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The Burmese python is well adapted to its environment and, as an apex predator, does not require many defensive mechanisms. Their color, produced by either pigment deposited in the skin or by differential diffraction of light, allows them to camouflage easily in their habitat, allowing them to hide and attack their prey. This also assists them in hiding from human hunters. They have a strong sense of smell, and collect information from their surroundings by flicking their tongues to obtain gases from the air. They then rub their tongues on the vomeronasal organ (VNO), or the Jacobson’s organ, which judges the scent and gives them a sense of their surroundings. Their other sense organ, known as the pit organ, is extremely temperature-sensitive. This organ is located directly below the scales, above their upper lips. These organs help them to locate warm-blooded prey on nights when the temperature is comparatively cool.
The Burmese python is able to adjust its metabolic rate and features of its internal anatomy to meet its physiological needs more effectively than nearly any other animal. One of the most remarkable abilities of the Burmese python is their ability to swallow and digest extraordinarily large prey despite their bilateral, tubular structure. They utilize rear-pointing teeth to seize prey and wrap their body around it, killing by constriction. This process includes far more than unhinging the jaw and expanding the mouth. In order to consume large prey, such as a chicken, the Burmese python undergoes “physiologic remodeling.” Their metabolic rate can increase as much as 15 times from its resting rate to digest a massive meal. This is accompanied by a 35 to 40 percent increase in the mass of its liver, heart, kidneys, and small intestine in just one to two days. The ventricular mass of the heart increases by approximately 45 percent, which enables their heart to pump fifty percent more blood per beat than at rest. After digestion is complete, the process reverses. The metabolic rate and organs that temporarily doubled in size return to their normal state. Following the consumption of prey, the Burmese python will then fast, often for weeks or months at a time.
The Burmese python’s ability to expand its organs and quicken its metabolism to consume large prey can be traced back to its unusually rapid evolution and the adaptation of its specialized genes. Scientists suggest that gaining a deeper understanding of how Burmese pythons accomplish such feats could hold vital clues for the development of treatments for many human diseases.
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