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 is what prevents us from being fooled by gimmicky novels as the one that says 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 only 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.
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.
In Science it is known that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Now, about the legend of a currently-known snake able to swallow a grown man ... in short, "seeing is believing" continues to be valid.
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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.