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.