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Out of the Mouths of Snakes

Snakes like this Stimson’s python owe their evolutionary success to their big mo

Snakes like this Stimson’s python owe their evolutionary success to their big mouth and the ability to swallow large prey.

By Alessandro Palci, Mark Hutchinson & Michael Lee

DNA analysis and 3D imaging have revealed how snakes evolved their huge gape independently across different lineages.

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“Grandma, what a big mouth you have!” said Red Riding Hood.

“All the better to eat you with,” replied the wolf just before he swallowed Red Riding Hood whole.

The Brothers Grimm wrote one of the most iconic children’s stories of all time, but we wonder whether a big snake would have been a better choice for the villain. Wolves indeed have big mouths, but they certainly cannot swallow a whole person, not even a little girl.

On the other hand, some huge snakes have little problem swallowing humans in one big gulp. Examples include the green anaconda (Eunectes murinus), which inhabits the swamps of South America, or the reticulated python (Malayopython reticulatus), a giant snake (up to 12 metres in total length) from the tropical forests of South-East Asia.

But how can snakes swallow prey items that are so much larger than their own head?

Contrary to popular belief, snakes cannot unhinge their lower jaws from the rest of the skull when swallowing. Their ability lies elsewhere in their amazing skulls, which are composed of a set of loosely connected bones.

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