Python Behavior--On Killing Two Children at Once

Credit: MangoAtchar/Creative Commons

Further thoughts about the tragic case in New Brunswick, in which a rock python apparently killed two sleeping children in the same room. In a thoughtful comment on Monday’s post, James raised this question:

A final point which leads me to think that, even if nothing sinister is going on, somebody is not being truthful is the way things supposedly went down. For all the guff and hype about snakes being "silent predators"--although I have not fed live rodents for years now, I can testify that mice, rats and hamsters, even when grabbed by snakes larger in relation to them than this python was to the children, do not die instantly or silently. The animal typically kicks and thrashes, and usually has time to squeal once or twice. Obviously, as the Jesse Altom case shows, exceptions occur, but the odds of a snake pulling off back-to-back killings without causing some sort of commotion seem very long to me.

My response: There are precedents for this. In a 2011 paper in PNAS, Headland and Greene report a case from the Philippines in which a reticulated python entered a hut where three children were sleeping. It killed two boys, aged 3 and 4, and was in the act of swallowing one of them when the father discovered the attack and killed the python with a knife. The snake had not harmed the other sibling, an infant girl. The same paper reproduces an x-ray image of a reticulated python which has swallowed two long-tailed macaques.

These cases show that pythons can sometimes succeed in killing several primates in sequence. In another interesting case, a retic killed a dog and then attacked a 22-month-old child, who was rescued by his father. (Incidentally, there are also cases of big constrictors swallowing juvenile monkeys along with their mothers.)

Young children typically sleep far more soundly than adults do, an ability that gradually wears off as the child matures. That may help explain how the second victim was able to stay asleep while the first was killed. It’s also plausible that, even if the second victim heard some sort of noise, he might not have seen or suspected danger.

Speculation aside, what we do know is that taking multiple small prey items at a time is definitely python behavior. We know that, in at least one other case, a python has killed two children in the same room. And we know that, in the case of Jesse Lee Altom, a python killed a child without rousing either of the two adults sleeping next to him.


12 comments:

  1. I know they're completely different creatures but, venomous snakes such as mambas are also known to kill more than one animal in the same attack especially when the prey animals cannot escape- for example, in a chicken pen or a rabbit cage, or when the snake has found a litter of helpless baby animals and kills them all even though it only eats one.

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  2. In the matter of venomous snakes, a couple thoughts occur to me on excess killing. First, if mobbed or surrounded in the act, the snake will very likely strike at anything around it even if they're not attacking it, as such. As to the killing whole clutches or litters and not eating all of them, remember that we wouldn't know the snake did this unless we found it in the act (i.e., disturbed it) unless perhaps we postulate a case where a snake has been filmed in the act via hidden camera, say, and could not have been disturbed, in which case the motivation becomes more obscure and we have to look elsewhere for answers. If you know of such a specific case, I'd be interested in hearing more about it...

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  3. I didn't know that about mambas--very interesting. I have heard it about rattlesnakes in relation to nests of mammals. Where I come from, rattlesnakes would prey on prairie dogs in the summer, then hibernate with them in winter, sometimes even sleeping in the same chamber. It's a peculiar relationship.

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  4. @James, I do remember reading about specific cases and even seeing it in documentaries, so it has been filmed indeed... but I'm afraid I can`t remember which ones specifically. I do remember several cases with black mambas, and one case involved a rattlesnake with ground squirrels or some similar rodent so this doesn`t seem to be rare at all.

    Maybe we're trying too hard to find a motivation? With many predators, if they are in a reduced space surrounded by easy prey, they will keep attacking until the stimulus (panicking prey movement and sounds, or in the case of a snake, the smell and warm bodies) is gone. They simply stay on predatory mode for a longer time...

    @Gordon, I do remember reading about that in your book, I think. I've also seen cases of snakes sharing their burrows with perfectly edible frogs without hurting them.

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  5. Tiger snakes (Notechis sp.) are well-known for denning in shearwater burrows; they do indeed feed on the baby birds, but once they grow beyond a certain size, the snakes take no further notice of them.

    I did do a little poking around and did run across a few random episodes of wholesale killing--mostly by elapids, specifically mambas and unspecified African cobras, although there was at least one case of a rattler with reference to prairie dogs. Most elapids I've met and observed--thank God, never kept!--have impressed me as being very, very high-strung animals and easily set "in gear" as Croconut suggests.

    Another factor that occurs to me with venomous species is that very often, these animals are hunting dangerous prey (rodents and other small, well-armed mammals, such as bandicoots or very small mustelids) in conditions of very, very poor visibility, such as a darkened burrow or hollow log. While very often an adult rat or mouse, if not cornered itself, will abandon its young to the snake, the snake cannot afford to take the chance and may strike out at anything on general principles, taking out not only the prey it immediately needs but any adults that might pose a liability. I'm not suggesting snakes think this through, but fortune and natural selection probably favor the nervous and fast.

    I've heard of snakes taking eggs and young from under brooding poultry, but always assumed this reflected the stupidity and sluggishness of domestic birds rather than any remarkable talent on the part of the snakes.

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  6. That makes a lot of sense, and answers a question that has sort of been nagging me: We know that some venomous snakes try to conserve their venom, so why engage in surplus killing? Perhaps rattlers shy away from wasting venom against large animals that crowd them, but are freer with it against rodent-sized animals.

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    1. In general, reports from people bitten by venomous captives indicate that prey-taking bites meant to kill small animals are, ironically, more dangerous than a defensive bite meant to deter an enemy, containing a higher load. That seems to concur with this line of thought we're on...

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    2. Makes a lot of sense- if all would-be predators died of bites, they would never learn to leave venomous snakes alone

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  7. Yep, Old World elapids are not to be messed with...

    I don`t know about US coral snakes but the ones around here in my experience seem to be very placid animals, though...

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  8. Seems to depend a lot on the circumstances, like anything else. A naturalist friend of mine finds eastern corals, at least, very reluctant to bite even when handled; on the other hand, since we know bites have occurred, they obviously can be provoked to bite. Dean reports that many people are bitten on the tongue, lips or face by corals, because they have just enough interest in the snakes to pick them up and not enough knowledge to recognize what they are and what the colors mean; when they put their face down to talk to the snake or try to kiss it (!) the snake, feeling their breath on him and equating that with the exploratory snuffling of a carnivore, strikes.

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  9. That's natural selection for ya... :/

    Practically all animals with jaws can be provoked to bite- everyone's patience has a limit.

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  10. Great discussion, guys. I'm learning a lot here.

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