The Snake That Ate Three Deer

Python photo

by Christine Baksi

Man-Eating Python, a one-hour special that premiered Friday, Aug. 25, on Discovery Channel, featured biology professors Scott Boback and Chuck Zwemer conducting an experiment based on some of the work highlighted in this story, originally published in 2016. Watch the full episode online.  

A team of researchers couldn’t believe what they found inside a Burmese python slithering through Florida’s Everglades. The remains of three whitetail deer—two fawns and an adult­—were in the snake's large intestine after it was captured and euthanized, marking the first report of an invasive Burmese python ingesting multiple white-tailed deer. The discovery is published in the journal BioInvasions Records.

In collaboration with colleagues at the U.S. Geological Survey, the Smithsonian Institution and Everglades National Park, Associate Professor of Biology Scott Boback analyzed the recovered animal bones and deer hooves, as well as published data on deer reproductive cycles, to estimate size, age and when each deer was consumed. The researchers estimated that the three deer were ingested in a time span of less than 90 days. They could have been ambushed while drinking or walking near water, Boback says, where the python waited just beneath the surface.

Important lessons

The voracious appetites of large snake species are well-documented, but in an interview with Live Science, Boback says it’s the unknown he finds most disturbing: “If a python is capable of eating three deer in three months, what else are they eating that we don’t know about? We don’t even know how many of them are out there [in the Everglades].”

Previously published research shows a correlation between significant reductions in Florida’s mammal populations and when Burmese pythons were first established in South Florida as an invasive species. “I think we often underestimate the abilities of these animals, and that kind of ignorance can get us into trouble. This was a single observation of a Burmese python consuming three deer, but these results highlight a need to prioritize invasive species research efforts, including those aimed at understanding the basic biology of these animals.”

Significant Findings

Boback, an animal ecologist who studies snakes—specifically those that use constriction to kill their prey—has published several significant findings related to snake evolution and predation. In previous collaborative and faculty-mentored research, Boback discovered that boa constrictors can control constriction in response to their prey’s heartbeat. In 2015, Boback debunked a myth that constrictors kill by suffocation. Both studies received national and international attention from science communities and media, and the python discovery is the latest to garner visibility. Stories have appeared in Live Science, Vox, IFLScience and the Miami Herald, to name a few.

Learn More

For interviews with Scott Boback or requests for images, contact the media relations office.

Originally published December 8, 2016

Published August 24, 2017