Editor’s Note: Deer camp, fish camp, the shooting range, or the gun shop—no matter where hunters and anglers get together, they’ll find something to disagree on. And why not? There’s nothing like a good argument to get your blood pumping. So, to that end, every day this week we’ll be posting stories designed to stir things up around hunting and fishing’s most pressing debates. And for variety’s sake, we’ll make some critters and cartridges go head-to-head, too. Below, it’s a battle of the baddest reptiles, who eats who?
“Gator vs. Python” seems made for Hollywood—a couple of fearsome foes with overlapping territory and competing claims to top-dog status that are bound to rumble. Godzilla vs. King Kong. Alien vs. Predator. Bigfoot vs. Loch Ness Monster.
But in South Florida, this throwdown between two of nature’s most powerful apex predators has been playing out in the real-world ever since Burmese pythons began spreading into the American alligator’s Everglades stronghold in the late 1970s. In one corner is a deadly constrictor that can stretch 20 feet long, grow to 200 pounds, and unhinge its jaws to swallow critters that would seem far too big to handle. In the other is an armored killing machine that can reach 15 feet, grow to 500 pounds, and exert around 3,000 psi of bite force on anything it traps in its toothy maw. Both have bad attitudes and big appetites that make it hard for them to back down from a fight. What happens when they clash, as the videos below prove, is both epic and unpredictable.
Sometimes the Gator Wins
Footage of American alligators subduing Burmese pythons usually shows the gator grabbing the snake by the head and whipping it around forcefully before eventually swallowing the snake whole, headfirst. Gaining control of the snake’s head seems to be a common tactic for gators who win their battle with a python, because it allows them to apply their deadly bite precisely where it will do the most damage. Confrontations like the one that unfolded in 2019 at the Shark Valley Visitor Center in Everglades National Park about 40 miles west of Miami, and another recorded this spring elsewhere in the Everglades, offer hope that at least some of Florida’s native wildlife are capable of fighting back against the invasive species that is wreaking havoc within the Glades’ diverse ecosystem.
Sometimes the Python Wins
A set of ridged bones called osteoderms combined with the alligator’s thick, horny skin, creates an exterior armor that protects it from most attackers. But even their hardened hide and massive size doesn’t always save them from pythons. Armed only with muscle power, the nonvenomous shakes can strangle a big gator, and their flexible skin allows a python to slowly engulf even the gnarliest gator without splitting itself wide open. As impressive as it may be to kill and swallow something nearly its own size, what the snake does next may be ever more remarkable: After ingesting a meal, a python produces powerful stomach acids and ramps up its metabolism, while its heart swells 40 percent and its liver more than doubles in size. Scientists who made a series of X-rays of a Burmese python digesting a gator found that within four days only the hide and skeleton of the gator remained in the snake’s gut—and by the end of a week that was gone, too.
Sometimes Both Lose
Pythons are rightly famous for their ability to swallow huge prey, but they’ve been known to overdo it. The most famous example of ill-advised gluttony was documented in 2005, when wildlife researcher Michael Barron spied a curious scene while flying over Everglades National Park. Closer examination revealed a 13-foot python with a 6-foot-long alligator sticking out of its ruptured midsection.
The gator was mostly intact, but the snake wasn’t: The python’s head was missing, severed relatively cleanly. Some theorized that the gator clawed its way out of the snake (unlikely, since pythons usually—but not always—kill their prey before swallowing it). Others suggested that the python was immobilized by its massive meal and became easy pickings for another gator. A third theory says the gator was expelled from the python’s gut due to the build-up of gases caused by the decomposition of the stomach contents of the python, the gator, or both. We’ll never know the real story, but the take-home message is that when pythons and alligators tangle, there are times when neither survives.
Sometimes It’s a Draw
A curious encounter between a cranky gator and a brazen python apparently continued for quite some time with neither combatant gaining the upper hand. The confrontation kicks off with the snake practically climbing into the gator’s open jaws before settling for repeatedly biting its foe on the nose. Even after the gator gets the python gripped firmly between its teeth, the constrictor wraps around the gator’s neck and torso several times and the stalemate begins. According to the narrator, “After an exhausting battle that lasts for hours, an unusual twist of fate occurs.” The two finally separate, but they face off nose-to-nose one last time, with the python seeming to “intimidate the alligator into a retreat.” Even heavyweights sometimes throw in the towel.
Sometimes a Cowboy Steps In
On his python excursions in the Everglades, wildlife trapper and 2020 Florida Python Challenge winner Mike Kimmel (aka The Python Cowboy) has more than once caught a python in the process of strangling a gator. He believes gators are becoming more frequent targets for pythons because the voracious snakes have so completely “eaten up” the resident small mammal populations. In a video he posted to YouTube in 2019, Kimmel discovers an 11-foot python tightly coiled around a 4-foot alligator. After grabbing the python’s head, Kimmel begins unwinding the snake from the gator, whose mouth gapes open as it gasps for air. The snake eventually drops its prey to focus on fighting Kimmel. “After the gator was free, it was definitely a little dazed and took a little bit for it to make its way back to the water,” Kimmel says, “but it eventually swam off.”