One of nature’s most gob-smacking and cruel sights has been captured by wildlife guide Michelle Sole, in South Africa’s Marakele National Park.
The African rock python is the continent’s largest snake and can reach up to 7m long and weigh 90kg. With its ability to stretch its jaws wide apart, the snake can swallow prey three times wider than its own head.
And so it was that a helpless mother impala could only watch in horror as its lamb was devoured whole by the python.
Michelle was alerted to the scene by the cries from a herd of impalas. ‘We noticed the herd were staring at the ground and when we got closer we found a small, motionless impala with a 4m rock python wrapped around its fragile body.’
The snakes are not venomous, instead constricting their prey to kill it.
Michelle continues: ‘A few minutes later the herd moved away, leaving the snake with her prize, but we looked on fascinated as she continued to squeeze despite the lack of life in the poor lamb’s body.
‘The mother impala returned and came close to her baby, distraught and calling in alarm, but there was nothing she could do.’
Having constricted the young impala to death, the next job on the python’s list was to swallow it. This is where its unique jaw comes in handy.
Elastic ligaments allow the jaws to stretch apart and the two sides of the lower jaw are not joined to each other. If it needs to it is able to divide its upper jaws as well, giving its head four sections that can move independently.
‘When the snake was confident the lamb was dead, it released its grip and then locked its jaws around the lamb’s nose and moved it into the undergrowth to swallow it whole,’ reveals Michelle.
The acid in the snake’s stomach will break down the impala – hooves, horns and all! Such a meal may take weeks to digest, during which time the python itself is more vulnerable to predators due to its immobility.
The good news for the snake is that it might not need to feed again for a year, after feasting on this one baby impala. That’s what you call an all-you-can-eat buffet!