`2nd Gator Theory' offered for Everglades gore

September 03, 2006|By McClatchy-Tribune

MIAMI -- A year after two bodies were discovered locked in gruesome embrace deep in the marsh, a television documentary attempts to solve a mystery since burned into Everglades lore.

Did a giant python really explode after swallowing an alligator? And what ate the snake's head?

The National Geographic Explorer show examines what happened last September when a 13-foot Burmese python ate a 6-foot gator in Everglades National Park. The extraordinary encounter was captured in a memorable macabre photo that captivated the public and experts alike, and - for a week, at least - made "alligator-python" among the most Googled phrases on the planet.

The cable show features re-enactments, slick 3-D animations and lots of morbidly fascinating forensic analysis. When a lab-fed python turns up its nose at a meal of dead gator, for example, scientists whet its appetite by sewing a rat mask to the gator's snout - fashioned from freshly skinned rodent skull.

Ultimately, Python vs. Gator, which premiered last month and airs again at 9 p.m. Sept. 16 on the National Geographic Channel, proffers a provocative new explanation for the bizarre death scene: that a second alligator attacked the python.

Another gator avenges its species, munching the python's head in a thrashing battle that punctures - from inside out - a snake stuffed with its death-stiffened prey.

"The real killer," the narrator intones, "is still out there." But the second-gator theory is more than a little controversial. For starters, three of four scientists who took part in the show don't buy it.

"The second alligator theory is nonsense," said Wayne King, curator of herpetology and a crocodilian expert at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, who appears with museum colleague Kenneth Krysko.

A gator would have left the snake with multiple punctures and shredded flesh, King said.

"Alligators, they don't bite off a piece," he said. "They grab hold, then they roll and spin. If one grabs you by the arm, normally they wrench the arm off, or if they grab you by the buttocks, they'll rip away a chunk of meat."

Krysko, a snake specialist, echoed the view. "I love this video," he said, but "the ending is simply ridiculous."

Even Stephen Secor, a University of Alabama biologist who first raised the second-gator idea, acknowledged that there is evidence against it. But the remains of the snake's skull showed signs of crushing that point to an attack by something more formidable than a scavenging raccoon, he said.

"That's the only thing I can think of," said Secor, an authority on the digestive physiology of pythons. Still, he agreed, "I would think a big alligator would have done more damage. It would have chewed more."

Last fall, Michael Barron, a helicopter pilot working for Everglades National Park, spotted the reptiles floating in the Shark River Slough. Because the bodies were too rotted to remove, the only evidence that scientists have is Barron's photos and the field notes of park biologist Skip Snow, who performed a necropsy in the knee-deep water.

If there are doubts about its conclusion, the show does dig deeply, in the grisly visceral sense, into the twin killing.

Krysko and King showed how a snake's needlelike teeth couldn't be the source of a fist-sized wound on the gator's skull, suggesting it might have been injured in an earlier tangle with another gator.

If the victim were weakened or even dead when swallowed, there might not have been much of a clash of the titans.

They also discounted one early suggestion that the swallowed gator might have desperately tried to claw its way out, showing how its stout legs would fold back helplessly as it slid snout-first down a snake. The legs are "clamped down," said King, "like being held in a tight sock."

To gauge a python's impressive digestive prowess, Secor and a team of scientists in Alabama staged a scaled-down version of the meeting in the marsh by coaxing a lab snake to eat a properly sized gator disguised in that rat-head mask.

The resulting gulp by the python provided a carcass-cam view of what it might be like to go down the undulating gullet of a giant constrictor. And follow-up X-rays show a meal half the size of the snake largely dissolved in nine days. "If that snake was healthy and wasn't disturbed, it could have digested that alligator without any problems," Secor said.

Snow, who has spent several years tracking the spread of pythons in the Everglades, said Secor's work has helped develop important tools for measuring the impact of the huge snakes on native populations.

Based in part on what Snow has pulled from snake stomachs, he and Secor have worked up the first preliminary estimates of how many critters a snake consumes to reach adult breeding size of about 70 pounds: about 210 pounds of mice, birds, mammals and, perhaps, gators.

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