For What It’s Worth

Biting off more than you can chew

For you and me, the old cliché warning about not biting off more than you can chew may be expressed in another way for certain snakes. For them, the warning may be: Don’t ingest more than you can digest.

Please understand that I am not a herpetologist (is this your word for the day?). I’m not even especially fond of snakes; and, if they are anything other than a small, usually green and wiggly, garden snake, I am much more comfortable with them dead than alive, though I wish none of them any ill will.

It is my understanding that snakes like vipers and pythons do not chew their prey before swallowing or ingesting it, nor is the food (prey) necessarily dead before somehow being gulped down. Ingested, for lack of a better word. (If you are a bit queasy about this, skip on to the next paragraph.) Once inside the snake, the prey is digested through the action of the snake’s internal juices. That’s not a scientific explanation, but you get the picture.

I have always thought there was not indigestion in this process, just the end of digestion. However, I have learned that this is not always true. Sometimes, though apparently not often, the snake, in a manner of speaking, ingests more than he or she can digest. The result is not curable by an antacid pill; the result is death.

Exhibit number one. A recent article in a scientific journal reports on an eye-catching discovery by Serbian herpetologist Ljiljana Tomovic, who was tagging snakes in Macedonia when she discovered a young viper dead with a centipede’s head protruding out of the snake’s body. It turns out that the 4.8 gram mass of the prey (the centipede), while shorter in length than the snake, was greater than the 4.2 gram of the female nose-horned viper. Talk about biting off more than you can chew, er, make that ingesting more than you can digest!

The scientist reported that possibly the snake had swallowed the centipede alive and the centipede had eaten its way through the snake, almost reaching its freedom. Dissection showed that only the snake’s abdominal wall remained, so clearly the centipede had caused damage to the snake’s internal organs either chemically or mechanically. That must have been a king-sized case of indigestion. Though it was not a supposition of the scientist, I’m wondering if part of the damage to the snake’s abdominal wall occurred because the centipede slammed on the brakes when the snake started swallowing. Remember, centipede means “100 legs” and that’s a whole bunch of braking power clawing away at the stomach lining.

But that less-than-two-foot-long viper is not the only exhibit indicating that a snake can sometimes let its eyes overload its stomach. No, siree! Back in ’05, an apparently quite hungry 13-foot-long python in the Florida Everglades swallowed a six-foot-long American alligator. Mistake. (Again, the queasy can skip on to the next paragraph.) When found, the python was dead and headless, with the mostly intact dead gator sticking out of a hole in the midsection of the snake. Wildlife researchers with the South Florida Natural Resources Center, who found the gruesome sight, said that wads of gator skin were found in the snake’s gastrointestinal tract.

One theory was that the snake’s feisty last meal might have been simply too much for it to handle. In other words, it ingested more than it could digest. Another theory, this one advanced in an animated re-creation on National Geographic News, is that the python might have survived its gorging gulp had not a second gator come to the rescue and bitten off the snake’s head. The force of the tussle, this theory suggested, is what caused the python to burst.

However, even scientists associated with the show aren’t sure this theory holds water. It was a relatively clean decapitation of the snake, and the reptile curator of the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, said that alligators don’t bite off a piece of their victims, they grab hold and roll and spin until the victim is dead.

I doubt any snakes will read this and heed the warning about not ingesting more than they can digest, but I promise that henceforth I am going to be more careful about not biting off more than I can chew when I’m at the dinner table.

Come to think of it, that might be good advice in other areas of life. Most of us, I imagine, need to be careful about failing in some endeavors or letting others down because we knowingly or unknowingly bite off more than we can chew.

Just wondering: Next time you get a touch of indigestion, will your first thought be about taking an antacid pill or about overstuffed snakes?

 

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