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How can snakes swallow animals bigger than themselves?

Updated on March 14, 2012

The expression 'to have eyes bigger than one's belly' fits the snake perfectly.

The biggest snakes-except deep in tropical jungles and large deserts-have bodies no thicker than a man's wrist, and yet, although their usual prey is rats, mice, lizards and insects, they do not hesitate to swallow a rabbit or a chicken!

The giant anaconda, the greatest of the American snakes, can be more than 25 feet long, but its neck is hardly any fatter than a man's. Now, it can very easily swallow a peccary- a kind of wild pig-and even... alligators!

The record is held by the Indian reticulate python, the biggest snake in the world. It quite commonly attacks wild boars or deer. One of them is known to have swallowed a deer weighing 120 pounds.


How does a snake eat?

How can a snake, with its very small head, possibly swallow such large animals? Its jaws can open to an amazing width because its bone structure is different from ours. Our lower jaw-bone is jointed with the upper one by a kind of hinge on either side of our mouths on a level with our ears. Snakes have two hinges, not one: between the upper and lower jaws there is a long extra bone which at each end hooks onto the jaws. The ligaments binding the bones together are very elastic, and since the mouth is extremely broad it can be opened incredibly wide.

Snakes swallow their prey whole

It has already killed the prey by poisoning it with a bite from its venomous fangs, or suffocated it in its coils. Everything disappears: fur, feathers, scales, hooves, horns. A snake's teeth curve backwards and it simply cannot regurgitate its prey. Once it has begun to swallow, it has to continue. In a zoo a python accidentally got the blanket it slept on caught in its teeth: it just had to swallow it!

What is a snake's digestion like?

Once the prey is all inside, it goes down to the stomach. A snake's ribs are movable, and so can make room for the animal. A snake's gastric juices are the most powerful that can be found. And they have to be in order to get through the hard almost indigestible matter in the food: horns, teeth and so on. Digestion is slow and arduous. A large prey can provide a meal for several weeks and even months. Since snakes eat mainly rodents, other reptiles and insects, they are useful predators. But the proliferation of venomous species is dangerous for man and domestic animals, so birds which prey on them should be protected.


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    • JKenny profile image

      James Kenny 6 years ago from Birmingham, England

      Snakes are such wonderful creatures. They seem slow and sluggish, but when they want to move, they sure as hell can move. I remember watching an anaconda swallowing a peccary on a documentary, it was one of the most disgusting, but equally fascinating things I've ever seen. Voted up.