Thursday, October 28, 2010

How Big Do Snakes Get?

            It’s a question that comes up frequently and one I often pondered when I was young.  What species of snake is the world’s largest and how big do they get?  With the recent death of the snake generally accepted to be the largest in captivity (Fluffy, a reticulated python formerly residing at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio), it may be an appropriate time to discuss the issue.

            In short, the title for world’s largest snake is shared between two species.  The longest snake is the Reticulated Python, Python reticulatus, which resides in southeastern Asia.  The snake that recently died in Columbus was a whopping 24 feet (7.3 meters) long but the species is known to get even larger.  Several individuals have been documented between 25 and 30 feet, but things get a little murky and questionable once we break the 30-foot barrier.  The Guinness Book of World Records recognizes a 32-foot (~10 meters) long individual that was captured in Indonesia in the beginning of the 20th century.  So, it’s likely the world’s longest snake is probably somewhere between 29 and 34 feet long.  However, I've heard many rumors of a long-standing reward worth tens of thousands of dollars to anyone who can produce a 30-foot snake has gone unclaimed for decades.  If there is a snake over 30 feet long left on this planet, it would be a highly unusual (and huge) specimen.

            The crown for the world’s heaviest snake goes to the Green Anaconda, Eunectes murinus.  In contrast to the Reticulated Python, this species lives on the other side of the planet, in South America (not Alabama).  It’s difficult to pin down exactly how heavy these animals get for two reasons.  First, their weight can fluctuate remarkably depending on recent meals and second, due to their largely inaccessible habitat there are probably some large snakes that have evaded capture.  But, based on what we do know about the species, the heaviest snake is probably a few hundred pounds.  This species is frequently the subject of incredible exaggerations, including tales of 30-40 foot long animals.  But, these outrageous claims haven’t been verified by science. It’s likely the longest Green Anaconda is not as long as the biggest Reticulated Python.

Don’t believe the hype! Do we know of any snakes over 40 feet long?  Sure, but they've been extinct for 60 million years.