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Small Bites–The Yellow Rat Snake

August 30, 2010

You know you’ve done it. You ate the whole thing. And you can’t believe it. Now you’re trying to digest the 32 ounce steak and a double serving of apple pie (with a slice of cheese) along with the side of vanilla ice cream. You couldn’t help yourself. I do it too, from time to time. I get overwhelmed by the notion that I might never eat again so I better eat everything in front of me.

Snakes do not have to eat every day. Some don’t have to eat every year, but when they do they put themselves in a precarious position during digestion. When I came across this 5-foot Yellow Rat Snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) in the Big Cypress National Preserve, it was hard to miss the rat-shaped bulge in its midsection. I could tell it was a male because if it was a female it would have asked “does this rat make me look fat?”

The snake paused. Clearly not blending in. Probably thinking it did. It didn’t even blink. Mostly because snakes don’t have eyelids. Not wanting to disturb the digestive process, I kept my distance while I photographed the constrictor.

I considered what had gone on before. An unsuspecting rodent of some type was seized by the snake, who coiled around its prey and squeezed the life out of it. Once its lunch was dead, the rat snake opened its mouth upwards of 130 degrees and began to systematically swallow the critter whole. Muscles in our esophagus help us get food from mouth to stomach. Snakes don’t have those muscles but instead rely on the movement of the entire body to envelope their prey and get food to where it needs to be for digestion.

I then considered what was in store for the rat snake. The rodent was now riding the reptilian roller coaster of digestion and within the next five days will be reduced to nothing but fur. Inside, the snake’s intestine will grow 2-3 times the normal size, allowing for an increased amount of digestive juices to dissolve the food to nutrients. It’s a meal that may hold the snake over for weeks if not months if no other prey is available.

I better go eat dinner now. Must remember to take small bites.

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