* Following the trail of the most ferocious serpent


A scientific, very respectful and well-thought reply to the popular question "Do you believe in UFOs?"  This book evolved as a reply to one of the most frequent questions that I used to hear from the public when I was working in an astronomical observatory: "Do you believe in UFOs?". That seems an odd question to ask to scientists, but after researching conscientiously for about a full year, I discovered, to my surprise, that mainstream Science has a few things to say about the topic.  This book is not about conspiracy theory, "NASA is hiding the truth", or much less, that flying saucers have already landed on the lawn of the White House. Rather, it is a book about what is the most rational reply that a scientist, or in my case, a science writer, can offer when people insist on asking that question.  As one advances through the chapters, explores the following rationale: Is there life in the Universe? The answer is yes: us. Are there civilizations capable of spaceflight? The answer is again yes: us. Can we expand those two questions? Can we answer also: "them" and "them"?  All illustrations are also available at naturapop.com










reticulated python python reticulatus name comes from complex intertwining of markings

GREAT CONSTRICTORS OF THE WORLD: FOLLOWING THE TRAIL OF THE MOST FEROCIOUS SERPENT
Science is not what scientists say, but what everyone can see and touch by her or himself. The truth we can know is derived from observation and experimentation; this holds true when we hear that a currently-known serpent could swallow an adult man.

The Guinness Book of World Records lists as the world's longest snake a reticulated python ("Python reticulatus") of 10 m long, hunted in Celebes (now Sulawesi), Indonesia in 1912. The record for the heaviest living snake was until October 2006 for a python from Burma ("Python molurus bivittatus") of 183 kg, living in a theme park in Gurnee, Illinois, USA.

Incidentally, many people, especially in rich countries, consider an acceptable fashion having those giants as "pets", without understanding that wild animals are just that: wild. Thus, often there are occurrences where the owner or their acquaintances, in unfortunate oversights, end being squeezed by these animals.

Charles R. Smith reported the following fatalities occurred in North America in the last three decades: one caused by a 2,4 m python in Dallas, Texas in November 1980; another by a reticulated python in Reno, Nevada in 1982 (this case was detailed by the coroner V. McCarty, pathologist R. Cox and researcher B. Haglund, in the January 1989 issue of "The Journal of Forensic Science"); another fatal case by a python in Brampton, Ontario in 1992; one by a Burma python of 3,4 m and 24 kg in Commerce City, Colorado in 1993; another by a reticulated python of 4,9 m in Jefferson Parish, Louisiana in 1993; another by a Burma python of 4 m and 20 kg in Bronx, New York in 1996; one by an African rock python of 2,3 m in Centralia, Illinois in 1999; and another by a 3 m Burma python in Irwin, Pennsylvania in August 2001. But in non of these cases the snake tried to swallow the victim.

Reports of fatal attacks in the wild are even rarer. In 1931 the explorer Arthur Loveridge reported a case in Ukerewe Island in Lake Victoria, with a 4,5 m python against a woman in poor health. Scientists W. R. Branch and W.D. Hacke, in the "Journal of Herpetology", Volume 14, Issue 3 (31 July 1980), pp. 305-307, report a fatal attack by an African rock python (scientific name "Python sebae"), which occurred on 22 November 1979, in the farm Grootfontein, Northern Transvaal, South Africa, against a 13 year-old minor, 1,3 m in height and 45 kg, in good general health. The story first appeared in South African newspapers and was later confirmed by the coroner's official report and interviews with witnesses, including the local school principal and a police sergeant, who by following the trails on the ground found the snake 500 m away from the victim.

WHAT THEY EAT

Gabriella Fredriksson published in 2005 an incident that happened when studying a Malaysia dwarf bear ("Helarctos malayanus"), weighting 23 kg, to which she had fitted a necklace radio transmitter. Sensing that it did not move for several hours, she went to investigate and found instead a reticulated python of 6,95 m, with a swollen stomach. The snake was captured for study, and after three months it underwent surgery to remove the radio transmitter.

R. Shine and colleagues, in their report "The influence of sex and body size on food habits of a giant tropical snake, Python reticulatus", describe that they examined 1070 specimens from southern Sumatra, measuring between 1,5 m and more than 6 m long, and from 1 kg to 75 kg of mass. The smaller specimens feed mainly on rats, but at reaching a size of 3 to 4 m their diet changed to porcupines, monkeys, wild pigs, pangolins, deer and other small mammals. The largest preys were wild pig of about 50 kg.

The first reliable report about a snake that managed to swallow a human being seems to be the one presented in 1927 by Austrian biologist Felix Kopstein, in the scientific journal "Tropische Natuur", volume 16, pages 65 to 67. In it he communicates of a reticulated python of 5,2 m long that swallowed a 14 year-old minor, in Salebabu Island, Indonesia.

AQUATIC SNAKES

The largest snake in South America is the green anaconda (scientific name "Eunectes murinus"), also known as northern anaconda or sucuri. It lives in the swamps of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, northern Perú, northern Bolivia, Brazil and Trinidad.

Probably the greatest specialist in this species is the Venezuelan Jesús Rivas, who in 11 years caught more than 900 specimens (170 of them more than once), tracked with radio transmitters more than 38 individuals, collected over 100 samples of their diet, observed their breeding habits in 51 cases and studied the pregnancy and delivery of 47 females. The database of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Tennessee contains a green anaconda of 97,5 kg.

In 1999, he described in the scientific journal "Herpetological Natural History" an attack by a green anaconda, in its natural environment, to an adult female of 1,56 m in height and 55 kg, fortunately without success.

THE FIRST DOCUMENTED CASE OF SWALLOWING OF AN ADULT

On Sunday 26 March 2017, a 25-year-old man named Akbar went to collect palm oil from a deforested area at the Salubiro village, in the Korossa district, West Sulawesi, Indonesia. He did not return. The following day a party searched for him and instead found a 7-m long "Python reticulatus" with a bloated belly. Horrifyingly, they could perceive the contour of a pair of boots protruding. They killed the enormous serpent, and with onlookers recording on video with cell phone cameras, the rescuers proceeded to cut open the belly. And there was Akbar, intact, with his clothes on, dead. A local authority confirmed the veracity of the occurrence. This is the first undeniable documented case of an able, adult man eaten by a snake.

For a serpent to eat an adult man the main difficulty seems to be the shoulders, as they are very wide even to the wild animal's expansible mouth. But in Akbar's case, it happened. So monsters do exists, after all.

A. L. 

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Originally published in ABC Color, on 5 March 2007. Photo: The reticulated python ("Python reticulatus"), whose name comes from the complex intertwining of its markings. Photo credit: Maria Lunkova, 9 September 2004 (original license of the photo only, obtained at: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en). By permission of Maria Lunkova.

A scientific, very respectful and well-thought reply to the popular question "Do you believe in UFOs?"  This book evolved as a reply to one of the most frequent questions that I used to hear from the public when I was working in an astronomical observatory: "Do you believe in UFOs?". That seems an odd question to ask to scientists, but after researching conscientiously for about a full year, I discovered, to my surprise, that mainstream Science has a few things to say about the topic.  This book is not about conspiracy theory, "NASA is hiding the truth", or much less, that flying saucers have already landed on the lawn of the White House. Rather, it is a book about what is the most rational reply that a scientist, or in my case, a science writer, can offer when people insist on asking that question.  Of course, "Do you believe in UFOs?" is, understandable, one of the most popular questions that common people ask (even if silently, to themselves) when they raise their eyes and look at the stars. So it has to be treated respectfully, and why not, given a well-thought reply.

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