Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
I like to think Norman would have chuckled to learn that Ralph was a female, as
are all really large boas and pythons. Thanks to the McJunkin family's generosity, their
big snake skeleton now occupies an elegant cherrywood case at our Museum of Verteb-
rates, where it attracts many admirers. Few giant serpents in museums have accurate
collecting data; now researchers have access to one that grew up under particular nat-
ural conditions, rather than in captivity. We discovered, for example, gnarly evidence of
healed fractures on some fifty ribs, as well as along Ralph's backbone. Whether enemies
or prey caused these impressive injuries, they further document that even big snakes
endure rough times. As such findings are combined with field studies, a reasonably com-
plete picture of their natural history will emerge.
The second Cornell connection addresses in spectacular fashion whether giant ser-
pents can be a serious threat to humans, a topic of long-standing debate. Venomous
snakebites are common among Third World agrarians and forest-dwellers, but records
of constrictors eating people are rare—one southern African python fatally ambushed a
teenager on a path, and reticulated pythons kill several rural Asians every year. Green
anacondas sometimes attack humans who are bathing or fishing, and once a big female
that struck from hiding narrowly missed Jesús Rivas's collaborator María Muñoz. 31 One
bizarre saga involves a photograph I first saw in 1998 of a nineteen-foot Sulawesi retic
opened to expose the clothed body of a man. 32 Years later an identical image appeared
on the Internet, labeled as depicting a Venezuelan oil worker who'd gone off to relieve
himself and ended up inside a green anaconda. The fiction subsequently became absurd
in a newspaper photo of the same python with the same man, captioned as an anaconda
that had eaten a Bolivian woman! Given a lack of evidence to the contrary, herpetolo-
gists have generally concluded that snakes scarcely ever attack people as food.
In 1999, I received a spectacular photograph of Philippine Negritos with a retic,
twenty-three feet long and twenty-six inches in circumference. It came through Timothy
Wright, a professional geographer with long-standing interest in giant reptiles. Tim's
daughter Amber took my first herpetology course at Cornell, and I met him at her gradu-
ation. Shortly thereafter he sent me the photo, which he'd carried around for almost
three decades. Together, we then set about locating the photographers.
Anthropologists Thomas and Janet Headland began studying the Agta Negritos in
1962, became fluent in their language, and assembled unparalleled evidence of snake
predation on humans. 33 Negritos were widespread until recently, though now they are
marginalized as peasants and threatened with extinction. When Tom and Janet first ar-
rived in Luzon's Sierra Madre, the Agta were still preliterate, lived in small kin-related
groups, slept in tiny temporary shelters, foraged in old-growth rainforest, and ate wild
meat daily.
Tom surveyed 120 Agta about their relationships with pythons; his respondents were
sixteen to seventy-five years old, and their lives encompassed many encounters. The big
snakes had attacked fifteen of the men but only one woman, presumably because the
men spent more time in the forest. Fourteen respondents were struck once and two of
them twice, totaling eighteen attacks; fifteen were actually bitten, presumably as a pre-
lude to constriction, and eleven had scarred lower limbs to prove it. Pythons had struck
along trails and usually were dispatched with a bolo knife or homemade shotgun, but
between 1934 and 1973, according to Tom's informants, six Agta were killed, including
a grandfather, an uncle, an acquaintance, and a woman who died two months after be-
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