a web page by Don Roberson
Reticulated Python from 2002 at Tarutao Is., Satun Province, Thailand © Mark O'Shea (above)

Reticulated Python Python reticulatus is believed to be the longest snake on earth. It is a huge and beautiful python of southeast Asia, ranging from eastern India to the Greater Sundas, Philippines, and as far east as Halmahera. Although I have seen one (see below), I have no photos. Mark O'Shea, famed herpetologist and author of Boas & Pythons of the World, graciously provided this shot from Thailand. This particular python, Mark recalls, was a "moderately large specimen in the wild; none too friendly either!" [Mark O'Shea's website has a ton of adventures and reptile photos.]

The longest snake that ever lived in a zoo was a female Reticulated Python named "Colossus." She was 22 feet long when captured in Siam (now Thailand) in 1949, and brought to the Pittsburgh Zoo. Eight years later she reached the length of 28 feet and her weight was estimated to be more than 320 pounds (a photo is in Pope 1961). It is repeatedly asserted that a Reticulated Python caught on Sulawesi was measured at a length of 33 ft. (9.9m), the longest snake on earth (e.g., Pope 1961). Whether the story of the 33-footer is true is less certain, as the story is apparently based on this quote: "... men at the mine told me of a huge python one of their natives had killed a few days before my arrival, and showed me a very poor photograph of it taken after it had been killed and dragged to camp. The civil engineer told me it was just ten meters (33 feet) long. I asked him if he had paced off its length, but he said no, he had measured it with a surveying tape." Thus it seems that real scientific evidence of a snake longer than 30 feet is lacking; Murphy & Henderson (1979).

Since this is Mark's photo (above), I'll let him describe some facts about the Reticulated Python: "Preferred habitat is rainforest, but Retics may be found in most habitats within their range, even swimming out at sea. Juvenile Reticulated Pythons are highly arboreal, probably hunting and certainly sleeping aloft. .. It is likely that the larger, heavier adults spend an increasing amount of time on the ground, where they are more likely to counter prey of the preferred size. ... Frank Buck, the famous 1930s 'Bring 'em Back Alive' animal collector, produced a photograph of a Reticulated Python coiled about a tiger, and also recounted a story in which a leopard was captured, constricted, killed, and eaten. If these dated accounts appear far-fetched, a much more recent scientific account (2005) is available, detailing the predation of an adult female Sun Bear in Borneo."

What is also documented is the occasional preying on humans. Remember, pythons and boas are not venomous, so they must be able to grab a person with their teeth, coil around the victim, and use constriction to kill. In Mark O'Shea's (2007) book there is a chilling color photograph of an teenage girl in the process of being devoured by a Reticulated Python. While various "faked" photos have been widely publicized, this one is apparently real. There are documented reports of children being killed and eaten by pythons in Indonesia, and Reticulated Python is most often frequently implicated in the predation (O'Shea 2007). While one might think you could simply run away from a slow-moving python, this powerful snake is a "sit and wait" predator. A powerful blow from an unexpected strike might easily knock someone down (especially a child or small woman) and stun the person, and the snake can coil rapidly. Once knocked to the ground, the intense pressure of constriction and the shock of the attack could kill rapidly. Swallowing a human, though, takes a long time. By testing with its tongue the python finds the head and devours head-first, using long recurved teeth. All these details strike fear in the human heart. As O'Shea notes, the thought that one might be "devoured by these cold-blooded creatures, with their alien metabolisms, somehow seems more terrible than being eaten by a warm-blooded furry animal more akin to ourselves."

There is no doubt that big constrictors are "monsters of god." It might take a 5m (16.4 ft) python to have a head large enough to swallow an adult man, but smaller snakes can take children or small women. It is now just a question of which of the great snakes to include on the list. I chose 3 or 4 species here, depending on how one looks at it.


My own experience was with a single huge python in the Brahmaputra floodplain of Kaziranga NP, Assam, India, in March 2001. I described the experience this way in my notes: "A huge 12-15 footer was undulating through the grass at Kaziranga near dusk on one game drive in the central range; it was incredibly thick and totally impressive. It was beautifully patterned with large dark brown diamonds interlaced between broad black diagonal lines."

It was disappearing over a small ridge and we did not see the head. Given its incredible heft, I think 15 feet long was a fair estimate.


South Africa Rock Python on 5 Aug 2002 at Tarangire NP, Tanzania © Don Roberson (both photos below)

Quammen (2003) listed African Rock Python among his 15 alpha predators. Perhaps unbeknownst to him, Broadley (1999) had proposed that this snake was actually composed to two species — Python sebae and P. natalensis — based in part on the existence of sympatric populations of both taxa in northeastern Tanzania that had previously been considered subspecies. This split was widely adopted by herpetologists after Quammen's book was published (O'Shea 2007, Schleip & O'Shea 2010). Both of the two species are implicated in 'man-eating,' so in a sense one gets two snakes for the price of one. "In fact," says O'Shea (2007), speaking of the two species as a set, "African Rock Python has a greater reputation for this [man-eating] behaviour than the giant Green Anaconda of South America, for which such stories are difficult to validate, or even the Asian Reticulated Python, which has been proven occasionally to take humans."

South African Rock Python Python natalensis (photo right & above) is the savanna and dry forest species, ranging from the savanna of east Africa (southern Kenya) south to South African and Angola. O'Shea (2007) gives its maximum length as 3.5–5.8 m (11.5–19 ft.).

My experience with this species is from Tarangire NP, Tanzania, where we encountered seven of these pythons in one day. Six of them were rolled up in huge balls in the canopy of deciduous trees without leaves (it was the dry season). The one photographed here was perhaps a 10-footer (3m) snake descending from its daytime roost. There was lovely late afternoon light and the snake did not seem in a big hurry to work its way down the large tree. So, accompanied by the guide, and with Rita rolling video, I walked and touched the beautifully patterned snake near the end of its body — and it slapped me back with its tail! [screen-shot in Introduction].

Like all large pythons, these snakes can go without a meal for a very long time. O'Shea (2007) cites one in captivity that reportedly fasted for 2.5 years, and yet went on to live 27 years.


Central African Rock Python Python sebae is mostly a rainforest species from west Africa to the Congo Basin. O'Shea (2007) gives its maximum length as 4.0 –7.5 m (13–24.6 ft.). Prey recorded for this species includes monitor lizards, porcupines, wild pigs, domestic dogs and goats, crocodiles, and the occasional human (O'Shea 2007).

"Large females lay a large clutch of eggs in a termite mound or animal burrow and coiling about them, will incubate them for approximately 90 days. During this time the female will occasionally leave the eggs to bask and then return to the egg clutch to continue incubation. She is also particularly defensive of her clutch and large females we have maintained have chased members of staff who approach too close to their chosen nesting sites. Angry pythons often raise and coil their tail tips and this should be seen as a warning, especially when accompanied by the long, drawn-out hiss;" O'Shea (2007).

I have not seen this species, but I am duly warned to avoid tail-twitching, hissing pythons, especially if they are chasing me.

Boa Constrictor ~1975 Leticia, Colombia © Van Remsen (above left); Green Anaconda ~1997 Dona Barbara, Los Llanos, Venezuela © Mark O'Shea (above right)

The "widest, bulkiest, and heaviest snake in the world" (O'Shea 1997) is an American boa named Green Anaconda Eunectes murinus. Quammen's (2003) book listed three snakes — Reticulated Python, African Rock Python, and Anaconda — among his 15 alpha predators. As we have seen (above), African Rock Python is now split into two separate species. More dramatically, the old Anaconda has now become four (4) species.* But the huge and widespread species of the Amazon Basin and northern South America is Green Anaconda — and that is the snake of which Quammen was thinking.

Even long-held assumptions can turn out to be wrong. For over 30 years I have used the now-faded slide shown above left as a photo of an Anaconda being displayed by Mike Tsalickis (to the right), a girl name Amy, and a third helper. Van Remsen had taken this shot in the mid-1970s at Tsalickis's animal menagerie along the Amazon River at Leticia, Colombia. Tsalickis, known a Jungle Mike, was a legendary figure "with stories to tell" who had been featured in Reader's Digest and National Geographic. I met him briefly when I joined Van at Leticia for a birding adventure in 1975. I think it was there that I saw a film of Jungle Mike wrestling an Anaconda in a river. As detailed in a 1993 story in the Tampa Bay Times, Mike's "stories were about Leticia, the Colombian frontier town the man from Tarpon Springs (Tsalickis) all but founded; about giant snakes, which he wrestled for tourists; and about gullible Italians, who seem to believe that he actually stalked, shot and ate the Indians who would have died without the hospital he built for them, way back in the bush." Although I'm sure Mike knew his snakes, I wonder how often he may have passed off a big Boa Constrictor Boa constrictor as an "Anaconda" for the tourists [the photo above left shows a 3m (10 ft) Boa Constrictor, advises Mark O'Shea]. And as to wrestling Anacondas, "the trick," said Tsalickis, "was to keep the snake in the shallows. If he gets you into the deep water, you're through."

The Tampa Bay Times article then turns to a sadder story. They quote Terry Furr, an assistant U.S. Attorney who put Tsalickis away for 27 years for cocaine trafficking: "He's the kind of guy, under different circumstances I would have liked to get a couple of beers with him, just to hear the stories."

To the upper right is a real 12 ft. (3.65m) Green Anaconda being held by herpetologists Mark O'Shea. It is dark green above with black oscelli-like spots; outlined spots are only underneath. The larger they get the darker and less distinct they appear. Compare the huge Anaconda that Mark was holding to this small, young example (below) that our boatman found along Sucasari Creek, a tributary of the Napo River, near its confluence with the mighty Amazon in northeastern Peru. The boatman hauled it into our small boat for better views.

There seems little doubt that Green Anaconda is the largest snake in the world by weight (e.g., a 4.5m Anaconda will weigh as much as a 7.4m Reticulated Python; O'Shea 2007), but there is debate about the longest length. O'Shea (2007) gives a maximum length of 7.5m (24.6 ft.) to 11.5m (37.7 ft.) but there is little confirmed, tangible evidence of the claims of over 30 ft. Females are larger than males; one 5.21m (17 ft.) female weighed 97.5 kg (215 lbs). These are just gigantic snakes. There is also debate about its status as a "man-eater." O'Shea points out there are rumors, rather than verified evidence. Yet, a huge snake in the water which routinely captures and eat mammals as large as tapirs could easily consume humans, especially children, who were swimming. Rivas (1999) published a note, with photos, of two predatory attacks by Green Anacondas on adult human researchers employed by him. Both attacks were by large female Green Anacondas (5m & 4.45m, or ~14-16 ft. long, and 39-54 kg, or 85-120 lbs, in weight) and were judged to be predatory rather than defensive in nature. Even if actual verified evidence of man-eating is lacking, a huge Anaconda is of grave concern "in the jungles of history and our mind," per Quammen's subtitle. Accordingly, as Quammen considered it as a worthy member of his 15 predators, I fully support its placement on this list.

* The other species are Yellow Anaconda Eunectes notaeus of the Pantanal, Dark-spotted (or DeSchauensee's) Anaconda E. deschauenseei northeastern Brazil and adjacent areas, and Bolivian Anaconda E. beniensis in Bolivia (e.g., O'Shea 2007). All are smaller species; the first two apparently reach maximum length at 3m (9.8 ft.) and are thus unlikely man-eaters. I have seen the Yellow Anaconda in southern Brazil.

Green Anaconda in June 1987 Sucasari Creek near Napo River, Peru © Don Roberson (above)

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Photos: All photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise attributed; all rights reserved.

Literature cited:

Murphy, J.C., and Henderson, R.W. 1997. Tales of Giant Snakes. Kreiger, Miami FL.

O'Shea, M. 2007. Boas and Pythons of the World. Princeton Univ. Press, Princeton, N.J.

Pope, C.H. 1961. The Giant Snakes. Alfred Knopf, New York.

Quammen, D. 2003. Monster of God: the Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind. Scribner, New York.

Rivas, J.A. 1999. Predatory attacks of green anacondas (Eunectes murinus) on adult human beings. Heroptological Nat. Hist. 62: 158-160.

Schleip, W.D., and M. O'Shea. 2010. Annotated checklist of the recent and extinct pythons (Sepentes, Pythonidae) with notes on nomenclature, taxonomy, and distribution. ZooKeys 66: 29–79.

  page created 29 Oct-23 Nov 2013  
all text & photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise indicated; all rights reserved