Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang

Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang

A python killed a cat at Saujana Road in Bukit Panjang yesterday (June 13). The python was coiled around the dead cat when police arrived to capture it. Blood was visible around the dead cat's mouth.

STOMPer Mathana sent in these pictures and says:

"A python was sighted at Block 416, Saujana Road yesterday (June 13) at about 1am.

"It had actually killed a cat and was about to eat it when it was captured by the police.

"The police had some difficulty luring it into the net as it was slithering around scaring onlookers.

"Finally it was captured and brought to the police car.

STOMP understands that the python, which can grow to over 8m long, is common in Singapore, and feeds on small animals like rats, birds and even cats and dogs.

Reticulated pythons are not venomous, and kill their prey through constriction.
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang
Python crushes cat to death at Bukit Panjang

There was another sighting of a reticulated python (Broghammerus reticulatus) in Bukit Panjang not too long ago.

This incident, while traumatising for witnesses (and for any caregivers who might have been looking after the resident stray cats in the neighbourhood), is not a rare occurrence. After all, large pythons are capable of consuming larger prey, which I will touch upon later.

Cat 0, Snake 1
Reticulated python with domestic cat;
(Photo by benalox)

It's not the first STOMP report of reticulated python preying on stray cats; there is a record from Bedok in 2007.

Photos documenting a python that attacked and attempted to eat a stray cat before it was captured, Bedok;

In another tragic incident, a pet dog was killed by a python in a River Valley condominium in 2006. And in another similar snake vs. pet dog conflict, there is apparently an equatorial spitting cobra (Naja sumatrana) at the dog run at West Coast Park.

Such events, though not often witnessed by people, bring out the conflict that goes on between different groups of animal lovers. Snakes have a bad reputation, and the majority of people still dislike and fear them, even despite all the efforts at education. Most people would definitely sympathise with the cat or dog that got killed, and perhaps call for it to be killed to protect public safety. An ignorant proportion will even question why snakes are allowed to roam freely in urban Singapore. Yet there will be others who insist that the python was simply doing what comes to it naturally; a potential meal is a potential meal, regardless of whether it was someone's beloved pet or companion. It's unfortunate that people had to witness it, but it happens all the time.

Similar conflicts arise where it comes to say, feral dogs attacking stray cats, dogs harassing otters, or house crows (Corvus splendens) attacking native birds. In the UK, there is debate whether recovering populations of raptors are resulting in declines in songbird numbers, and in North America, there are moves to cull or encourage hunting of grey wolves (Canis lupus) so as to reduce predation on caribou (Rangifer tarandus) and elk (Cervus canadensis). There will be those who get upset when the animals they root for fall prey to attacks by other species, and it is easy to succumb to the urge to call for the authorities to intervene. On the flipside, there will be those who accept such occurrences as a fact of nature.

Unfortunately, there are no easy solutions. Culling is simple, but is it necessarily the best solution? In the case of the dogs attacking cats, those cat lovers calling for the dogs to be removed don't quite see the irony; after all, the same attitudes can be applied to the cats they value. What if people who love birds call for cats to be culled, since cats do prey on birds, and not always because they are hungry. And even if there are calls for all the pythons to be caught and relocated to keep cats, dogs and people safe (an unlikely scenario, given how stealthy snakes can be), these people might not realise that they will be getting rid of an effective rodent control measure.

I'm certainly not advocating allowing populations to be left unchecked; there will be times when active management, population control and culling will have to be implemented. This is the case even with feral dogs and cats, especially if predation is a major factor in the decline of a species. But in Singapore, where native wildlife regularly interacts with dogs and cats, but with no conclusive evidence that any 1 species of animal is eating another species into extinction, it is difficult to draw a line and determine which animals are more deserving of the right to live among us.

The big squeeze

Despite what is often said, even in books and nature documentaries, the idea that pythons and other constricting snakes 'crush' their prey to death is inaccurate. When a python attacks, it latches onto its victim with its teeth. Having gotten a secure grip, it throws its coils over its prey, and tightens them around the animal's body.

It used to be thought that constrictors killed prey by suffocation, squeezing their victims so tightly that breathing became impossible. Now, it is suspected that constrictors may kill by shutting down blood circulation, applying so much pressure that blood vessels are closed off and preventing blood from flowing to muscles and vital organs. The victim effectively dies from cardiac arrest in a much shorter time than if it would have merely through asphyxiation. This way, prey is quickly immobilised and cannot fight back and injure the snake. However, this has yet to be conclusively proven through scientific observation, although it appears that the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) is capable of generating the pressure needed to stop blood flow even in large prey.

Python reticulatus feeding on rat 2
Reticulated python feeding on rat, Bali;
(Photo by Ecoman1)

Once the prey is dead, the snake swallows it whole. This clip shows a reticulated python undergoing the long process of swallowing a small deer.

Another fascinating adaptation seen in pythons is the presence of pits in the upper lip, enabling them to sense infrared heat. This allows the snake to detect warm-blooded prey in the dark, and to home in on its target accurately. Other families of snakes, such as various boas (F. Boidae) and pit vipers (F. Viperidae, Crotalinae) have also convergently evolved these heat-sensing pits.

You can see the pits in the upper lip of this reticulated python;
(Photo by digitalsparks)

The larger the python, the larger the prey it can consume. But just how large can reticulated pythons grow?


The reticulated python is well-known as the world's longest snake. However, the often-cited record of a giant from Sulawesi that measured around 10 metres in length is based on poor evidence, and is possibly an exaggeration. Another supposed record-breaker was the python known as Fragrant Flower, which did not quite measure up to the claim of being nearly 15 metres long. It turned out to be "only" 6.5 metres long, still a giant, but nowhere near the original claim.

Reticulated python, Bohol;
(Photo by aleksts)

The longest snake ever reliably measured was a female reticulated python named Colossus, which lived at the Pittsburgh Zoo from 1949 to 1960. It is interesting that the growth of this snake was recorded over the years. She was supposedly caught in Thailand in 1949, and arrived at the zoo in August that year, where she was measured as being 6.7 metres long. In June 1951, she was 7.1 metres, while in February 1954 she had reached 8.28 metres. The last recorded measurement of Colossus was in November 1956, and she was 8.7 metres at that time. However, there are no further measurements, especially from the time just before or immediately after her death; it is likely that she might have gotten even longer.

A more recent record-holder was Samantha, a female that was captured from the wild in East Kalimantan, Borneo. Brought to the Bronx Zoo in 1993, she measured 6.4 metres in length, and had reached 7.9 metres by the time she died in 2002.

Perhaps the most famous giant python in recent history was Fluffy, a female which was exhibited at the Columbus Zoo. Hatched and raised in captivity by breeder Bob Clark, Fluffy was sent to the Columbus Zoo in 2007, at first on loan, but she was subsequently sold to the zoo. Fluffy reached a length of 7.3 metres, but unfortunately, she died in October last year.

(Photo by gsbrown99)

These photos help illustrate Fluffy's size:

(Photo by Associated Press)

(Photo by Richard Bradbury/Guinness World Records)

What do pythons eat?

A python of such size is definitely more than able to handle prey much larger than rats or chickens; for example, this study shows that once reticulated pythons grow to around 3 to 4 metres in length, the size of prey increases as well, shifting from rats and birds to monkeys, mousedeer, porcupines, wild pigs and deer. Reticulated pythons have even been documented preying upon sun bears (Helarctos malayanus) in Borneo! Large pythons living near villages may consume domestic dogs, pigs, goats and sheep.

This 6.02 metre long reticulated python had been caught after swallowing an adult Sulawesi warty pig (Sus celebensis);

Dissection of the python revealed the partially digested pig;
(Photos from Auliya, 2003)

This next clip depicts a battle between a tiger (Panthera tigris) and a large reticulated python in the movie Bring 'Em Back Alive; while it is likely to have been staged (despite claims to the contrary), and the tiger apparently initiated the fight, it is certainly possible that on rare occasions, large pythons will regard other large predators as potential prey.

And of course, humans do fall prey to really large reticulated pythons from time to time, although such incidents appear to be very rare, possibly because the high hunting pressure for skins means that few if any reticulated pythons grow to gigantic sizes anymore.

Lily, another giant reticulated python (7.1 metres long) at Australia Zoo;
(Photo by humph0607)

I wrote about pythons eating large prey in this post, which not includes a reticulated python that swallowed a pregnant ewe, but also 1 of the most well-known records of a reticulated python that attempted to prey on a human.

Ee Heng Chuan, who was killed by a python measuring 7 metres long, Johor;

Geographical Distribution and Variation

The reticulated python has the widest distribution of any Asian python species, being found from northeastern India to the Philippines and most of Indonesia. It is present as far east as the Maluku and Tanimbar Islands, but not on New Guinea itself. It is one of the few animal species that straddles both the Indomalayan and Wallacean ecozones.

Distribution of reticulated python;
(Map from Groombridge & Luxmoore, 1991)

The reticulated python is highly adaptable and found in many habitats, from rainforests and mangroves to plantations, agricultural land and even urban environments. It has managed to colonise remote islands by swimming, which explains its presence in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, as well as throughout much of the Indonesian archipelago. After the famous eruption of Krakatau in 1883 wiped out all life on the island, reticulated pythons were quick to recolonise the recovering landscape. The first record of reticulated python on Krakatau was made in 1908, just slightly more than 20 years after the eruption. It is believed that the pythons simply swam over from surrounding areas, with the nearest neighbouring island at least 12 kilometres away.

For a species that is so widely distributed and has a tendency to colonise remote islands, variation between different populations of reticulated python have not been well studied. Most python populations from Assam to Ambon are currently classified as Python reticulatus reticulatus, and a previous attempt by an amateur herpetologist to erect new subspecies did not do much to illustrate the differences between populations. It is likely that this is a gross oversimplification of the situation, with genetics and morphological studies likely to reveal a lot more diversity. It might turn out that some populations are sufficiently distinct to warrant being described as new subspecies or even full species altogether.

So far, there are 2 other subspecies of reticulated python, both of which are found only on isolated islands in Indonesia, and are considered to be "dwarf" forms. For a snake that can possibly grow up to 9 metres in length, being a dwarf is all a matter of perspective - these subspecies are said to max out at less than 4.5 metres or so.

The Jampea reticulated python (Broghammerus reticulatus jampeanus) hails from Tanahjampea Island, in the middle of the Flores Sea between Sulawesi and Flores;
(Photo from Constrictors Unlimited)

The Selayar reticulated python (Broghammerus reticulatus saputrai) comes from the island of Selayar, as well as the tip of southwest Sulawesi;
(Photo from Snakes 'N' Adders)

It is possible that various other populations on islands elsewhere will be recognised as distinct subspecies in future. Many of these are already available to reptile hobbyists, and bestowed trade names based on their often exotic-sounding localities: Kayuadi, Kalaotoa, Madu, Halmahera, and Bali yellow-heads are just some of the names appended to certain shipments of reticulated pythons.

The reticulated python has also been bred in captivity to derive a range of colour patterns; albino, piebald, tiger, super tiger and sunfire are just some of the mutations that have appeared, and it is fascinating to see how selective breeding is being carried out to create new variations.

supertiger 304
Super tiger reticulated python;
(Photo by Studio Rauzier Riviere)

tiger 317
Tiger reticulated python;
(Photo by Studio Rauzier Riviere)

Lavender albino reticulated python;
(Photo by ervinmw)

Update: Thanks to my friend Eisen, I was able to read the full text of an article that was published in The New Paper about this incident.

The python was apparently around 2 metres long, and when disturbed by the police officers and the crowd of onlookers, it released the dead cat and attempted to escape into a drain. However, a man stepped on the end of its tail to prevent it from escaping, a foolish move if I may say so, since not only might it severely injure the snake, it might turn and strike at him in retaliation. Subsequently, it tried to hide under a car, and was retrieved and bagged by the police. The python was handed over to the Singapore Zoo.