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Burmese pythons show how to binge eat like a pro

Try as we might, humans aren’t great at binge-eating. Even our most trained, focused eaters can only gobble 21 pounds of food in one sitting, and that was something squishy like grits. True champion-chompers, like a Burmese python, go well beyond that, eating not 9% of their body weight as with the grits, but instead swallowing food up to 250% their own size. In eating like this, the pythons demonstrate exactly how hard this kind of consumption is, and why humans just aren’t cut out truly extreme eating.

Souped-up stomach

Detailed analysis was carried out on an adult Burmese python (Python bivittatus) while it was taking on a particularly large meal- an entire alligator. To get the massive reptile down, the 200 pound snake had to first unhinge it’s lower jaw, allowing it to get the much wider alligator into its mouth without any chewing or tearing that many other carnivores rely on. Once the alligator was being swallowed, the rest of the python prepared for the massive task at hand. Digestive enzymes and concentrations of hydrochloric acid in the snake’s stomach go up, driving the pH levels of its digestive tract down to a highly acidic two. This shift in internal chemistry does the trick though, breaking down the alligator’s skin, muscle and organs within three days, and completely dissolving the body within a week. While that may seem much slower than human feasting, this rate of digestion equates to about three pounds of food an hour, continuously for seven days.

Demands of digestion

A meal this big isn’t easy on the python. It actually demands so much on the snake, up to 37 percent of the calories from the eaten food is immediately lost to digesting the food itself. During digestion, the snake’s metabolism spikes by up to 44 percent— more than when the snake is climbing through the trees. Part of this activity is thanks to the literal growth of major organs while eating. Python hearts, pancreas, livers and cells in the small intestine increase in mass and volume while they’re eating, adding to the famous bulge seen when a snake’s body is full of food.

The trade-off for such a vigorous culinary style is that the snake gets the food eaten and excreted in no longer than two weeks total. A slower process would leave the already taxed python exposed to danger, which they try to avoid by returning to a more mobile, fasting state as soon as possible. Thanks to their reduced organs and endothermic metabolism, a meal the size of an alligator will last the snake a long time, leaving it sated for weeks or even months.

Source: For a python, every meal is like Thanksgiving by Sarah Zielinski, Wild Things

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