How snakes eat snakes: the biomechanical challenges of ophiophagy for the California kingsnake, Lampropeltis getula californiae (Serpentes: Colubridae)

Zoology (Jena). 2004;107(3):191-200. doi: 10.1016/j.zool.2004.06.001.


In this study we investigated how ophiophagous snakes are able to ingest prey snakes that equal or exceed their own length. We used X-ray video, standard video, dissection, and still X-rays to document the process of ophiophagy in kingsnakes (Lampropeltis getula) feeding on corn snakes (Elaphe guttata). Most kingsnakes readily accepted the prey snakes, subdued them by constriction, and swallowed them head first. In agreement with previous observations of ophiophagy, we found that the predator snake forces the vertebral column of the prey snake to bend into waves. These waves shorten the prey's body axis and allow it to fit inside the gastrointestinal (GI) tract and body cavity of the predator. Dissection of a kingsnake immediately following ingestion revealed extensive longitudinal stretching of the anterior portion of the GI tract (oesophagus and stomach), and no visible incursion of the prey into the intestine. X-ray video of ingestion showed that the primary mechanism of prey transport was the pterygoid walk, with some contribution from concertina-like compression and extension cycles of the predator's vertebral column in two out of three observations. Complete digestion was observed in only one individual, as others regurgitated before digestion was finished. X-ray stills taken every 4 days following ingestion revealed that the corn snakes were about half digested within the first 4 days, and digestion was complete within 15 days.