Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
there, giant serpents are hard to find and difficult to handle. Nonetheless, a renaissance
in snake natural history is well under way, in which traditional approaches are exten-
ded by research on dead animals and wild ones are implanted with radio transmitters.
Although emphasis has been on gartersnakes, adders, and other common small species,
knowledge of the largest snakes is growing rapidly.
Reticulated pythons occur in southeastern Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippine Is-
lands. Although a recent photograph from Laos shows one said to have measured thirty-
six feet, the accepted maximum has long been thirty-three feet, and one that size might
exceed two hundred pounds. Even such big retics are fairly slender as pythons go, with
distinct necks, angular heads, and a netlike tapestry of rainforest hues that conceals
them from enemies and prey. Their brown dorsal blotches are irregularly connected and
set off from a lighter gray or yellowish background. Smaller black- and yellow-edged
spots descend onto the flanks as bars or Y-shaped markings, and each color conglomer-
ate encloses a white patch. Dark stripes run back from the orange, yellow, or gray eyes
and disrupt overall head shape. Retics are reputedly mean-tempered, and an adult's
teeth can sever the nerves, tendons, and blood vessels of a good-sized primate.
In the 1990s Richard Shine, my Australian alter ego—about the same age, likewise
bald and bearded, unabashedly enamored of reptiles—conducted the first life history
studies of giant snakes. 21 His team measured more than 1,800 retics in Sumatran tan-
neries, then examined reproductive organs, gut contents, fat bodies, and parasites.
Local people brought the pythons from fields, plantations, forests, and villages, having
caught them on hooks baited with rats or chickens and in snares along trackways.
Slaughterhouse workers killed the snakes with a wire poked in the brain, a blow to the
head, or suffocation, gruesome nuances no doubt lost on stylish buyers of snakeskin
boots and purses. Carcasses were suspended by the neck and filled with water to fa-
cilitate processing, after which skins were removed and pegged for drying, meat was
removed, and gall bladders were dried for use in folk medicine.
Rick discovered that male retics breed at six feet and rarely reach fifteen, whereas
females mature at a third longer and may exceed thirty feet—consistent with a trend
among snake species for longer females to produce more offspring. Retic clutches av-
erage twenty-four eggs, each four by two inches and weighing half a pound, and large
females lay more than seventy eggs. Hatchlings start at thirty inches and eat rodents.
Small adults feed on rats and chickens, but giants take monitor lizards, pigs, deer, por-
cupines, pangolins, civets, and monkeys; one had eaten a 132-pound hog! Pythons coex-
isting with denser human populations in northern Sumatra exhibited greater size at ma-
turity, larger eggs, more frequent feeding, fewer parasites, and smaller fat stores than
their southern cousins. Big pythons, however, were scarce in the north, reflecting poor
survivorship around people as well as abundance of rodents, more appropriate prey for
smaller snakes.
German doctoral student Mark Auliya further illuminated the lives of Indonesian and
Malaysian pythons by visiting tanneries, using funnel traps, and sifting the observations
of other naturalists and local people. Retics are terrestrial and arboreal, favoring the
vicinity of streams and other wetlands, especially swamp forests; primarily nocturnal,
they repeatedly use caves and other shelter sites, yet may travel half a mile in a month.
Females coil around their eggs during sixty to ninety days of incubation, in a hollow
tree or under a fallen log. Besides the rodents, deer, pigs, and monkeys that prevailed
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