How does a snake swallow something bigger than itself?

Snakes are renowned for their ability to swallow bigger than themselves. Anacondas and pythons consume unimaginably larger prey than their body.

While their capability has been often shrouded with exaggeration, the majority of their species boast anatomical adaptations, allowing them to eat larger prey. Most of the animals they consume only account a third of their body weight, but, in rare instances, snakes can ingest more massive prey than themselves.

With that, their ability has also been a matter of fascination. However, a common misconception about this is that they can dislocate their jaws.

Snakes won’t be able to swallow something that won’t suit or fit its jaws. They have a special adaptation that enables them to widen their gape. But, they do not dislocate their jaw to do so. Instead, it boasts some incredible features boosting their jaw ability.

Snakes possess flexible skulls and more complex jaw joints compared to other normal vertebrates. While typical vertebrates have a simple hinge located at the junction of the lower and the skull’s junction, snakes boast a separate set of bones in their jaw joints.

These bones, regarded as quadrate bones, permit a snake’s jaw to pivot on two angles instead of one. Moreover, its lower jaw splits or separates at the chin, allowing each part to move on its own rather than acting as a single unit. Thus, two halves move independently.

Aside from their amazing jaw, snakes’ skin and digestive tract are highly elastic. Their esophagus or gullet is pleated, permitting expansion. It has nearly the same diameter as that of the stomach, and both have strong muscles that push the prey into the body.

Another remarkable adaptation is that the snake’s trachea protrudes to the edge of the mouth, compared to other animals, whose trachea are located deep inside the mouth. This feature allows them to breathe even when their mouths are stuffed with prey. While snakes can hold their breath, it takes ample time for the victim to pass their mouth. In some instances, it takes over an hour.

Snakes usually swallow their prey head first for an easier time, as this is where the direction of fur and limbs goes. Plus, their saliva helps in lubricating their prey for them to ease their food smoothly.

It’s a great thing, though, that they rarely fight for food as it can be dangerous to do so. There was a case, however, where the other snake swallowed a snake as they are both consuming the same prey on each end.

Swallowing big prey is only half of their struggle, as they also need to digest such massive food. They don’t chew their food but instead, digest them chemically. There is limited digestion as their digestive enzymes can only work on certain parts of the meal. Most snakes cannot digest chitin or arthropod exoskeleton or keratin, such as hairs and claw.

Most animals also have a tough outside covering or skin. Relying on digestive enzymes alone will require snakes too much time just to get to their prey’s nutrients. It can be critical for a snake as they are relatively vulnerable when in the digestive period. With that, they use venom to speed up the process.

Venom is not only capable of paralyzing or killing the prey, but it also aids in digesting the prey from its inside, turning them into goo. One study among Fer-de-lance snakes showed it would take 8-9 days longer for them to fully digest a rat when they are deprived of venom compared to the usual 2-3 days of typical digestion.

Though powerful, the venom and their enzymes cannot digest all parts snakes have swallowed. They often have to cough up partially-digested sections of their prey.

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