After performing an autopsy on a bloated Burmese python, scientists in Florida were shocked to discover the remains of three white-tailed deer.
This photo was taken soon after the female Burmese python was euthanised. (Image: S. M. Boback et al., 2016)
A new study published in the journal BioInvasion Records documents the bizarre and potentially record-breaking case of a Burmese python that consumed three white-tailed deer over the course of an estimated 87-day span. Native to Southeast Asia, this invasive snake was trapped and euthanised in the Florida Everglades in 2013.
The Burmese python carcass. (Image: S. M. Boback et al., 2016)
Snakes have managed to invade a number of ecosystems worldwide. In southern Florida, the Burmese python has slithered its way across thousands of square kilometres, including all of the Everglades National Park. Their presence in the Everglades has been linked to noticeable declines in mid- to large-sized animals, including deer, rabbits, bobcats and raccoons.
When discovered, this particular python measured 4.32m in length and weighed a whopping 48.3kg. The subsequent autopsy revealed a massive amount of faecal matter within the snake's large intestine, which itself measured 79cm long and weighed 6.5kg. An examination of undigested bone, teeth and hooves within the poop showed this snake had gobbled up three white-tailed deer.
Incredibly, these three deer represented 93 per cent, 35 per cent and 27 per cent, respectively, of the python's mass. Two of the three deer consumed were fawns, approximately 14 to 30 days old. The python was likely hiding in water, snatching the deer up when they came in for a drink.
Faecal matter found inside the snake's intenstines. (Image: S. M. Boback et al., 2016)
"This is the first report of an invasive Burmese python containing the remains of multiple white-tailed deer in its gut," conclude the researchers in their study. "Because the largest snakes native to southern Florida are not capable of consuming even mid-sized mammals, pythons likely represent a novel predatory threat to white-tailed deer in these habitats."
As extreme as this sounds, eating three deer over the span of nearly three months points to the impressive metabolic efficiency of snakes. A mammal of roughly the same mass would have a hard time subsisting on just three meals over the same time span. But even if Burmese pythons are light eaters for their size, these invasive snakes are still clearly disrupting the Floridian ecosystem.
Snakes are proving to be a particularly successful group of invasives, owing to their low energetic requirements, diverse diets and high reproductive potential. And indeed, this specimen — with the three deer contained within its gut — was doing quite well for itself. As the authors write, the "substantial amount of energy clearly contributed to the large amount of fat and developing follicles found in this snake that would translate to high growth rates and reproductive success for this female — both critical components for a successful invasion."