Tetrapod Zoology

Carnivorous animals often die from choking, and field biologists have done a good job of recording many such instances in the literature.


This image shows an unlucky young Roadrunner Geococcyx californicus found dead in Brisco County, Texas, in 1998. The bird had tried swallowing a Texas horned lizard Phrynosoma cornutum, and things clearly went horribly wrong. Other instances of this sort of thing are on record. Remind me to post the goanna vs echidna photo some time. The photo used here is from…

Holte, A. E. & Houck, M. A. 2000. Juvenile Greater roadrunner (Cuculidae) killed by choking on a Texas horned lizard (Phrynosomatidae). The Southwestern Naturalist 45, 74-76.


  1. #1 Jim Thomerson
    November 29, 2009

    Excellent book on road runners: The Roadrunner by Wyman Meinzer, 1993, Texas Tech University Press. Individual roadrunners specialize in prey. Some fed almost exclusively on horned lizards. I wondered about feeding them to chicks.

  2. #2 Sordes
    November 29, 2009

    The goanna which tried to eat the echidna looks really nasty. I have anytime seen a documentation where the two carcasses were shown.

  3. #3 Greg Laden
    November 29, 2009

    Beep beep!

    But seriously I once found the skeleton of a snake with the skeleton of an antelope inside of it. Might be the coolest thing I ever found. Just sayin’

  4. #4 Darren Naish
    November 29, 2009

    Greg: for real???? Don’t suppose you have photos – sounds incredible (and, by the way, definitely worth putting on ‘proper’ record BEFORE blogging!).

  5. #5 neil
    November 29, 2009

    Awesome. Mind you Gregs find sounds cooler

  6. #6 Mike Keesey
    November 29, 2009

    I saw a seagull trying to swallow a gigantic starfish once (Malibu, near Point Dume) and was pretty sure it would end that way. But then I saw another one doing the same thing, and thought maybe it just takes them a few hours to get it all in.

  7. #7 cromercrox
    November 29, 2009

    There was an old lady who swallowed a fly …. hey, you’re way ahead of me here.

  8. #8 David Stern
    November 29, 2009

    Why would a bird that has feet and a beak try to swallow a whole animal if so big rather than try to rip it up, smash it up first?

  9. #9 doug l
    November 29, 2009

    Like @6 Mike Keesey, I also watched a gull with a 9″ sea-star partially in its gullet, seemingly unable to either swallow it or eject it and looking (and sounding)like it was in some distress. This was at ShiShi Beach along Point of Arches National Seashore. Could it be that common an occurance?

  10. #10 Spiral
    November 29, 2009

    “Carnivorous animals often die from choking, and field biologists have done a good job of recording many such instances in the literature.”

    I’m curious and would like to read more. Can you list some examples?

  11. #11 bathsheba
    November 29, 2009

    I too have seen a seagull which I guessed to be choking on a starfish too big to swallow, at Santa Cruz. I watched it four or five minutes during which it did nothing: just stood still on a rock with beak agape, throat hideously distended and three large arms still hanging out.

    Maybe it is that common.

  12. #12 Gray Stanback
    November 29, 2009

    Did the horned lizard escape?

  13. #13 Jason S.
    November 29, 2009

    Maybe this should have been a gag used to kill the Roadrunner in those Roadrunner/Coyote Looney Tunes cartoons…

  14. #14 John Scanlon FCD
    November 30, 2009

    Coincidentally, I got a phone call today about a python found dead over the weekend, nearly skeletonised, with a wallaby in it, not stuck in the neck but some way back. You might hear more about it after I’ve actually seen it. Maybe not so cool as an antelope, but rare enough.

    Back in 1990, Paul Willis and I collected the back half of an ichthyosaur skull preserved with jaws agape and a series of vertebrae between the jaws, from either a smaller ichthyosaur or a sauropterygian. (I think it’s in the Queensland Museum, not sure if it’s been worked on.)

    I suppose that in some of these cases, death may be from unrelated causes and the prey is partially regurgitated or expelled by gases, rather than stuck during swallowing. But the whole point of having spikes all over your body is to make things nasty for animals that try to eat you (and your kin), so it should be no surprise that these ‘accidents’ happen with horned lizards, antelope, catfish etc.

  15. #15 Tim Morris
    November 30, 2009

    Ah, right in time for thanksgiving.

  16. #16 Dartian
    November 30, 2009

    Texas horned lizard

    Could some, er, clever linguist explain why it’s not Texan horned lizard? There is another related species, Phrynosoma taurus, which is named Mexican horned lizard (i.e., not ‘Mexico horned lizard’).

  17. #17 Darren Naish
    November 30, 2009

    Spiral (comment 10) says…

    I’m curious and would like to read more. Can you list some examples?

    For sure – I tell you what, I’ll run a whole series on the subject, stay tuned. And, in response to Gray in comment 12: sorry, the lizard was dead too.

  18. #18 David Marjanović
    November 30, 2009

    Did the neck rip open after the roadrunner choked, from drying or something?

    Greg: for real????

    Some biology course or other at the University of Vienna regularly shows a film of a rock python swallowing a springbok or some other small antelope. It works.

    Could some, er, clever linguist explain why it’s not Texan horned lizard?

    Must be the same English-only phenomenon like “yeast artificial chromosome” (which must be patterned after “bacterial artificial chromosome”).

  19. #19 Darren Naish
    November 30, 2009

    David writes…

    Some biology course or other at the University of Vienna regularly shows a film of a rock python swallowing a springbok or some other small antelope. It works.

    You’ve missed the point: the swallowing of an antelope by a big python is not a particularly rare account. But Greg’s discovery of a skeleton within a skeleton is (so far as I can tell) remarkably rare, likewise for John’s account (comment 14). It’s easy enough to find animals within the stomach contents of a deceased predator, but finding both in a skeletonised condition is pretty unusual for obvious reasons.

  20. #20 Bill
    November 30, 2009

    Seen a python with an antelopes horn sticking through its side – looked like a reedbuck. A colleague said he found the same thing with a steenbock’s horns through the side of a smallish python and the wounds were dry and looked uninfected. He claimed this happened a lot and that usually the wounds just healed over when the digestive process resulted in the horns just dropping off. Didn’t Jesus Rivas find that big anacondas often had lots of healed wounds from capybaras?

  21. #21 John Harshman
    November 30, 2009

    I’ve seen a great many gulls with starfish sticking out of their mouths. It seems a common occurrence. I’ve never seen a dead gull in such a situation. And if I recall, most of the gulls were in adult plumage, meaning they had survived for at least four years prior to the event. That suggests that most of them (the gulls, at least) may survive the experience. Whether this is an effective feeding strategy is a question that demands investigation.

  22. #22 Sven DiMilo
    November 30, 2009

    The word “Texan” seems to be used exclusively as a noun, never (in my recollection) as an adjective.

  23. #23 GulperEelFan
    November 30, 2009

    My favorite such picture is of a gulper eel:


  24. #24 Darren Naish
    November 30, 2009

    Very cool: but that ain’t a gulper eel, it’s a Black swallower. Even says so on the text next to the picture (well, it says Chiasmodon niger).

  25. #25 David Marjanović
    November 30, 2009

    Uh… I presume the snake mackerel was already dead!?!

  26. #26 Copernicus
    November 30, 2009

    @Dartian and Sven,

    Actually, I think calling Phrynosoma taurus the “Mexican” Horned Lizard is a more recent (and erroneous) version of the common name which I find more regularly described as the Bull Horned Lizard (taurus).

    Other location-specific horned lizards follow the same “rule” as Texas, such as the Mexican Plateau Horned Lizard (“Mexican” referring to the geographical location not the lizard’s endemism, i.e. the Mexican Plateau) Phrynosoma orbiculare, the California Horned Lizard Phrynosoma coronatum frontale, the San Diego Horned Lizard Phrynosoma coronatum blainvillii, the Cedros Island Horned Lizard Phrynosoma cerroense, and the Gulf Coast Horned Lizard Phrynosoma wigginsi, etc.

  27. #27 Jim Thomerson
    December 1, 2009

    The Texas Horned Lizard does squirt blood from its eyes. I have seen one do it. There was a paper a cvouple of years back showing that this tends to disconcert canids.

  28. #28 JuliaM
    December 1, 2009

    On the subject on unusual (and possibly potentially fatal) meals:


  29. #29 Brian X
    December 1, 2009


    Hm, a real-life ouroboros…

  30. #30 Owlmirror
    December 1, 2009

    On the subject on unusual (and possibly potentially fatal) meals:


    There’s a better picture at the Daily Mail, which shows the entire loop.

    Can a snake have Body Integrity Identity Disorder?

  31. #31 Graham King
    December 2, 2009

    Owlmirror wrote:

    Can a snake have Body Integrity Identity Disorder?

    Well, if it didn’t before, it sure would after..

  32. #32 Graham King
    December 2, 2009

    I read, at primary school (early years), a little book about the life story of an eel. I think it was called ‘tarka the eel’ or somesuch (not tarka). He grew up, migrated, back upstream, all that.. then got eaten by a heron. swallowed alive. However.. he then enterprisingly ate his way out from the inside, (probably the heron died, I forget). This was pretty traumatic stuff to read as a little kid, though also in a way inspiring I suppose (in a ‘never give up, while there’s life there’s hope’ sorta way).. and having read so far, my sympathies were by then already engaged with the eel.. though birds are more usually and readily empathised with than yer slippery aquatic poikilotherms.

    Maybe Darren and his readers can comment on whether this is a plausible or common scenario.. heron v eel. (Hey, maybe there’s one in the Naish Museum of Curiosities.) I’d like to hear.

    OK. And do enjoy your own next meal, whatever that is.

  33. #33 Darren Naish
    December 2, 2009

    The phenomenon of mistakenly eating part of one’s self is known as autophagy, and this new record is not the first. The other snakes on record are all Black rat snakes Elaphe obsoleta, whereas Reggie is a Common kingsnake Lampropeltis getula. One might expect kingsnakes to do this sort of thing fairly often, given that they’re ophiophagus (that is, they are predators of other snakes).

  34. #34 Jeff Johnson
    December 2, 2009

    I have seen a number of photos over the years of predators choking to death, a largemouth bass with a bluegill caught in the throat and a wels catfish with a ball stuck comes to mind, as well as a northern pike thet died eating another pike.

    About seagulls; the things they eat boggles the mind. I used to work construction, and had to visit the dump on a regular basis. The dump in Dallas is filled with seagulls, feeding on human garbage with gusto. As I was unloading my truck on one visit, a girl parked next to me in some medical supply truck and began unloading half-empty
    blood bags, and of all things, several human brain specimens.(I am sure this was illegal). Some of the brains were split down the middle, some were whole. I have handled human brains before, and this is exactly what they were. The seagulls were fighting over them and the blood bags. Something I will never forget.

    The horned lizard the road runner tried to swallow looks as though it may have done a “chuckwalla” move and inflated the body to try to prevent going down the gullet, and probably drove the thorny crown into the throat like an anchor. Not good for either of them, but it did take out the bird.

  35. #35 Dartian
    December 2, 2009

    Jeff wrote:

    I used to work construction


    I have handled human brains before

    Yikes, what a combination of activities! Did you work for the Gambino or for the Lucchese family?

  36. #36 jeff Johnson
    December 2, 2009

    LOL! I know what it sounds like…..But, in reality, it was in school, and I had friend that was a science teacher at a local college that had one in a bucket. I do have model brain that I used to have hanging on the wall of my den, but complaints from the spouse brought it down. Jeff

  37. #37 Devonian
    December 3, 2009

    I’m reminded of the episode of River Monsters where the host found a large fish nearly dead with a tail sticking out of its mouth. The tail belonged to another fish of the same species almost as big as the first one.

  38. #38 John Scanlon, FCD
    December 5, 2009

    I’ve now seen that specimen I mentioned above, an Olive python of about 2.5 m total length with a Rock wallaby (about 1 m TL) inside the rib cage, swallowed head-first with the tip of the tail past the position of the snake’s heart. There’s no sign of digestion on the mammal skeleton, and no definitive evidence for cause of death (of the snake) but I was surprised to see the wallaby’s knees pointing forward (flexed, not extended behind the body as you’d expect in a swallowed prey item), and a pair of mid-trunk snake vertebrae level with the wallaby’s feet are rotated and displaced dorsally from the otherwise continuous column. This makes me think that, after constriction and swallowing were pretty much finished, the prey item managed at least one last kick that apparently severed the snake’s spine.

    That’s why, if you’re going to swallow something many times larger than your own head, you should make sure it’s properly dead first. Disregard this advice at your peril.

  39. #39 Greg Laden
    December 6, 2009

    Darren, since it was in the pathway of an oncoming transect being run by my then (now ex) wife’s taphonomy team, or at least near the transect, it was well documented and included in that study. It was also photographed.

    Since we are on the subject of autography: Kruuk (or maybe Shaller cited in Kruuk) documents a case of this with spotted hyenas in the Serengeti. It was a still and foggy night and a largish pack of hyenas were able to kill numerous wildebeest and zebra and probably some other critters because of the confusion caused by the fog. But it was all done without the hyenas seeing their prey at all, apparently, so they also bit each other. At least one hyena was then spotted (in a spot light, as I recall) pulling its own intestines out of a wound and gobbling them up. Dozens (maybe near 100?) of antelopes and zebras were killed, way beyond what these hyenas could have eaten in an evening or two. Or three. (Kruuk: Spotted Hyena: A Study of Predation and Social Behavior 1972)

  40. #40 Greg Laden
    December 6, 2009

    Autography? Funny. Obviously I meant to type (or not have transmogrified by spell checker?) “Autophagy”

  41. #41 John Scanlon FCD
    December 6, 2009

    I haven’t read Kruuk, but Hemingway reports hyaena autophagy in The Green Hills of Africa (1935).

    For years, I’ve been waiting to use it as a characterisation of American popular culture, e.g. Hollywood recycling ideas from crap TV serials, “eating its own entrails like a gut-shot hyena”. Context would have been everything. Suppose I’ll keep waiting. 🙂

  42. #42 Monado, FCD
    December 10, 2009

    Somewhere I saw an image of a gull that had swallowed another bird, probably a gull chick, and had a long, sharp beak protruding out of its neck. It was still alive but I don’t imagine its prognosis was good.

  43. #43 Monado
    December 10, 2009

    Graham King, there’s a children’s book called “Tarka the Otter”. Perhaps the eel had a different name?

  44. #44 Clemens.adolphs@googlemail.com
    December 12, 2009

    There was an old lady who swallowed a horse,
    she’s dead, of course.

  45. #45 david
    December 12, 2009

    There is no consistency on common names. Canada Goose instead of Canadian Goose is a hard one for many people to get right. I would point out that it makes no difference to the goose.

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