News from the Field, Press Release

Snake-eat-snake world: Python cannibalism caught on camera in Far North Queensland

18 Oct. 2023
Nick Stock/AWC

It wasn’t necessarily an average day in Far North Queensland for Nick Stock. Only three months into the role as Sanctuary Manager at Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s (AWC) Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Sanctuary (on Wik and Wik Way country), Nick was checking on the status of a second arson event in less than a fortnight across the 165,000 hectare property. If it weren’t for his attentive nature and keen eye, he’d almost have been too distracted to see nature at its absolute wildest – a cannibalism event featuring a Black-headed Python consuming another Black-headed Python while it was still alive.

Nick, who had relocated to the sanctuary with his wife Holly Stock and their two children in July, was walking along the banks of the Archer River in the southern boundary of the sanctuary, when he spotted the distinct and beautiful black head of a Black-headed Python. The individual had wrapped itself around another creature and appeared to be constricting its prey.

 

Nick Stock was checking on the status of unplanned fires when he spotted a Black-headed Snake in the midst of a cannibalism event. Nick Stock/AWC
Nick Stock was checking on the status of an unplanned fire when he spotted a Black-headed Snake in the midst of a cannibalism event.

 

Trying not to disrupt the feast, Nick slowly creeped closer. That’s when he noticed something unusual about the python’s prey – it was snake-like and it too had a black head. Nick quickly realised that the Black-headed Python was about to eat a smaller Black-headed Python tail first.

“It was a surprise at first, but I feel really fortunate to witness such an event,” said Nick. “I have previously witnessed Black-headed Pythons eating an Eastern Brown Snake and a Yellow Spotted Monitor, however, this was the first time I witnessed a Black-headed Python eating another Black-headed Python.”

“Fortunately for me but not-so-fortunately for the python being consumed, it took around 15 minutes from when I first witnessed the initial constriction to the python finishing its meal and returning to its burrow which was only about 10 feet away. This gave me plenty of time to get a camera and document the event.”

 

Black-headed cannibalisms have been witnessed in captivity but seeing it in the wild requires a fair bit of luck, which Nick seemed to have plenty of that day. Nick Stock/AWC
Black-headed cannibalism has been witnessed in captivity but seeing and documenting it in the wild requires a fair bit of luck, which Nick seemed to have plenty of that day.

 

Black-headed Pythons give new meaning to the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ with cannibalism known to occur occasionally in this species in captivity. Dr Helena Stokes, AWC Wildlife Ecologist, said witnessing and documenting a cannibalism event in the wild requires a fair bit of luck.

“Although cannibalism has been witnessed in this species in captivity and has been reported in the wild, getting images or footage of such an event in the wild is quite unusual and lucky,” said Dr Stokes.

 

The feast took around 15 minutes from when Nick first noticed the constriction to the python retracting to its nearby burrow. Nick Stock/AWC
The feast took around 15 minutes from when Nick first noticed the constriction to the python retracting to its nearby burrow.

 

“Black-headed Pythons prefer to eat reptiles over mammals and are known to eat larger reptiles including goannas, and even venomous snakes, so I’m not surprised that they would consume another python if the opportunity arose,” added Dr Stokes. “By consuming other individuals, they are also reducing competition for resources in the area.”

“I’m new to Far North Queensland, having moved here just a year ago, and was lucky enough to see my first Black-headed Python just a few weeks ago, at AWC’s Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary (Gugu Badhun country) in north-east Queensland.”

 

The cannibalism event was spotted along the banks of the Archer River in the southern boundary of the sanctuary. Sally Gray/AWC
The cannibalism event was spotted along the banks of the Archer River in the southern boundary of the sanctuary.

 

Situated in the remote centre of the Cape York Peninsula, Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Sanctuary is a known hotspot for unique and rare wildlife encounters. Previous sanctuary managers, Graham Woods and Sally Gray shared a bathroom with an army of Green Tree Frogs that would demand entry at 3.00am, and they enjoyed coffee, almost daily, with a juvenile Black-necked Stork nicknamed Fred, who would casually walk into their homestead.

Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Sanctuary is jointly owned by AWC and The Tony & Lisette Lewis Foundation – Wildlife Link. For more information on the sanctuary, click here.

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