How to digest an Alligator!

By Dave Hanks

People like pets. Some people like exotic pets, like wildlife babies. They are so cute! But, those babies grow up and then what? You might give them to a zoo, or (like most) just take them out to forested or marshy areas and turn them loose. Some of these pets have been purchased from pet stores, and therefore are not native to this county. Problems then arise when they are free to multiply in areas that are not adapted to their presence.

Some folks like snakes. What’s nicer than acquiring a small, young constrictor, like a Reticulated Python? This is a snake that can grow up to 30 feet long. Obviously it can’t be contained in the home any longer, so let’s set it free. This scenario has taken place in Florida. Snakes have done quite well in Florida’s wetlands, and now the swamps and Everglades have a problem. Snakes must eat occasionally. Snakes are carnivores and therefore wreck havoc on wild life populations – birds, small mammals, and other reptiles. Big snakes can consume your dog, or other large prey, and have been known to even eat small alligators.

Goodness! How can they eat an alligator? Snake jaws unhinge to let the prey, which is swallowed head first, slip into the alimentary canal. The snake then wiggles its jaws and they re-hinge. A large meal, like an alligator, will serve the snake for a month or more before another meal is necessary. Snake organs are unusual. First, everything is in a pipe (so to speak) and is arranged in a single file. Snakes are masters at conserving energy. Their digestive organs are usually small and non-functioning, but under go a major change when required for digestion. Smaller prey requires a week for total assimilation. Something as large as a “gator” will take two weeks or more. A snake’s enzymes are powerful, and the prey’s total body is digested.

This animal will rest for an extended period, before hunting again. Digestive organs now shrink back to pre-meal size. The heart will also shrink, as it enlarged to pump blood faster during the period of nutrient absorption.

Snakes can go months between meals, as my classroom snakes did over the summer, non-school months.

(The Everglades have more than American Alligators - be alert!)