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.]
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).
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."
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
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.
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."
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)
(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
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
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).
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).
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.
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
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.
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)
Click below for the next page of this project
OR use these LINKS to the SPECIES PAGES
Photos: All photos © Don Roberson, except as otherwise attributed; all rights reserved.
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.
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.