Africa’s largest snake, the African rock python (Python sebae) may exceed 6m in length. They have an impressive and varied diet including warthogs, antelopes, monkeys and even crocodiles. Unbelievably, one individual was even recorded eating an adult spotted hyena weighing 70kg. Inhabiting a plethora of habitats across Central and Western Africa, this mighty python is the hidden assassin of the continent.
An adaptable predator, this snake is able to thrive in deserts, swamps, forests, grasslands and rocky areas. Although, they are often found in lakes, rivers and marshes. As excellent swimmers, staying hidden underwater allows them to ambush unsuspecting prey who have come to have a drink. This brings me on to the most formidable aspect of the African rock python – their feeding mechanism.
Hidden in vegetation, this python patiently awaits its meal. Once it has targeted a suitable victim (an antelope, for instance), it strikes. In a rapid but somewhat elegant manner, the snake holds its prey in place whilst it coils around it. Every time its victim exhales, the python tightens its lethal coil. Tighter and tighter. Eventually, the victim succumbs, thought to be caused due to cardiac arrest rather than asphyxiation or crushing. Now, arguably the most fascinating part, the python consumes its meal. Flexible ligaments between jaw bones enable them to stretch their mouth three times its normal size (they don’t dislocate their jaw as the misconception states). From here, the python painfully and carefully navigates its way around the victim, enclosing it like a sock over a foot. I say ‘carefully’ because horns, claws and broken bones can puncture the snake from the inside. The victim is swallowed whole, broken down by their stomach acid and strong digestive enzymes.
African rock pythons don’t pose a large threat to humans, although isolated incidents have been recorded. This has lead to a widespread fear of these crafty reptiles; they are often killed on site. As far as snakes go, the African rock python is one of the most resilient and versatile, being near the top of the African food chain. They are also one of the largest in the world which has allowed them to target sizeable and dangerous prey.