The Burmese python (Python bivittatus) is an invasive species that is among the largest snakes in the world. They are carnivorous, using their sharp teeth to seize their prey. This is followed by coiling themselves around their meal and contracting their powerful muscles to make the final kill.
Burmese pythons mainly eat small mammals and birds. However, the biggest pythons may hunt for larger preys, such as goats and pigs. Some Burmese pythons have even been known to have eaten animals much larger than themselves, such as alligators and deer.
Burmese pythons have special adaptations that mean that they can consume prey that’s more than 50% of their body mass. The digestive response of Burmese pythons while consuming large animals has made them a model species for studying digestive physiology.
Burmese Python Diet and Hunting
Burmese pythons are ambush hunters that can attack and consume an animal that is as little as 5% of the snake’s body size, to up to 50% of its body size. Smaller specimens often feed on small animals. As they grow older and become bigger, the size of their prey also increases.
What Kind of Food Does a Burmese Python Eat?
Burmese pythons can eat 5% to 50% of their body size, so the size of their prey changes throughout their lives. Smaller or younger Burmese pythons often feed on small mammals, such as rats, mice, and other similar sized warm-blooded animals. They also feed on both domestic and wild birds, as well as frogs and other smaller snakes.
As the size increases, it starts to feed on larger animals, most commonly pigs and goats. Burmese pythons invading the Florida Everglades have also been found preying on adult deer and alligators – animals much larger than their body size.
One important proof for this is the 11-foot female Burmese python that was found with a large swollen belly by land managers from Collier-Seminole State Park and wildlife biologists.
After moving the snake to an open area, the python started to regurgitate a young white-tailed fawn. When weighed, scientists found that the fawn weighed 11.11% more than the python, with the deer weighing 35 pounds and the snake weighing 31.5 pounds. You can find out more about this story in the Naples Daily News.
How Does a Burmese Python Hunt?
Like most snakes, Burmese pythons don’t chase their prey. Instead, they are opportunistic ambush hunters, often ambushing their prey with a “sit and wait” technique. They are a nocturnal species and have very poor eyesight. Therefore, they stalk their prey with special chemical receptors found in their forked tongues.
They also have extraordinary temperature-sensitive pits located along their jaws which they use to sense the heat of an animal nearby. The temperature sensors in their jaws are also a special adaptation that helps them find warm-blooded animals.
Sometimes Burmese pythons like to submerge themselves in slow-moving rivers or streams, with only their heads slightly above the water. They sit and wait until an unsuspecting animal comes near it, allowing it to grab it immediately.
Because of their large size, Burmese pythons travel forward in a straight line – also called rectilinear progression. They do this by stiffening the ribs for support and then lifting their ventral scales, moving them forward.
This allows the loose ends to grasp the surface they’re moving on, allowing them to push themselves onward. Pythons aren’t fast movers with a speed of only 1 mile per hour, but since they don’t chase their prey, this is a skill they don’t need.
Burmese pythons have sharp rear-facing teeth that they use to seize their prey. Once, a python captures its prey, it coils its body around its meal, using constriction as a means of killing the animal.
They don’t crush their prey or break its bones, however. With each exhale, the snake squeezes tighter, contracting its muscles and continues this process until the animal suffocates and dies.
Can a Burmese Python Eat a Human?
Although large Burmese pythons are well capable of killing humans, there has been no recorded instance of one eating a human.
How Can a Burmese Python Breathe with Its Mouth Full?
Burmese pythons have special tubing in the bottom of their mouths that always remains open to one side. This allows a python to take in air, even while its mouth is completely stretched out and full when it is swallowing large prey.
How Burmese Pythons Consume Large Prey
Just like deep sea fish which have unique adaptations to consume larger prey relative to their body size, Burmese pythons have a remarkable ability to also attack and swallow animals that are larger than them. They can eat and digest animals up to 50% of their body mass.
To put this into perspective, imagine a 200-pound person eating a 100-pound meal in a single sitting. As astonishing as this may sound, this is a common scenario for most adult Burmese pythons.
However, to consume larger prey, they need to have some special adaptions. Some of them include:
1) Special Jaws
Burmese pythons have stretchy ligaments in their jaws that help them swallow animals about five times as wide as their head. Therefore, unlike human jaws, their jaws can open up to 150 degrees.
The lower mandibles (bottom jaw) are also not connected in the front, which allows them to swallow animals much larger than their body size.
How Does a Snake Swallow its Prey?
Pythons can sense their prey’s heartbeat. Therefore, it stops suffocating the prey as soon as its heart stops beating. This is when it knows it’s safe to release its squeeze and start swallowing.
Next, the snake will commence unfolding its jaw and swallowing the prey whole, often head first. A python’s skull joints can flex and fold with its incredibly elastic skin to open its mouth as much as possible and allow large food items to travel through its esophagus at ease. To do this, the snake’s body performs rhythmic muscular contractions that help push the prey down the snake’s gut.
A python’s ability to suffocate and swallow its prey whole is an efficient way to obtain its meal while minimizing physical stress and risk of injury.
How Long Can A Burmese Python Go Without Eating?
Because they spend less energy on finding food and hunting them, large snakes can go without food for weeks and even month, requiring to feed only a few times per year.
2) Stomach Size
Surprisingly, Burmese pythons do not require their entire prey to reach their stomach to digest it. The stomach can start with part of the prey, digesting it as it moves further in.
A python’s stomach can be as much as a quarter of the length of a python. Therefore, a 20-foot snake can completely fit a 5-foot prey inside its stomach.
3) Digestive Response
According to the Journal of Experimental Biology, Burmese pythons have stomachs with low acidity and volume during a fasting state, coupled with low intestinal mass and a normal heart volume.
However, when they consume food, their stomachs undergo several changes. Stomach volume, stomach acidity, and intestinal size increase. The size of the heart ventricle also increases by 40% when a Burmese python consumes its meal.
This is different from the changes human stomachs undergo. Before, having a meal, our stomachs are highly acidic. When we eat, the stomach acids are buffered, slowly becoming less acidic.
Burmese Pythons as an Invasive Species
As the name suggests, Burmese pythons are non-native to the US. They are popular pets, imported from their native habitats in Southeast Asia and India. However, sometimes these pets either escape their owners or are released by them.
This is common in Florida, the hub for the exotic wildlife trade and a region of the US where snakes such as Burmese pythons can easily thrive in.
Over the years, the invasive Burmese pythons in Florida have been shown to have consumed the following species:
- Hispid cotton rat
- Gray squirrel
- Cotton mouse
- Fox squirrel
- Domestic cat
- Old world rats
- Virgina opossum
- Round-tailed muskrat
- Rice rat
- Key Largo woodrat
- White tailed deer
Burmese pythons have also been found to have eaten birds such as:
- Pied-billed grebe
- White ibis
- House wren
- American coot
As for reptiles, some specimens were found to have eaten American alligators.
According to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), researchers have found a dramatic reduction in the number of small animals that are often consumed by invasive pythons in the area.
They also found that the remaining animals that weren’t hunted by these pythons were more abundant in regions that either had only recent spotting of pythons or didn’t have any pythons altogether.
The evidence of the study indicated that the invasive Burmese pythons were causing substantial disruption in the wildlife habitats of the Florida Everglades.
Researchers looked at data from thorough nighttime road surveys between 2003 and 2011, in the Florida Everglades and compared them with similar road kill data from between 1993 and 1999. Findings showed:
- A 99.3% decline in the number of raccoon observations.
- A 98.9% decline in the number of opossum observations.
- An 87.5% decline in the number of bobcat observations.
- And a complete failure to identify any rabbits.
How to Feed a Burmese Python
Burmese pythons are easy to feed, requiring an adequate sized meal whenever they’re hungry. This may sound surprising to most new snake keepers, but baby Burmese pythons will happily consume an adult mouse during their first feeding.
Feeding a Baby Burmese Python
With each feed, several sensory systems are activated in a python. It’s important that the food given to the young snake smells like something it can eat and must move in a way that mimics its potential prey in the wild.
Young Burmese pythons also like their food to be warmer than their habitat. Burmese pythons mostly hunt warm-blooded animals because of the heat-sensitive pits along their jaws that allow them to detect the slightest heat changes caused by the body of a prey.
A Burmese python owner must ensure that these factors are present to provoke a feeding response in neonate pythons. For example, pinky mice may not be an ideal meal for a baby python. This is because they don’t move in a way that gets a baby python interested, nor do they generate or retain enough body heat to elicit feeding senses in them.
After a baby Burmese python has a few first meals, it can start learning behaviors to identify and consume already-killed meals, chicken parts and even processed snake food.
Although it is recommended a snake is only fed food items that are already dead to prevent any potential injury that a struggling animal can inflict on your pet, it’s important to remember that a python is well equipped to consume a live animal. However, to prevent any messy situations, it helps to provide your snake with pre-killed meals rather than live ones.
Feeding Growing Burmese Pythons
As a Burmese python grows, the amount of food it requires increases as well. With time, a python will need more than a mouse given once or twice a week.
As the snake begins to consume several mice per feeding, it may be time to introduce a small rat instead. When the python reaches 4 feet in length, it can be fed a medium rat. When it reaches 6 feet, it will be safe to feed it a large rat.
Increase the size of the meal as the snake grows, moving from mice, to rats and rats to rabbits. Poultry is also a good food source for growing snakes. An adult, 9 to 10 feet Burmese python can be given an adult chicken.
Things to Consider During the Feeding Process
Burmese pythons are aggressive eaters, so it’s important not to over-feed them, as doing so can result in an obese python.
Baby pythons can be fed once or twice a week, and adult pythons need to be fed every two weeks or so only. Keep in mind that the prey should not be larger than the width of the python.
Consistently feeding your pet appropriately-sized meals can help to maintain their health and body condition. Be sure to provide fresh water for drinking and soaking. As the snake matures, it will no longer be able to soak in its water dish, so it’s essential that you let it soak in a pool of water or tub regularly.
Furthermore, even though Burmese pythons are a relatively docile species, baby pythons can be a bit restless. However, they can be tamed via consistent handling. When they are older and larger, they can inflict serious injury on a handler. Therefore, it is recommended that a second handler should always be present while feeding or handling a python more than 8 feet in length.