozens of python species, which are found in sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, Burma, China, and Southeast Asia

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