The Big Squeeze: Scientist Catches Bear-Eating Snake in the Act


Burmese Python image via Shutterstock

Earlier this week a team of scientists from several universities and the US Geological Survey released a study documenting the dramatically declining numbers of small and medium-size mammals in Florida - including raccoons, opossums, white-tailed deer, bobcats, rabbits and foxes. These population drops all occur in the same areas where pythons and other large, non-native snakes have taken up residence after escaping from one stop or another in the wildlife trade supply chain.

Anyone who’s even heard only the most basic facts about constrictor snakes knows that they’re formidable predators and take down prey by grasping it in their powerful jaws, coiling their bodies around it, and squeezing until it suffocates. Devouring bunnies and possums isn't even the half of it, though. These big snakes aren’t shy about going after much larger, more dangerous game, too. Like men. And bears.

Skin of a 22.6-foot reticulated python, shot by Kekek Aduanan (in hat) on June 9, 1970. Photo by Thomas N. Headland

In the 1970s, anthropologist Thomas N. Headland lived with and studied the Agta Negritos, the indigenous people of the Philippines’ largest island. When Headland interviewed the Agta about their run-ins with the pythons that shared the rainforest with them, 15 of 58 men and 1 of 62 women said they’d been attacked by a python at least once. Two of the men had been attacked twice, and the interviewees could collectively remember six people who were killed by pythons, including a man whose son found the snake, cut it open and retrieved his father's body for a funeral (that snake is pictured above).

It Poked the Bear

In July 1999, conservation biologist Gabriella Fredriksson was monitoring a female Sun bear and her cub on the island of Borneo via radio collar. One morning, the collar’s signal indicated that the bear hadn’t moved for more than four hours, a sign that either the bear had died or the collar had come off. Fredriksson investigated and tracked the signal to the stomach of a 23 ft python curled up in the brush. The bulge of the adult bear could be clearly seen in the middle of the snake, and as the snake fled into a nearby stream when Fredriksson got too close, she could hear the sounds of the bear’s bones snapping. No sign of the cub was ever found.

The radio collar remained functioning, so Fredriksson tracked the snake over several weeks as it digested the bear. The snake was eventually captured, escaped, captured again and, when it hadn’t passed the radio collar out by October, the equipment was surgically removed. The snake was released into the wild soon after.

Granted, Sun bears are the smallest bear species and a little less fearsome than their cousins, feasting mainly on insects and fruit. It’s not nearly as impressive as a python eating a polar bear (ignore the improbability of that for a second and imagine how awesome that cage match would be). That said, they’re still not an animal that one attacks, kills and devours with ease. They’re sizable, have long, sharp curved claws, strong jaws and sharp teeth. Anecdotal evidence from Borneon residents suggests that tigers will take the occasional Sun bear, but this snake attack is one of only a few recorded instances of any bear species being preyed on by animals other than humans or other bears.

For more on Florida’s python problem, see the study and the coverage at Not Exactly Rocket Science, which has a great discussion in the comments about how unlikely it is that the pythons were so successful in establishing themselves in their new home.