Snake handlin’

9 May 2006

Among the hordes of groping European explorers who probed the globe’s highest, furthest and most remote nooks and knobs during the first part of the 20th century, perhaps none kicked up more miasma along the way than Percy Harrison Fawcett:

As any truly great explorer must, Fawcett disappeared mysteriously, along with two companions one of whom was his son. Fawcett and Co. were lost in the Amazon in 1925, a year after George Mallory vanished somewhere near the distal tip of Everest. Fawcett, who inspired Arthur Doyle’s The Lost World, was ostensibly seeking a hidden city named “Z” in the state of Mato Grosso, Brazil.

Decades of heavy deforestation have yet to turn up a single foundation block of “Z”, however Fawcett’s remains have manifested themselves not once but twice, proving his death at the hands of surly natives. Then again, forgotten letters by Fawcett assert that his disappearance was actually willful emigration, with the ultimate intention of establishing a theosophic commune centered upon a “native she-god.” Or, perhaps Fawcett is currently residing with the “Others” in the subterranean resort of “Ibez”. By contrast, the discovery of Mallory’s freezer-burnt remains in 1999 seems downright pedestrian.

Fawcett is also remembered for his tale of shooting a monstrous but emaciated anaconda (Eunectes murinus) in Bolivia:

We were drifting easily along on the sluggish current not far below the confluence of tigor and the Rio Negro when almost under the bow there appeared a triangular head and several feet of undulating body. It was a giant anaconda. I sprang for my rifle as the creature began to make its way up the bank, and hardly waiting to aim, smashed a .44 soft-nosed bullet into its spine, ten feet below the wicked head. At once there was a flurry of foam, and several heavy thumps against the boat’s keel, shaking us as though we had run on a snag.

We stepped ashore and approached the creature with caution. As far as it was possible to measure, a length of 45 feet lay out of the water and 17 feet lay in the water, making it a total length of 62 feet. Its body was not thick, not more than 12 inches in diameter, but it had probably been long without food.

The snake was of course far too heavy to collect (though I’d guess the skin might have been manageable) and we are left only with Fawcett’s strangely precise guesstimation, a figure roughly double that of the currently accepted maximum length for an anaconda.

Bernard Heuvelmans, “Father of Cryptozoology” did Fawcett one better with his account of a 75 footer. Again the measurement technique, this time approximating with arm-spans, leaves something to be desired. If I ever go hunting for giant snakes I will try to remember to pack a tape measure.

Tales of monstrous snakes have a long and dubious tradition, a tradition recounted in this wonderful .pdf. Tales of Giant Snakes, a book I haven’t read, attempts to integrate these stories, credible and incredible, into a coherent natural history of absurdly large serpents (including various old world pythons along with anacondas).

Another ubiquity is the giant snake photograph featuring a train of people holding aloft the carcass or, more rarely, living body of a giant snake.

Left Theodore Roosevelt and friends with an anaconda, Right students at Concord Academy Summer Camp with what appears to be an albino python.

In a pinch, the same format will work to display other long serpentine vertebrates as some Navy Seals demonstrate with an oarfish (Regalescus glesne):

I bring all of this up because a series of ever longer gopher snakes (Pituophis melanoleucus) has begun appearing at my work, beginning with a small snake found inside our exhibit hall a couple of weeks ago. Last week, one of the neighborhood cats cornered this healthy adult whose length I estimate at roughly four size-9 Puma-lengths:

Apparently a “five-footer” turned up during some shed cleaning this weekend.

The snake pictured above was rather agitated and did her best rattlesnake imitation act, twitching her tail and exhaling with a percussive vibrato. Once on the wood chips, I came to truly admire the designs of the Creator who had so ingeniously equipped this snake to blend into the manicured landscape of modern exurbia:

4 Responses to “Snake handlin’”

  1. carel Says:

    That oarfish is almost enough to make a guy enlist.

  2. Nick Valvo Says:

    …and that Summer Camp python is almost too “two blocks from my parents’ house” for comfort.

  3. Very amazing site! I wish I could do something as nice as you did…mary

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