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By Method of Asphyxiation

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The African rock python is a large and powerful constrictor. Photo credit: african-safari-pictures.com

It runs at its hyperactive pace, passing by the foliage and rocks as hunger strikes at its mind. It must find food or its small body would soon give in to the lack of nutrition. Its heart beats at a rapid pace and its senses become focused to its surroundings. In a world this big, food is not far away. It continues on in search of its next meal. A mouse, a small woodland creature; it birthed its first litter during the night and it is now off to search for food to help it regain energy. There is little time and returning to the litter the litter quickly is of utmost importance. As it searches throughout the foliage, the silence of its surroundings do little to warrant its worry. Another creature has been very patient. A snake, long having been the nightmare of small animals in the forest, has found its meal. It lives in a world of no sound, where the other senses come into play. It was alerted to the mouse long before the tiny mammal even arrived here. Patience having paid off, the seemingly motionless serpent readies itself. The mouse encounters some small insects, but it doesn’t sense the hidden predator. Coming closer to its end, the mouse is within striking distance of the snake. The snake’s instincts push it to strike, and in less than a second, the mouse is hit. Its body is punctured with rows of small, numerous teeth, and it is brought back to the area of the snake. Coils surround the small mouse and are quickly but carefully positioned to effectively hold the panicking animal. The coils set, and the struggle is quickly over. Breathing quickly, the mouse is subjected to greater and greater pressure. Within seconds, it finds itself unable to take in another breath. Moments later, it loses consciousness and its senses are out. Its life is over, but this is just another day of survival for the cunning constrictor.

Many constrictors feed on rats, keeping the populations of these potential pests under control. A black rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta) is pictured here. blueridgewildlife.org

Constriction is a common method used by snakes to bring down their prey. Most species which rely on it are non-venomous, though there are exceptions. However, constrictors have been given an equally unfair reputation by people as their venomous cousins. Tales of giant serpents who crush the bones of their prey have become common and have brought people to a severe misunderstanding for these animals. This is not surprising, though, as snakes have often been associated evil and death since the early days of man. This is not justified, however. These tales of monstrous, bone-crushing reptiles are heavily exaggerated and false. Venom and constriction are just methods by which snakes can catch prey and defend themselves, much like how other species of animals must also defend themselves. However, these methods are just what strike fear to in people. The idea of being slowly choked to death, in particular, does not sit well with people. This much is understandable, but it does not mean that snakes themselves are out to get us. Even the process of constriction itself is misunderstood, which may be partly responsible for the almost irrational fear humans have of snakes. The topic is one that should be understood, and that is exactly the purpose of this essay; to bring the accurate details of constrictors to light.

The boa constrictor (Boa constrictor) is a fairly large and well known constrictor snake. jacksonvillezoo.org

Like the scenario shown in the first paragraph, the constrictor begins its attack by launching itself at the prey animal, gripping it with its many tiny teeth, and pulling it back to the snake in order to properly wrap its coils around the victim. Now, contrary to myth, the prey’s bones and body are not crushed by the snake. Most scientists these days would say that what actually occurs is a death by asphyxiation. That is, the snake tightens its grip right after every breath taken by the victim. This makes it more difficult for the held animal to breath air into its lungs. Eventually, the prey cannot draw in any more air, and it soon dies from lack of oxygen. After the death of the victim is known to the snake, it then positions its jaws in a comfortable place (usually at the front of the prey’s body), and the snake begins another slow process of swallowing its prey whole. It distends its jaws in order to allow the prey to fit into its mouth (many snakes eat prey items larger than their own heads) and slowly takes the meal in more and more. After this, the snake must find a place to hide itself in order to digest the meal in peace. This usually means going into hiding for anywhere from 2 days to almost a week, as snakes have a very slow metabolism. And even suffocation is not what always occurs. Sometimes, the prey animal dies rather quickly. This is said to be the result of the blood vessels in the prey’s body rupturing from the pressure subjected to it by the snake. This in particular is not an exaggeration, as constrictors are very powerful. Larger snakes like pythons and anacondas are could be easily capable of doing this, especially to smaller prey.

Constrictor snakes, such as this green anaconda (Eunectes murinus), are very powerful animals and commonly feared by people. snakespictures.net

However, these are the only two rational actions taking place. There is no incident of bones being crushed to dust. And yet, with all these discoveries, people still have a big misunderstanding of these animals. Snakes must have these methods of killing and eating because of the way their bodies are. If the snake lacks venom, the only other way it can bring down prey with its body shape is by constriction, and if the snake cannot tear its food into pieces and chew it (which none can) then it must be able to swallow it whole. Studying these animals shows their true beauty and survival abilities. Even if not all people can come to like them, by reading into essays as short as this one, they can at least come to understand snakes. These reptiles have their special place in nature. Just like all animals, they are merely doing what they can to survive. Their Creator provided them with what they have, and they have every right to use what they have been given.

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