Magazine article International Wildlife

What Lurks beneath? A Reptilian Head in a Venezuelan Swamp Masks the Extraordinary Size of a Tropical Serpent

Magazine article International Wildlife

What Lurks beneath? A Reptilian Head in a Venezuelan Swamp Masks the Extraordinary Size of a Tropical Serpent

Article excerpt

"They say that its eyes shine like miniature lighthouses when it crosses a river."--Anonymous

SUBMERGED beneath the slow-moving river water except for protruding nostrils and unblinking eyes, a 25-foot-long reptile awaits its prey. Death will most certainly come for any hapless creature that ventures too close--but the end won't happen quickly.

The hunter is the anaconda. A member of the boa family, it will kill its prey not with a venomous bite but slowly by constriction.

Hiding out in or near steamy rivers and swamps in South America east of the Andes from Colombia to Paraguay and also on the island of Trinidad, these semiaquatic serpents are the largest snakes in the world. They can weigh hundreds of pounds and at their thickest point measure some three feet around. Only the reticulated python of Southeast Asia rivals them--but only in length, never in girth.

Once a snake seizes a victim in its mouth, it coils itself around the body. With each exhalation of the struggling animal, the squeeze tightens. Often death by drowning comes before the prey suffocates, and the anaconda swallows its meal--headfirst and whole. The species' diverse menu includes caiman, peccaries, tapirs, waterfowl, sheep and dogs--basically anything that comes near the shore to drink.

Anacondas rarely attack people, however. But over the years, the big snakes have acquired a reputation as man-eating monsters. Victorian explorers once killed these diurnal giants at every encounter, then measured their already great lengths and embellished the observations. Some reported anacondas as long as 60 feet or described them as having glowing eyes and a foul, hypnotic breath that induced an unshakable stupor in man or beast. …

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