The World's Toughest Snake: Calabar Burrowing Python
By all outward appearances, the Calabar burrowing python looks like your typical snake. Calabaria reinhardtii is a (nonvenomous) boa species that is native to west and central Africa. As it's name suggests, it is a fossorial species that spends the vast majority of its time underground, however unlike other burrowing boas, it digs its way through loose rainforest soil and leaf litter rather than sand. The species was long considered to be a member of the python family (still reflected by it's common name), however it's been found that the Calabar burrowing "python" actually represents an ancient branch of boas with no living relatives! Because these species will thrive in captivity with the proper conditions, they are becoming more and more popular among reptile owners and breeders.
The meter-long reptile is a fairly docile animal. When confronted by a predator, it reacts defensively, curling into a tight ball to protect its head. Their tail, marked with a white ring, will wiggle to attract attention away from their vulnerable face. This method of defense may seem risky, as a predator could simply ignore the tail and attack the snake, but the burrowing python isn't just leaving its life up to chance. Biologists have found that these snakes have skin that is far harder and thicker than any other species known to science!
To test the thick skin of this reptile, biologists pitted it against the skins of 13 other species of snakes by assessing thickness with a microscope and puncture resistance with hypodermic needles and a force transducer. Amazingly, the skin of this little boa is FIFTEEN times thicker and orders of magnitude harder to pierce than the next toughest snake tested! Examining color-stained cross sections under a microscope revealed incredibly organized layers of collagen beneath the scales; bundles of collagen in each layer run perpendicularly to those above and below. This creates a tough, sturdy criss-cross arrangement that is very similar to patterns that have been observed in the hides of rhinoceroses. However, the snakes' body remains incredibly flexible, and this combination of sturdiness and flexibility has garnered the attention of pharmaceutical companies looking to create tougher medical gloves that don't restrict movement!
So why would a snake require such tough skin? The likely answer would seem to be as a defense against predators; their impressive durability might make them undesirable to a predator looking for an easy meal. However, herpetologists don't think predators are the reason, but more likely it has to do with the snakes' prey. Burrowing underground, the boa feeds on small rodents, most often young or newborn rodents. Going into a rodent den looking for lunch does come with danger...in the form of one really pissed off mother rodent. The sharp teeth of an angry rodent can inflict a nasty bite even against a snake, and even though such a bite might not be lethal, it can lead to infection. Biologists believe that the snake's tough skin protects them against these routine run-ins with angry rodents, allowing them to feed on their prey with more ease.
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