Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
around her gaping vent. Later, several saddle-backed tamarins chattered and mobbed
the copulating snakes until they slowly withdrew into a dense vine tangle, entwined tails
still hanging downward. 30 We have no idea how often or why primates harass snakes,
but our interactions are obviously multifaceted—even more so with the big ones, as we
shall see. Meanwhile, the prize for a thirty-footer remains unclaimed, and a topic that
captures the majesty of giant serpents has yet to be written.
Despite groundbreaking research and a trove of anecdotes, three aspects of big snake
biology that inspire widespread curiosity remain poorly studied. First, although green
anacondas are heaviest, and they or retics are longest, we don't know their true max-
imum sizes. Second, because the behavior of caged snakes likely has about as much
resemblance to that of wild anacondas and pythons as the antics of a farm pony do to
those of feral mustangs, we have little basis for imagining the daily lives of giant ser-
pents. A third topic is tied to the others, because size influences what can be subdued
and swallowed: Under what circumstances do snakes eat people, and thus affect us psy-
chologically and culturally? A couple of former Cornell University students helped illu-
minate these puzzles and presaged my own first encounter in nature with a really large
Our acquisition of one of the largest serpents displayed anywhere began when Reed
McJunkin, class of '32, contacted Cornell officials about a skeleton in his closet. Reed's
father had worked in the Philippines from 1908 to 1916 with the U.S. Army's Bureau
of Insular Affairs, developing schools in northern Luzon. Norman McJunkin was an avid
hunter, and on one trip with fellow officers, the first night out, they built a campfire
under a tree. Their Filipino porters were terrified of snakes, so in response to commo-
tions overhead, Norman fired his shotgun two or three times and something crashed in-
to the nearby darkness. No one dared investigate until daybreak, when they discovered
a twenty-six-foot reticulated python; they laid the carcass among ten-foot-high anthills
and continued hunting. Scavengers devoured the python's flesh within days, after which
Norman collected its bones and brought them back to the United States with other
souvenirs. Over the next four decades, “Ralph” resided in his Pittsburgh and New York
homes, where McJunkin kids and grandkids relished laying the skeleton out at holiday
Reed McJunkin wanted to donate Ralph to his alma mater. I called his grandson
Scott Palmer, and after some pleasantries—as a boy I'd lived on Luzon; Scott had been
there in the navy—he agreed to ship their herpetological heirloom. Next I enlisted David
Cundall and Frances Irish, Lehigh University snake anatomists, to assemble the skelet-
on. It had been stored as disarticulated ribs and skull bones, with the vertebral column
strung on a cord, and for dozens of hours we sorted more than one thousand pieces of
an osteological puzzle. David and Fran laid the backbone out in their living room, then
painstakingly checked 357 vertebrae for proper positioning. We separated ribs as right
or left based on the bumps with which they fit against vertebrae, estimating their place-
ment along the spinal column by size and shape. A third of the skull bones and more
than a hundred ribs were missing, but our labors led to a spectacular exhibit nonethe-
less. The finished specimen is about twenty feet long—reasonably close to the original
measurement, given loss of soft tissue among the vertebrae and decades of shrinkage.
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