Unfortunate Python Paid Deerly for a Too-Big Meal

October 2, 2018

Oh, the deer. A hungry Burmese python in Florida swallowed a white-tailed deer that proved to be heavier than its predator – the helpless prey.

Biologists with the Conservancy of Southwest Florida (CSF) found the 11-foot-long (3-meter) python at Collier-Seminole State Park in April 2015; CSF representatives reported in a statement that the snake had swollen by its most recent meal, a young deer, but lost its lunch shortly after it was captured and moved to an open area.

The ruminant fawn weighed 35 pounds (16 kilograms). The ruminant fawn weighed 35 pounds (16 kilograms), while the python weighed only about 32 pounds (14 kilograms). According to the CSF, this is the largest prey-to-predator weight ratio ever recorded for a Burmese python, and possibly for any python species.

A necropsy on the fawn revealed wounds on its neck caused by snakes’ teeth, as well as fractures in the prey’s spine and ribs. Its fur was spotted; according to the CSF report, the deer was young and still nursing because there was evidence of curdled milk in its stomach.

CSF biologist Ian Bartoszek told a local news event streamed on Facebook that the deer’s head had been partially digested, suggesting that the snake may eventually be able to digest the whole deer.

“We’re trying to process that an animal of this size could have its head around what was originally a deer,” Bartoszek said. In photos of the ongoing regurgitation, the deer’s body squeezes out of the snake’s mouth, which could not have been wide enough to accommodate the deer’s body.

“It’s the same way it went in,” Bartoszek explained.” It’s not a cut – that’s the actual muzzle. That’s how wide the animal has to get in order to swallow that prey thing.”

The Burmese python (Python bivittatus), one of the world’s largest snakes, is native to Southeast Asia and is an invasive species in Florida. According to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), populations are likely to become mature after pet snakes are released or escape into the Everglades.

One of the largest Burmese pythons found in Florida was 17 feet (5 meters) long and was captured in the Everglades in December 2017. Because these pythons can grow so large, they have few natural predators and have been found feeding on a range of native birds, mammals and reptiles – some of which are endangered or threatened, according to FWC.

Previously, another voracious Burmese python was found in the swamp with three deer in its gut – two fawns and a doe – which were almost completely digested when the snake was captured and euthanized. However, Life Science reported in 2016 that the python likely didn’t swallow all the deer at once; instead, the predator may have eaten them over the course of 90 days.

The discovery of a python capable of swallowing animals larger than the snake itself is “another important piece of evidence that the invasive Burmese python is negatively impacting native wildlife throughout the Everglades ecosystem,” Bartoszek said.

But controlling thriving snake populations requires more than just observation. Efforts are underway to extract invasive pythons from the fragile ecosystem, with hundreds of snakes totaling more than 10,000 pounds as of February 2018. (4,536 kilograms) have been removed from parts of southwest Florida, CSF representatives reported in a statement.

Meanwhile, researchers are building a database of snake behavior and movement to help biologists better understand the impact of pythons on wildlife and further develop strategies to control snake populations, the CSF said.