Snake Poop and The Adaptive Ballast Hypothesis
by Andrew Durso
Most people probably spend as little time as possible thinking about poop, especially snake poop. Some animals produce enormous amounts of poop, like dairy cows. Others make lots of little poops - up to 50 a day in small birds.
In contrast, snakes don’t poop much at all. In fact, because they eat so infrequently, snakes probably poop the least often of almost any animal. Anyone who has kept a snake as a pet can tell you that a few days after they’re fed, most snakes tend to poop once (often in their water bowls, for some annoying reason), and they might poop again within a few more days.
Like bird poop, snake poop is made up of two parts - the brown stuff (the fecal fragment, aka the actual poop) and the white stuff (the uric acid fragment, aka the pee, in a solid form). Also like birds, most reptiles use uric acid rather than urea to excrete their excess nitrogen, which helps them conserve water.
You wouldn’t think there would be much that’s interesting about snake poop, but to a snake biologist everything about snakes is interesting. In 2002, Harvey Lillywhite, Pierre de Delva, and Brice Noonan published a chapter in the book Biology of the Vipers that detailed their studies on snake poop.
Their most amazing finding was that some snakes can go for a really, really long time without pooping. As in, over a year. It’s not because they’re constipated though - these long fecal retention periods have actually evolved for a purpose in snakes.
Here’s what happens: most snakes eat very large meals, and they eat them all in one piece. That means that when a snake eats a meal, its body mass can more than double all at once, and it can only digest that meal from the outside in, because it hasn’t chewed or cut it up into small pieces to increase its surface area. Even for the insane digestive tract of a snake, this is an incredible feat…
(read more: Life is Short, Snakes Are Long)
photos: A. Durso, Pedro Rodriguez, and Cater News Agency