THE POWER OF THE PYTHON.
WE have it on the authority of the Standard, that what the daily papers call the "Tragedy at the Zoo," "continues to awaken great public interest." The " tragedy " happened a fortnight ago, but first appeared in print in the columns of Tuesday's Times. A boa constrictor, 9 ft. long, was swallowed during the night by its companion, another boa, llft, long, which had completed this extraordinary feat before the reptile-house was opened in the morning. The strangest side of this incident, next to the fact itself, was that there is every reason to believe that it was due to an accident, and that the boa swallowed its victim by mistake. The smaller snake had begun to swallow a pigeon, which was still protruding from its jaws when it was left for the night. Mr. Bartlett's belief is that the larger boa then seized the till of the pigeon, and gradually drew into its throat not only the bird, but the head of the other snake, which was fixed by its long teeth to the body of the pigeon. The larger boa then must have exerted its extraordinary and half-automatic muscular force, and continued swallowing till the whole of the other snake was ingulfed. There was very little difference of weight between the two ; but though the sur- vivor was so distended that it was unable to coil itself, it has not suffered in any way, like a python which swallowed its mate at the Zoo forty years ago, and died of blood-poisoning brought on by indigestion.
The late Sir Richard Owen would have rejoiced in this example of one of the manifold and extraordinary powers of the great constrictors. Mr. Rudyard Kipling has rightly made Kea the Ps thon the real king of the jungle. His picture
of the rush of the great snake across miles of jungle by night, compared with the deliberate judgment of the great anatomist, and the account of the traveller, Charles Bates, of his meeting with a boa on its march through the Brazilian forest, gives an idea of the power of the python which surpasses that attributable to any living creature. "'Feet or no feet, I can keep abreast of all thy four,'" said Kaa to the panther. When they came to a hill-stream, Bagheera gained because he bounded across while Kaa swam ; but on level ground Kaa made up the distance. He seemed to push himself along the ground, picking the shortest road with his steady eyes and keeping it." Speaking of the "long succession of vertebra) which support the trunk of the great constrictors," Sir Richard Owen wrote :—" If by the end- less combinations and adjustments of its long spine, the absence of limbs is so compensated that the serpent can overreach and overcome animals of far higher organisation than itself; if it can outswim the fish, outrun the rat, out- climb the monkey, outwrestle the tiger, crushing the carcase of the great carnivora in the embrace of its redoubted coils, the simple vertebral column is more effective in the struggle for life than the most highly developed fore-limbs." Charles Bates actually met a great boa crossing the forest. He stood still and watched it pass. The dry sticks cracked and flew from under it, and at first he thought it was the approach of a forest storm, but the trees were still. The pace of the boa was too rapid for Bates to keep up with it ; but he noted that "there was very little of the serpentine movement in its course. The rapidly moving and shining body looked like a stream of brown liquid flowing over the thick bed of fallen leaves, rather than a serpent with shining colours. The huge trunk of a tree lay across the road. This it glided over in its undeviating course, and soon after penetrated a dense thicket, where I did not choose to follow it." No one seems to have noted the boa's swiftness in climbing. It seems to ascend a tree, even a smooth trunk, for many feet, by a mere effort of the will, the head advancing perpendicularly upward, while the train follows in detachments, one still, another moving as it finds some resting-place from which to urge its upward flow. With such speed in all elements, added to its crushing force, size alone limits the offensive power of the great pythons, and every addition to our knowledge of the tropical forests increases the known dimensions of these monstrous snakes. Even the Indian pythons are known to attain an enormous size, far beyond that commonly ascribed to them. There are two species in India, the rock-python, celebrated by Mr. Kipling in the "Hunting of Kaa," and the southern python of the coast and islands of the Indian Archipelago. The former is known to grow to the length of 30 ft., though 18 ft. or 20 ft. is considered a large measurement. The southern python is more rarely seen. It lurks in steaming forests and haunts the water-side ; but where the population is so scanty, information as to the habits and size of the great snake is obtained with difficulty. Mr. Wallace killed one in Amboyna "capable of doing much mischief, and of swallowing a dog or a child." One of the oldest anecdotes of this python records an attack made by a monster snake of the species on a native, who had been left asleep in a boat while the rest of the crew went into the jungle to cut wood. They were recalled by the man's cries, and found a huge python coiled round him, which they killed by blows of their axes. In Central Africa, Captain Speke was " accidentally " encircled by a python, which darted from a tree and coiled round the neck of a buffalo- cow which he had shot, encircling the traveller's arm in two of its folds.
Whatever the possible dimensions of the Indian and African boas, there can be no doubt that the anaconda of Brazil grows to a size which would make this species as much the scourge of-the Brazilian forest and of the water-ways of the Amazons, as the sharkas of tropical harbours, were its ferocity equal to its strength and. astonishing power of speed, whether on land or in water. It could kill, and probably devour, every creature, including man, which is found in the Amazon delta. The late
Mr. Bates, in his eleven years spent in the Brazilian forests, saw and heard more of the habits of the anaconda than most
travellers, though like other great serpents, the individuals of this species are so little common that their appearance in any one district is too unfrequent to make a special study of their habits part of the day's work of a busy naturalist. Bates's first personal experience of the creature shows how impossible it is to avoid the python by the ordinary means of isolation sufficient to keep other dangerous creatures at a distance. He was at anchor, in a large boat, in deep water, in the Port of Antonio Malagueita. An anaconda swam out to the boat, lifted its head from the water, broke in the side of a fowl-house on deck, and carried off a couple of fowls. It was found that this snake had been stealing ducks and fowls from this part of the river for months, so a hunt was organised, miles of river-bank were searched, and the serpent at last found sunning itself in a muddy creek and killed. It was "not a large specimen, only 18 ft. 9 in. long." But Mr. Bates measured skins of anacondas which were 21 ft. in length and 2 ft. in girth, and he adds, there can be no doubt that this formidable serpent grows to an enormous bulk, and lives to a great age, for I have beard of specimens having been killed which measured 42 ft. in length, or double the size of the largest which I had the opportunity of examining." We must add a correction here. They were double the length; but the size of these great reptiles, like that of fish, increases enormously with every addition in longitudinal growth. A snake of 20 ft. in length would be probably four times the weight of one 10 ft. long, and the bulk of a 40 ft. anaconda would approach that of the largest crocodile. Since the publication of " The Naturalist's Voyage on the Amazons" an anaconda of 29 ft. has been brought to the Natural History Museum at South Kensington. A neighbour of Bates, in Brazil, nearly lost his ten-year-old son by the attack of an anaconda. He had left the boy in his boat while he went to gather fruit, and on his return found him encircled by the .snake, whose jaws the father seized, and actually tore them asunder.
There is some doubt whether the fixed limit of growth in very large serpents is known, or can be determined. The larger reptiles have no certain yearly growth corresponding more or less closely in different individuals of the same 'species. The alligators at the Zoo are an instance in point. They seem able to cease growing, or to grow extremely fast, or to remain without growth, but never to die. A python has less chances of accident than any creature of similar bulk. It tas no limbs to break. Its skin is smooth scales, never abraded or liable to disease. Its powers of digestion are prodigious, and yet it can go without food uninjured. No -one knows how old a python lives to be, but there seems no 'reason why, except for the common law of nature, it should die at all. Every one agrees that it lives to a great age. No one knows to what age. But if it has the power to continue growth far beyond the age at which the largest mammals cease to grow, just as it has the power to cease growth and then recommence after years of arrested vitality, there seems no reason to suppose that it could not reach a size and strength as much in excess of that of other carnivorous creatures as its length of life exceeds theirs. A python, four years old, when brought to the Zoo, measured 11 ft. In the next ten years, it grew to 21 ft. in length, or an average of a foot each year. This was a decrease of nearly two-thirds in longitudinal growth in each of the years after the fourth, but the increase in bulk probably accounted for the difference. The warm waters of the enormous Amazon, teeming with fish and animal life, might well nurture anacondas of such gigantic size as to justify the universal belief of all the dwellers on its waters that there is an enormous serpent, which they call the mai d'agoa, the mother or spirit of the river, which appears in different parts of its course, and grows to a size far greater even than that attributed to the anacondas whose reported dimensions are recorded by European travellers so little liable to exaggeration as the "Naturalist of the Amazons."