April 11, 2006

Mounted python: Cornell gets gift of what may be world's largest snake skeleton

22-foot-long skeleton of a reticulated python
Susan Spear/Cornell Lab of Ornithology
This 22-foot-long skeleton of a reticulated python has been assembled and elegantly framed in the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates. The skeleton is a recent gift to the lab from Reed McJunkin '32, who had kept the relic from his father's Army days.

The year was 1915. During a hunting expedition in the mountains of the Philippine island of Luzon, U.S. Army administrator Norman McJunkin and a group of officers and locals were sitting around a campfire when they were startled by a commotion in a nearby tree. McJunkin fired his shotgun into the darkness in the direction of the sound. Moments later something large crashed to the ground.

By the morning light, the group discovered a dead 26-foot-long reticulated python beneath the tree. It was too big to carry, so they laid the carcass over some anthills and returned a few days later to find nothing left but bones.

snake bones
Charles Dardia/Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates
The skeleton was assembled from bones that had been stored with the vertebral column strung on a cord and the ribs and skull elements in separate boxes.

Those bones are now assembled and elegantly framed in the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates research collection in the Imogene Powers Johnson Center for Birds and Biodiversity, home to Cornell's Lab of Ornithology. The skeleton, a recent gift from still-active Reed McJunkin '32, Engineering, who kept the relic from his father's Army days, is not on public view but is available to students and researchers.

"I think this is quite likely the largest specimen of a snake in any museum in the world," said Harry Greene, a Cornell herpetologist and professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. "At least I haven't been able to locate, as yet, anything larger."

Greene worked painstakingly with snake anatomy experts from Lehigh University to reassemble the skeleton from almost 1,000 vertebrae, ribs and head bones. The family had strung the skeleton's vertebral column on a cord and boxed the ribs and skull pieces separately. With some pieces missing, the final mount is 22 feet long. Greene added that the snake is also among just a handful of very large snake skeletons collected in the wild. The bones tell the story of the snake's life in the Philippines, where it had survived at least three violent incidents, as revealed by healed fractures on its ribs and breaks along adjacent vertebrae.

Alive, the giant female python weighed close to 165 pounds, large enough to prey on deer, wild pigs, monkeys and even people.