Not all snakes are poisonous. The largest snakes-pythons and boas-have no fangs, and do not depend on poison to kill their prey. Their size and strength give them a powerful enough weapon to obtain their food.
Pythons and boas represent the two sub-families of the largest snakes in the world. Some of them grow to well over thirty feet in length. But not all boas and pythons are large snakes. The Rubber Boa, for example, a native of western North America, rarely reaches two feet in length.
While boas are primarily inhabitants of the New World (though some species are found also in the Old) , pythons are all creatures of the Old World. They are found only in Asia, Africa, and Australia, with a single exception-the small Mexican python.
Actually the differences between pythons and boas are rather small. They are all called constrictors, because they kill their prey by coiling themselves around their victim and squeezing it to death. This they do by "constricting" or tightening their coils around their prey until they literally squeeze the life out of it. Then they swallow their victim whole, usually head first.
The Goliath of Snakes
Scientists recognize nineteen species of pythons. The Reticulated or Regal Python holds the record for length. speci- mens twenty-eight feet long that weigh two hundred pounds are not uncommon.
One Regal Python has been reported to have measured 32.8 feet-probably the record. This snake lives in southeastern Asia, the Malay Peninsula, and nearby islands, including the Philipines.
The Indian Python, which ranges from India to southern China and Ceylon, is smaller, with a maximum size of twenty feet. A very close relative of the Indian Python is the Rock Python of Africa, with a maximum length that does not exceed eighteen feet. The largest snake in Australia is the Queensland Python, reputed to attain a length of twenty-one feet.
What Pythons Eat
Pythons, like boas, prey on small animals-small, that is, in proportion to their size. The largest snakes could devour a hundred-pound gazelle, or similar animal, but mostly they feed on smaller mammals. These snakes are mainly nighttime creatures, and most of them dwell in moist, green forests.
The reticulated python spends most of its time in trees, where it suns itself and lies in wait for its food. Its diet consists of rodents, birds, small deer, wild hogs, and other animals. It has also been known to attack and devour humans on occasion. One that devoured a fourteen- year-old-boy in the Dutch East Indies was captured and killed two days later. But on the whole it is most exceptional for human beings to fall victim to pythons.
The Indian python has an even more varied diet. It preys on toads, reptiles, fowls, water rats, barking deer, and hog deer. One has been observed killing a leopard over four feet long, which it devoured afterward.
Pythons and boas use their sense of smell, as well as of sight, to capture their prey. In addition, many pythons and some boas have "heat detectors" located in pits near the mouth, which are lined with spe:cial nerve endings that are sensitive to heat. These enable them to detect the presence of warm-blooded animals.
Rare Green Tree Python
One rare species of python lives only in New Guinea and in the extreme northern corner of Australia's Cape York Peninsula. The Green Tree Python is a striking creature, with emerald skin, bronze eyes, and yellow abdomen. The most remarkable aspect of the green tree python is its color transformation when young. At first it is generally bright yellow, or brown, but as it grows older the green color begins to show through until it turns green, with small white spots running from behind the eyes to the tip of the tail.
Adult green tree pythons reach a maximum length of six feet, but three to four feet seems to be the average.
The snake spends most of the time in treetops, where it coils neatly on a branch, its coloration merging with the foliage. It patiently waits for an unsus- pecting bird, lizard, or squirrel to approach within striking distance. Then it grabs the prey with needlelike teeth and throws several coils around it, squeezing the breath out of it. When the victim's struggles cease, the snake swal- lows it head first, like all constrictors.
The female python lays about a dozen eggs. During the six weeks it takes the eggs to hatch, the snake remains coiled closely around the eggs, without food or water.
The Snake in the Torah
The snake (Nachash) is the first animal mentioned by name in Chumash. It is the sly, wily and mischievous creature that tempted Chavah (Eve) to eat of the forbidden fruit, in disobedience to G-d's command. Since then the snake has become the symbol of evil and temptation. As such it is identified with the Yetzer hara, the evil inclination that tempts a person to do bad things. The Yetzer hara is very cunning. It has various tricks to ensnare an unsuspecting victim. It might plant a bad thought in the mind, which works like a poison, in the manner of a poisonous snake. Or it might come with a "friendly embrace," in the manner of a "constrictor," which is equally dangerous. It is interesting to note that the Hebrew word (Nechashim), meaning "chains" or "fetters," is related to the word Nachash and its way of forming coils, like rings of a chain. Indeed, it was in such chains that the mighty Shimshon ended, when he allowed him- self to fall prey to the wily Delilah (Judges 16:21).
Our Sages said wisely, "One cannot live with a snake in one basket." It is as dangerous to play with the Yetzer hara as it is to play with a snake, be it of the poisonous variety or a con- strictor. The only thing to do is to give them both a wide, wide berth.