Tetrapod Zoology

The ‘python bites fence’ photo

I would not like to be bitten by an African rock python Python sebae. Here’s why.


Had previously seen this photo on TV but only recently found a version on the web. Apparently, the 4-m-long snake – which had recently eaten a female impala – is dead and died after trying to pass through the electric fence it is ‘attacking’. This all happened on Silent Valley Ranch in the Waterberg mountains of South Africa. A few photos exist showing people touching the dead snake, and it was cut open to reveal the impala inside [go here], so despite my initial scepticism I currently think all of this is true. Sometimes the photo is accompanied by a story stating that the snake was eating someone’s sheep. Not true: snopes.com says so. Incidentally, rock pythons do sometimes swallow male impala, horns and all. What happens then? The antelope’s horns may fatally pierce the stomach and body wall (Mattison 1995), but such piercings are not always fatal: remarkably, the injuries may heal after the offending horns drop off as the prey’s body decomposes inside the snake (Isemonger 1962). These and other cases of remarkable python predation were discussed here at Tet Zoo ver 1.

Refs – –

Isemonger, R. M. 1962. Snakes of Africa: Southern, Central and East. Thomas Nelson and Sons (Africa), Johannesburg.

Mattison, C. 1995. The Encyclopedia of Snakes. Blandford, London.


  1. #1 Zach Miller
    November 11, 2008

    Keep it away! Those disconnected palatal teeth (?) are really cool. Has there been any work on how they move or how they are muscled in the mouth? Are they capable of complex movements? Why do snakes have to be so damn villainous?

  2. #2 Pierce R. Butler
    November 11, 2008

    It has joined the choir invisible. This is an ex- python…

  3. #3 chezjake
    November 11, 2008

    Doesn’t look like an electric fence to me. The post looks metallic and there are no insulators.

  4. #4 Richard Simons
    November 11, 2008

    I once arrived at a research farm in Namibia just in time to catch a commotion. Some staff were leaving to kill a snake that farmers reported had just eaten their 7-year-old daughter as she returned from school. Other children with her had seen it happen but could do nothing to help. Seeing the gape on this snake makes me realise just how possible it was.

  5. #5 Blind Squirrel FCD
    November 11, 2008

    The fence is electric, but a most unusual design. If you follow the link you can see insulators, but the portion of the fence in the photo in Darren’s post is not electrified. The electric portion consists of three wires on either side of the fence set very low to the ground. What is the deal with the wires actually lying on the ground? Are they “ground” wires? hehehe Also,electric fences usually do not carry lethal current. Curious.

  6. #6 Nemo Ramjet
    November 12, 2008

    Poor snake, that must have been an excruciating death.

  7. #7 Dartian
    November 12, 2008

    Yeah, this look like an authentic case of ‘snake eats bovid’. There seems to be an exaggeration concerning the size of the victim, though. A small exaggeration, but an exaggeration nontheless. From the website:

    When the python was skinned they found a full grown Impala ewe [that] had just been swallowed.

    That impala does not look fully grown to me, compared to the size of the man standing next to the opened-up snake. The average weight of a female impala is 41 kilograms (about 90 lbs.), according to this source. That individual looks like it’s half that size, at most. (And no actual measurements of it are given.)

  8. #8 Veltyen
    November 12, 2008


    Watching a python eat a near maximum sized prey item you see a lot of teeth work. Specifically the disengagement of one side of the jaw that then slides forward and reengages followed by a matching move on the other side.

    This is a really cool shot of a pythons mouth. Normally it is hard to make out the aesophagus (the little bump with a slit air hole on the bottom of the mouth) or the clear rear facing conical nature of the teeth. When eating near maximum sized prey (which can take quite some time) that airtube is pushed forward past the front of the mouth so the python can continue to breathe as it mouth walks up its prey.

  9. #9 Jerzy
    November 12, 2008

    Cool! Is this second row of teeth homologous with venomous teeth in aders?

  10. #10 Sven DiMilo
    November 12, 2008

    the aesophagus (the little bump with a slit air hole on the bottom of the mouth)

    Of course you meant the glottis–entrance to the trachea–not the esophagus.

  11. #11 David Marjanovi?
    November 12, 2008

    I’ve watched a film of a python swallowing a springbok. Has to be seen to be believed.



    Is this second row of teeth homologous with venomous teeth in ad[d]ers?

    No, those teeth are the only remaining maxillary teeth (and they are moved by moving the maxilla). Viperids retain the palatal teeth (on the pterygoid and I think the palatine).

  12. #12 Kevin
    November 12, 2008

    That is so metal, both figuratively and literally.

  13. #13 Mad Hussein LOLScientist, FCD
    November 12, 2008

    sily snaek. shud hav eated cheezburger in sted.

  14. #14 Veltyen
    November 12, 2008

    Lesson learnt.

    Next time I’ll call it the snakey-breathy-tubey-thing. 🙂

  15. #15 John Scanlon FCD
    November 12, 2008

    The classic reference for python jaw muscles is:
    Frazzetta, T.H. 1966. Studies on the morphology and function of the skull in the Boidae (Serpentes), Part II. Morphology and function of the jaw apparatus in Python sebae and Python molurus. Journal of Morphology 118: 217-296.
    When I first saw these pictures about three years ago I initially suspected a really expert photo-augmentation job. This hung-up P. sebae looks super-normally toothy because the folds of oral mucosa that normally cover the teeth except for the tips (‘vagina dentis‘, not to be confused with v. dentata) have dried out and shrunk in the few hours since death. Also the anterior teeth are much more robust than in the Australian python species I’m used to, because sebae and molurus are really serious large-prey specialists. Some Australian species eat fair-sized macropodids, but they’ve spent 25 million years not having to deal with primates or ungulates, and can afford relatively slender and erect teeth (it’s like choosing hooks depending on the kind and size of fish you’re after, and P. sebae is – figuratively – hunting shark).
    Link under my name is the most recent python phylogenetic analysis by Rawlings et al. (2008), confirming Afro-Asian origin contrary to Kluge (1993).

  16. #16 Mike Habib
    November 12, 2008

    Great photo. Excellent point regarding the robust teeth in sebae and molurus. Another group of macrostomatan snakes of possible interest for researching prey type and its effects on tooth size is the Morelia genus/complex of Australasia. Some interesting trends resulting from a wide body size range, and multiple transitions to highly arboreal living; plus some insular dwarfs.

  17. #17 John Scanlon FCD
    November 12, 2008

    Apparently that link didn’t work, so the phylogeny reference is:
    Rawlings, L.H., D.L. Rabosky, S.C. Donnellan and
    M.N. Hutchinson. 2008. Python phylogenetics: inference from morphology and mitochondrial DNA. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 93: 603�619.

    I don’t think they made the best use of the fossil data for calibration, but there’s something to be done about that.

  18. #18 Dartian
    November 13, 2008

    John Scanlon:

    Some Australian species eat fair-sized macropodids, but they’ve spent 25 million years not having to deal with primates or ungulates, and can afford relatively slender and erect teeth

    IIRC, Roger Martin (2005) told how one individual python interfered with his tree-kangaroo field studies to the extent that he had to remove the snake…


    Martin, R. 2005. Tree-kangaroos of Australia and New Guinea. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood.

  19. #19 Wellhunghorsecauk
    August 12, 2009

    The teeth look like ratchets to inch your body into its gullet, what a terrible way for that little girl to die, and for those who see her after the snake is opened up. Yuck. I hate snakes, whoever has one for a pet especiallly a large constictor should be visited by the men in white coats.

  20. #20 Abrig
    September 10, 2009

    Wellhunghorsecauk, narrow minded much? Well, I hate horses, and I think anyone named “Well hung horse cauk” should be dragged through the streets on the way to the mental institution.

  21. #21 Samantha Vimes
    September 5, 2010

    I have no trouble believing the photo.

    But a 7 year old eaten on her way home from school? Don’t constrictors generally go after sleeping prey? I don’t disbelive your account, Simons, but I wonder if there could have been a linguistic issue? Bitten seems more likely to me, as venomous snakes are a real problem, with some aggressive species.

  22. #22 willie
    December 10, 2010

    this is crazy i am glad this snake is dead peace out

  23. #23 Darren Naish
    December 10, 2010

    Definitely time to close comments on this one.

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