Python Eats Alligator . . . and Other Possibilities

I get a lot of questions about pythons and other big constricting snakes loose in the Everglades--especially after the discovery the other day of a 16-foot Burmese python with a belly full of deer. Some of these questions center on the famous photo (above) of a python that apparently ate an alligator, but then died as the prey burst out of its stomach. This sounds like an urban legend, but it's basically true. A few incidents of gators taking on escaped exotic snakes:

  • January, 2003, on the Anhinga Trail of Everglades National Park: A gator seized a python and held it in a death grip for what was reported to be more than a full day. When it finally opened its mouth, the snake escaped. (Gator wins by count-out.)
  • Feburary, 2004, at Pay-hay-okee Overlook in the same park: A python attacked a gator, but the gator countered with a bite. Witnesses lost sight before a definitive outcome, but it appeared the gator had won. 
  • October, 2005, again in the Everglades National Park: This one is the source of the famous photo. The gator was six feet long; the python with the burst gut was a 13-foot Burmese. It was missing its head, though no one knows why, because the tableau was discovered after both animals died. I'm calling this one a no-contest, because it seems like a case of outside interference.

The snakes involved in these incidents are all exotics, presumably kept as pets before their owners discovered how much trouble and expense that involves. There seem to be breeding populations of the Burmese python and perhaps other big constrictors in those swamps. 

Some have suggested this poses a threat to native species. In the case of the American alligator, that's highly unlikely; a single gator could provide even the biggest snake with months of nourishment. Besides, as these incidents show, the pythons don't have a great batting average against gators. 

It's also been suggested that these snakes pose a danger to people, but that's unlikely too. As discussed in The Book of Deadly Animals, big constrictors seem not to treat people as prey in the wild (with the possible exception of the amethystine python, which has unsuccessfully attacked a few children). Captive specimens of big species like the reticulate python and the boa constrictor have killed people in homes, but have not, so far as I can document, succeeded in eating them. It seems as if the snakes don't like to eat people and will only attack us in the unnatural situation of captivity.

Bruce shows me an albino reticulate python. Photo by Parker Grice, with thanks to Twin Cities Reptiles.

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  1. I'd add that, after all, crocodiles have so far managed to exist alongside the Burmese python in its native range for...well, as long as there have been Burmese pythons. I did once see a show on one of the Nat'l Geo channels about the famous "exploded python" advancing the idea that the snake was probably attacked and torn apart by another predator (a second gator, though a cougar perhaps could have done the job) while engorged.

  2. Good points, James. If we look at big constricting snakes in general, we see even more examples of them co-existing with crocodilians. As I recall, anacondas occasionally prey on caimans, but without posing any serious threat to their populations.

    The injuries to that python in the photo certainly require some explanation beyond "it exploded." Animal guts do sometimes burst as decomposition causes gas to accumulate; but that explanation tells us nothing about what killed the python in the first place.

  3. sure it's not a danger to alligators, crocodiles, or humans.

    what about native rabbits, raccoons, and other small mammals though? those are scarcely seen in the Everglades these days.

    1. That's been widely reported, but also called into question. See this post and the article it links to:


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