A tame strangler snake that sometimes crawls into bed with its owner and then flatters itself against her. A sign of affection, the owner thinks. Well, the vet helps her out: the snake stretches out to measure whether it is big enough to swallow its owner.
This anecdote made the newspaper last week, as ‘Ikje’ on the back page. My family thought it was a great story. We have our own strangler snake: Monty the python.
It is a beautiful royal python of about 1 meter 20 long. We don’t allow him to walk around loose – then he would just get lost behind the bookcase. But if you pick him up, you can sit on the couch with him for half an hour. He then curls up around your forearm and flatters his cheek against your upper arm, like a cat cuddling. It then feels as if the python is caressing you. Or would our Monty be measuring us too…?
Just googling. Fortunately: last week’s ‘Ikje’ turns out to be a well-known sandwich monkey story. NRC had also discovered it and had just emailed the author. She had heard the story through the door, she said, and honestly believed it to be true. But what about that?
“It is indeed a piece of cake,” says Mátyás Bittenbinder, snake researcher at Naturalis Biodiversity Center and VU Amsterdam. “I’ve seen it happen many times before. In English, and then a little more extensive. But there is no way this story can be right.”
First, snakes don’t eat humans. Well, there are anecdotes circulating, but Bittenbinder thinks the real cases can be counted on one hand. “The reticulated python, the longest strangler snake on Earth, lives in Southeast Asia,” he says. “It can grow to eight or nine meters in length and eats small boars and deer. In theory, it could eat a child. But how often does something like this really happen…”
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Snakes can eat prey larger than their heads. That’s because the left and right sides of the jaw are not connected, like we do. This makes the mouth extremely stretchy – just like the rest of the body. “But if a snake swallows too large a prey, it can choke,” says Bittenbinder. “Or he can perforate his stomach. So a snake will try to avoid prey that is too large.” An average home strangle snake, up to two meters long, will never want to eat an adult female.
Then the question of whether a snake can plan ahead. Does he really monitor prey in order to eat them in the future?
“Evidence of this has never been found,” says the biologist. Reptiles have relatively simple cognitive abilities and live in the moment. They do lie in ambush in places where many prey animals pass, but they do so based on a smell that hangs there. “Drawing a plan in advance and then executing it later, I don’t see that happening anytime soon. And then again, what would that look like in nature? That the snake approaches an unsuspecting wild boar and lies down next to it without realizing it? That’s not how a snake hunts. It attacks in a flash, from an ambush.”
A version of this article also appeared in NRC in the morning of October 14, 2021