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Joella Anderton, age 11, of Dugway, Utah, for her question:

How can a snake swallow such big objects?

A snake about as thick as your thumb can swallow a big fat frog with no trouble at all. The frog goes down alive and kicking and he has no chance to escape. The swallowing job is done in one or two minutes. Then the satisfied snake rests while his meal is digested.

A 200 pound man can eat only a very few pounds of food at a sitting. A 200 pound snake can devour SS pounds of meat at one meal. The man, of course, bites off his food and chews each mouthful before swallowing it. The snake devours his whole meal in one swallow    and usually his food is a struggling victim. A big python can gulp down a goat or a small leopard several times wider than his head and body. This kind of swallowing job may take several hours. But a i0 foot python can gulp down a smaller, slightly thinner python in just a few minutes. Smaller snakes perform the same feats on smaller scales.

The snake lives in a secret world of his own. He is stone deaf and some of his other senses are different from ours. He has no legs to run, no paws or claws to grab and hold his food. But nature has given him some unusual advantages and he makes a successful living. One of these advantages is his ability to gulp down objects much wider than his head and body. Actually, he has an amazing ability to stretch his swallow.

His lower jaw bone is in two parts. The two sides are joined under his chin with an elastic band of muscle. Bands of stretchable muscles also attach the opposite ends of the two jaw bones to the skull. These loose corners move like hinges and the snake can open his lower jaw down and back in a wide gape. He also can stretch the two bony sections apart with the elastic muscle under his chin.

With these extra joints and elastic bands, a snake can open his mouth wide enough to swallow an object much wider than himself. As a rule, his teeth are small and dull. But they curve backward and his jaw has a mighty grip. When he grabs a frog, the lower jaw gapes down and the chin strap stretches wide to engulf the victim. He may grab the head or the tail end of the frog. The swallowing is done bit by bit and the skin of the head and neck may be stretched so wide that the snakey scales are separated.

As he swallows, the snake moves one side of his lower jaw at a time. First one side moves forward and gets a strong grip, then the other side. The movable jaw bones walk along and the victim is shoved step by step down the hatch. As the food reaches the back of the snake's mouth, it is helped down by muscles in the neck and throat. Then the job goes a bit faster. In a few minutes, the meal is safely inside, the snake's stretchable head shrinks back to normal and he takes a long rest.

Snakes do not need to eat regular meals, though some of them catch a few frogs or rats every day. The human stomach digests a meal in about 12 hours. The snake's digestion takes much longer. A python may take a week to digest his food and his huge meal may last him a long time. He may fast for more than a year. Smaller snakes often stoke up with big banquets and fast for weeks or for several months.


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