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How Can A Snake Swallow A Human Being?

Discovery's new TV special Eaten Alive is about a guy in a custom-built suit getting eaten by a snake. Can this actually happen?

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I'm sure you've heard of it by now. If not, please watch the video above and then try to get over the sense of awe mixed with disbelief you're feeling. On December 7th, the Discovery Channel is set to air a TV special called Eaten Alive, wherein a self-professed "naturalist, author, and award-winning wildlife filmmaker" named Paul Rosolie will don a custom-built carbon fiber suit to be eaten alive by the largest species of snake on earth, a giant green anaconda.

Rosolie won't literally be eaten alive, though. A cable attached to his leg will help yank him from and be regurgitated out of the (probably very confused) snake. Whether this is another sensationalized ratings ploy from Discovery à la it's much-decried Megalodon special aired during Shark Week last year or whether this stunt qualifies as animal cruelty remains to be seen (more than 35,000 people have signed a Change.org petition looking to stop the stunt, and PETA has condemned the stunt as well). Rosolie says that the goal of this stunt is to draw attention to rainforest habitat destruction and has defended himself in a series of tweets saying that he would never hurt animals, and that the snakes regularly eat animals larger than him.

If u know me - I would never hurt a living thing. But you'll have to watch #EatenAlive to find out how it goes down! http://t.co/QvxZO2dS3V

Paul Rosolie@PaulRosolieFollow

If u know me - I would never hurt a living thing. But you'll have to watch #EatenAlive to find out how it goes down! http://t.co/QvxZO2dS3V

10:58 PM - 04 Nov 14ReplyRetweetFavorite

Paul says: Anacondas stretch a lot. This 1 is eating a cow - an animal much bigger than me! #EatenAlive @Discovery

Paul Rosolie@PaulRosolieFollow

Paul says: Anacondas stretch a lot. This 1 is eating a cow - an animal much bigger than me! #EatenAlive @Discovery

11:19 AM - 11 Nov 14ReplyRetweetFavorite

In any case, Discovery says the snake did survive the encounter and there is a basic question at the center of it all—how could a snake manage to eat something as big as a human?

It turns out this kind of thing isn't all too uncommon (the size part, not the human part). Green anacondas—which are native to South America, have an average length of 20 feet, and can weigh in at an intimidating 550 pounds—eat everything from smaller animals like fish and birds to heftier meals like tapirs, deer, or even jaguars. An average meal-size for a green anaconda equals about 30% of its body weight, but they can also manage to digest prey that is 75-100% of their size. That's a ton of food to digest.

Snakes are able to take down massive prey thanks to their extremely unique jaws, which are filled with muscles, ligaments, and tendons that maximize flexibility, allowing their jaws to stretch open extremely wide. Contrary to popular myth, snakes don't unhinge their jaws—instead, an elastic ligament in the chin area connects the two jawbones and allows them to move independently of one another. Couple that with a stretchy quadrate bone that allows both vertical and horizontal movement, and the snake can open up wide for just about anything.

Jagged, rear-facing teeth prevent the meal from getting away easily—but a snake doesn't chew its food. A three-part process helps the gigantic meal go down (relatively) smoothly. First, overactive saliva glands lube up the prey to allow it to ease down the esophagus; then, the elongated throat muscles squeeze together to push the food further (much like our own digestive process). Lastly, the snake's vertebrae expand and contract like an accordion for some extra pressure to essentially force the food all the way into the stomach area. Once there, powerful enzymes and stomach acids begin the process of digesting the massive meal, which can take up to two weeks. If all goes according to plan, the snake won't have to eat again for another two months.

So, can a huge snake like the green anaconda actually eat and digest a human? In context, yes, but Dr. Jesus A. Rivas, a herpetologist and tropical ecologist who specializes in green anacondas and who spoke to i09 about the special, said it probably wouldn't happen. Snakes can't breathe and swallow at the same time, so swallowing large prey actually puts it at risk of asphyxiation. "They can't do both," says Rivas, "So during the time the prey goes through what would be the throat, they have to do that in apnea."

That risk is higher when the snake needs to regurgitate prey (something like a guy in a custom-made snake-proof suit) because the process of throwing up takes longer, exhausting the snake and making its muscles unable to function properly, which could kill it. Rivas says, "It will be tired. For a snake to swallow a very large prey is a very physical and exhausting task. So the snake that did that, by the time it started to puke it would be so tired that not have any muscle power to pass it out completely, so it would get stuck right where the snake can't breathe."

A 180-pound snake could theoretically eat a 180-pound human, but doing so would most likely cause serious trauma to the snake. So unless Discovery has really put an animal at risk, the only man-eating Anaconda you're likely to find is snakes in movies from 1997 eating Jon Voight.

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Otherwise try to bask in the deliciously disgusting glory of these videos of snakes eating gigantic things.

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View this video on YouTube

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View this video on YouTube

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View this video on YouTube

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View this video on YouTube

Via youtube.com

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