Tag Archives: python

Fossil Friday: oldest python ever found suggests they’re originally from Europe

New research on fossilized snake remains unearthed in Germany points to our favorite constrictor snake having evolved in Europe. Today, the Pythonidae family is found mainly in Africa, Southern and Southeast Asia, and Australia.

Photographs and drawings of Messelopython freyi. Image credits Hussam Zaher and Krister T. Smith, (2020),  Biology Letters.

Don’t judge a book by its cover, nor a species by its current range, it turns out. New research suggests the python family first evolved on the European peninsula at least 47 million years ago, going a long way towards uncovering the group’s evolutionary past.

Das Python

“The geographic origin of pythons is still not clear. The discovery of a new python species in the Messel Pit is therefore a major leap forward in understanding these snakes’ evolutionary history,” explains Dr. Krister Smith of the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt, a co-author of the paper describing the new specimen.

The new species — christened Messelopython freyi in honor of Eberhard Frey, a paleontologist and chief curator of the State Museum of Natural History in Karlsruhe — was discovered at the Messel Pit UNESCO World Heritage Site in Germany, as a series of superbly-preserved specimens. They’re around 47 million years old and, reaching up to 6 meters in length, they’re among the largest snakes ever found.

It’s also the oldest species of python ever found. The team says these specimens show that pythons were already present in Europe during the Eocene, and that they likely evolved here to begin with.

But, locals may know, there are no pythons endemic to the European peninsula right now — which means that this group eventually spread from here before going extinct in the region, or migrated away entirely. The team explains that a drop in global temperatures during the Miocene (between 23 and 5 million years ago) made Europe too cold for pythons, who disappeared from the peninsula around this time.

However, there was another interesting tidbit to the findings. Today’s boas and pythons, although being very similar anatomically and closely related, live in complete geographical separation — they inhabit different ranges. This wasn’t the case in primeval Europe.

“In Messel, both Messelopython freyi as well as primitive boas such as Eoconstrictor fischeri lived together in the same ecosystem – we therefore have to revisit the thesis that these two groups of snakes competed with each other, making them unable to share the same habitats,” explains Smith.

The paper “Pythons in the Eocene of Europe reveal a much older divergence of the group in sympatry with boas” has been published in the journal Biology Letters.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Shocking images of a python devouring a crocodile whole in Australia

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Pythons are biologically equipped to consume prey much larger than themselves. It’s very common to see these large snakes gulping down deer, impalas, and sometimes even humans. But despite this knowledge, it’s still shocking to hear about a python devouring a crocodile. This is exactly what happened to an Australian freshwater crocodile (Crocodylus johnstoni) which was unfortunate enough to stumble into the jaws of an olive python (Liasis olivaceus).

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc .

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

The grisly footage was shared on social media by GG Wildlife Rescue Inc., a nonprofit in Australia on May 31. According to the NGO’s Facebook page, the images were taken by kayaker Martin Muller near Mount Isa, Queensland.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Pythons kill their prey by wrapping themselves around it, squeezing tighter as the victim exhales. Within minutes, the prey dies by suffocation or cardiac arrest. Pythons swallow their food whole thanks to the way their jaws are connected by very flexible ligaments, which can stretch around large prey. Their digestive system and metabolism are also perfectly adapted to breaking down huge meals all at once.

To handle the sudden influx of calories, pythons are known to rapidly increase the size of their internal organs, including the intestines, heart, and kidneys.

Pythons are almost exclusively mammal feeders, although they can consume reptiles. The unlucky Australian freshwater crocodile seen in these photos illustrates this fact.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Credit: Martin Muller/GG Wildlife Rescue Inc.

Python moms take care of their offspring, surprising researchers

When it comes to parental love, snakes don’t really top off the list. Most snakes just lay their eggs in a safe place, cover them with dirt, and hope for the best. Snakes which give birth to live young still don’t really care for them and, overall, you wouldn’t expect snakes to win any parenting awards. But according to a new study, at least one species is trully involved in raising its offspring: the southern African python.

A clutch of Southern African python babies basking in the sun. Credit: Graham Alexander/Wits University.

The African rock python (Python natalensis) is one of the 11 living species of python and the largest snake species in Africa. It can be found in a variety of habitats, from forests to near deserts, killing and eating animals as big as an antelope. These pythons are also opportunistic creatures, installing themselves in aardvark burrows for nesting and laying eggs. Professor Graham Alexander, a reptile researcher at the Wits School of Animal Plant and Sciences & the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, wanted to peek inside these burrows. He installed radio transmitters and infrared cameras inside, following 37 pythons in the Dinokeng Game Reserve, 8 of which laid eggs during the study.

He reports a set of interesting behaviors from the mother pythons. For starters, after they laid eggs, their color tended to become darker. Snakes are unable to regulate their temperature through metabolism, so they bask in the sun and absorb heat — and turning darker allows them to heat up faster. After they raise their temperature (to up to 40 degrees Celsius / 104 Fahrenheit) they slither back to the burrows to keep the eggs warm during the night.

But here’s the interesting thing: they also do the same thing after the snakelets are born, gathering heat during the day, and returning during the night to help keep the young ones warm. They do this four about two weeks before finally departing and leaving the offspring to fend for themselves. This is the first time an egg-laying snake has been observed exhibiting any maternal behavior.

“This is the first-ever report of maternal care of babies in an egg-laying snake,” says Alexander. “I was amazed by the complex reproductive biology of this iconic snake,” said Alexander.

So why do they do it? It’s not particularly clear, though researchers have a few clues. After hatching, the young pythons are still packed full of undigested egg yolk. While this is advantageous, as it means they don’t need to hunt in their earliest days, it also makes them sluggish and vulnerable to predators and cold temperatures. The python mother keeps predators away and also shares her body heat, keeping the youngling warm. This also makes sense, since the study was carried out in the southern range of the snakes, where temperatures are lower than in the other parts of their habitat.

However, this extra care comes at a great price for the mothers: during this period, they are unable to hunt, losing up to 40% of their body weight. Some of them never truly recover, Alexander comments.

“All of this takes its toll on mother pythons: they take a long time to recover after breeding and so can only produce a clutch every second or third year, depending on how many meals they are able to catch in the months after leaving the nest. Some of them never recover.”

Another surprising finding was that male snakes follow receptive females for an impressively long period of time.

“In one case, one male was recorded following a female for more than 2 km over a three-month period,” says Alexander.

Journal Reference: G. J. Alexander, Reproductive biology and maternal care of neonates in southern African python (Python natalensis), Journal of Zoology (2018). DOI: 10.1111/jzo.12554

Ouroboros

Literally Ouroboros: snake gets trapped in a circle of its own shedding skin

Ouroboros

Visitors to the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, home to the largest reptile display in Central Australia, were stunned by the sight of a snake who spun in circles countless times in a ring made from its own skin. The Stimson’s Python specimen somehow managed to “shed completely within itself with its tail finishing inside its ‘sloughed mouth’,” a facebook update from the official Alice Springs Reptile Centre reads. “It actually looks like a steering wheel,” the update continues.

 

A classical depiction of the Ouroboros. Credit: Aquarius the water bearer

The snake eating its own tail is the symbol for Ouroboros, which is a Greek word meaning ‘tail devourer’. It’s one of the oldest mystical symbols in human culture, and like all good symbols, it has many meanings. Foremost, the serpent biting or devouring its own tail represents the cyclic nature of the universe — creation out of destruction, life out of death. It can also be envisioned as a symbol of time with the tail of the serpent representing the past which appears to be devoured (gone), when in reality it moves into a new inner domain of existence vanishing from view but still existing.

Thankfully, the Stimson’s Python managed to free himself and emerged out of the Ouroboros with a new skin — but not before three hours had passed.

The snake after it finally escaped. Credit: Alice Springs Reptile Center

The snake after it finally escaped. Credit: Alice Springs Reptile Center

via Sploid

Shorties: Burmese Pythons invade the Florida Everglades, endanger local mammals

The disappearance of raccoons and bobcats from the Everglades National Park can be credited to one single event, according to a new study: a python invasion. Sightings of medium sized mammals are down by 99 percent in areas where giant constricting snakes from Asia have been spotted. The growing concern is that the snakes, which can live up to 35 years are feeling quite at home in Florida and the damage they are doing to the local environment is permanent