This 15-foot python had swallowed a deer before it was captured and killed in the Florida Everglades, Oct. 27.
Credit: South Florida Water Management
To a hungry python, no meal is too big. That's what wildlife officials in the Florida Everglades discovered last week when they came across a giant python that had just swallowed an entire adult deer.
More than 15 feet from nose to tail, the Burmese python was one of the largest snakes ever found in South Florida. After swallowing the 76-pound female deer, which was dead before the snake ate it, the reptile's midsection expanded to a husky 44 inches.
Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission workers captured and killed the snake with a shotgun Oct. 27. Officials said that was an important step in helping to stop pythons, which pet owners have released into the Everglades over the years, from spreading farther north.
"This is clearly an extreme event," Skip Snow, a biologist and python specialist at Everglades National Park, told the Sun-Sentinel. "It shows you they can eat huge things."
But just how does a python swallow such a large meal?
"One of the enduring myths about snake-feeding mechanisms is the idea that the jaws detach," explained Patrick T. Gregory, a biology professor at the University of Victoria. "In fact, they stay connected all the time."
The snake's lower jaw is not joined in the middle, as a human jaw is; instead, the two sides are attached in the center by an elastic tendon. This helps them spread their mouth wide, and another special skull bone allows them more range to open it vertically. Together, these adaptations widen the opening to their stomach.
The snake then takes plenty of time getting its meal down its throat. It slathers its prey with saliva, and then uses its toothy upper jaw to shove the animal down its throat.
Swallowing a deer is impressive, but pythons have also been known to take down alligators, small humans and even other large snakes.
This story was provided by Life's Little Mysteries, a sister site to LiveScience.