During most of the last half of the 20th century the longest snake was considered to be the Anaconda, (Eunectes murinus) because of a record that became known as the Dunn-Lamon record. In 1944 Emmett Reid Dunn, a well known and respected herpetologist published an article on the reptiles of Columbia in the journal Caldasia. It included a statement that his friend, Robert Lamon, a geologist working for the Richmond Oil Company had killed and measured an 11.5 meter anaconda in eastern Colombia. Raymond Gilmore, of the US Fish and Wildlife Service, investigated this record, in 1954 he found Robert Lamon working for the Northern Natural Gas Producing Company in Calgary, Alberta. In a letter dated May 19th 1954 Lamon wrote to Gilmore and stated that he did kill and measure an anaconda on the Meta River. In that letter he stated the following.
"I remember measuring the beast with a four-meter stadia rod and if my memory serves me right it required almost three lengths of the rod to obtain the dimensions but I could not swear to this in that it may have been almost two lengths of the rod. However, this occurred sometime in about 1939 or 1940 just before I met Dix Dunn in Colombia. Therefore the measurements must have been fresh in my mind and if I so reported it to Dunn I feel confident that the 11.5 meters is correct."
Gilmore wrote in his unfinished manuscript the following.
"The verdict on the anaconda of 11.5 m (37.5 ft) is now up to the herpetologists. I think that I have shown that it is questionable, and that the snake could have been 7.5 m or 24 feet (almost 2 length, 7.5 m, of a 4-meter stadia rod instead of almost 3 lengths, 11.5 m)."
The 11.5 m Anaconda was widely cited as the documentation that the longest snake was in fact the Anaconda. The record was cited by Oliver (1958), Pope (1961), Minton and Minton (1973) and in numerous popular references including several encyclopedias. Unfortunately, Gilmore’s letter went unpublished and unrecognized. After his death, the letter and unfinished ms were deposited in the archives of the San Diego Natural History Museum where Gilmore had been Curator of Mammals. Van Wallach, then at Harvard University obtained copies of the files, and in the early 1990’s sent them to me. In 1993 I published them in the Bulletin of the Chicago Herpetological Society.
The Unlikely 33 Foot Sulawesi Reticulated Python
A report of a 33 foot or 33.5 foot Reticulated Python (Broghammerus reticulatus) from Sulawesi (then known as the Celebes) is frequently cited as the record sized snake. The origin of this story can be traced to an article written by Harry C. Raven, a museum collector who traveled the East Indies between 1921 and 1923. The published report comes from a 1946 article in Natural History Magazine about an incident that happened in 1912. Raven wrote,
"I left the schooner and went inland a short distance to camp on the mountains, which were covered with virgin jungle. The white men at the mine told me of a huge python one of their relatives had killed a few days before my arrival, and showed me a very poor photograph of it taken after it had been killed and dragged to camp. Though the print was dull, you could see a man standing on the huge body, which was about a foot thick. The civil engineer told me it was just ten meters (33 feet) long. I asked him if he had paced off its length, but he said no, he had measured it with a surveying tape."
There are reasons to seriously doubt Raven's story. It has all the classic signs of a fabrication or seriously exaggerated giant snake story. The snake was killed just before he arrived; the photo was poor in quality. And, exactly how do you get a photo developed in a few days in 1912 Sulawesi? A 10 m (32.8 foot) snake is likely to be much more than 12 inches in diameter. Additionally, Raven goes on to tell about another big snake that was captured by tribal people while he was there but they ate it! Alas, he had no proof. The Raven story is not acceptable documentation for a 33 foot Reticulated Python.
The 18 Foot Boa constrictor That was Really an Anaconda
Field measurements of snakes have also turned out to be less than reliable. Oliver (1958) and Pope (1961) both accepted them but consider the following. Clifford Pope’s (1961) classic text, The Giant Snakes, reports what Pope considered to be the record size for the Boa constrictor. He wrote,
The accepted record length for the boa constrictor is unusual in that it is based on a field measurement (by a scientist) that appreciably raises the formerly accepted maximum. This field measurement was made by Colin F. Pittendrigh, who encountered the big snake one morning in a swampy area of the Central Range of Trinidad. It was coiled up in the hollow end of a tree trunk, from which it had to be extracted by means of poles. After it was shot, Pittendrigh determined its length in the flesh as 18½ feet. This is the kind of field observation which cannot be lightly discredited.
An 18½ foot boa would be 5.64 m. James Oliver (1958) previously cited this same record as being the maximum sized Boa constrictor. Sherman and Madge Minton (1973) also accepted this size record in their book Giant Reptiles as did John Mehrtens (1987) and Scott Weidesnsaul (1991) in their books on snakes. In the 1986 edition of Snakes of the World, Chris Mattison reported the Boa constrictor to reach 6 m or 20 feet, a length not supported by any specimens. But in his Encyclopedia of Snakes (1996) he reported a maximum length of 4 meters.
However, Hans E. A. Boos (1992) curator of the Emperor Valley Zoo in Trinidad investigated further and contacted Pittendrigh. Boos received a letter from Pittendrigh dated March 12, 1980. Pittendrigh was then Director of the Hopkins Marine Station operated by Stanford University. Pittendrigh described the 1944 encounter with the huge snake in the Guico-Tamana area of Trinidad. The snake was basking on a fallen tree; it was killed, and skinned. The skin was said to be 30 feet long but the animals was “about 18 feet long.” That night the skin was destroyed by stray dogs. Boos pressed Pittendrigh for more information and the confusion between the Boa Constrictor and the Anaconda (Eunectes murinus). In a second letter Pittendrigh admitted that he really did not know the difference between the Anaconda and the Boa Constrictor. Boos later made contact with Yussuf Khan, a local man who had worked with Pittendrigh and asked him about the big snake, Khan said it was large, green, and that it was a “Huille,” the local name for the Anaconda. Thus the record sized, 18 foot (5.49 m) Boa constrictor was in fact a misidentified Anaconda (Eunectes murinus).
Fragrant Flower, A 21st Century Giant that Shrinks
Just because a large snake is in captivity does not mean its size is safe from exaggeration. John Aglionby (2004), a reported for The Guardian newspaper investigated the story of a 14.85 m (47.8 ft), 447 kg Reticulated Python (Brongersmanus reticulatus) that was 150 years old. It was said to be living in a tourist park in the small village of Curug Sewu, about 40 miles south Semarang in central Java. People paid 2500 rupiah to see the giant snake. Darmanto was the owner and keeper of the giant python known as Fragrant Flower, and he originally claimed the snake came from Sumatra, while a tourism officer said it came for a locality in Java. The reticulated python lives in a 9.5x4.5 m cage of corrugated iron and was fed several dogs each month.
Aglionby placed a tape measure on the giant snake and found that it fell far short of the 15 m length reported by the park. He measured the animal at 6.5 to7 m and estimated its weight at a maximum of 100 kg. When Darmanto was queried about the actual size of Fragrant Flower, he said
“…you must understand that a python’s length is not constant…Depending on the weather, on how recently he has eaten and when he last shed his skin, Fragrant can stretch and contract a great deal. A few days ago he stretched himself out halfway round the cage.”
You just can’t make up stories like these, or can you!
The Often Mentioned Béart's 32 foot African Python
Villiers (1950; 1975) reports a 9.8 m Python sebae shot at Bingerville in the Ivory Coast in 1932 by Mrs. Charles Béart. The snake was apparently killed in a school yard. In a letter to Clifford Pope dated December 25, 1958, Charles Béart states that he measured an African Rock Python that was fully 32 feet long. It was observed in a hedge of bougainvilleas at a school in Bingerville, Ivory Coast Republic and was shot by Béart’s wife. Other authors (Branch, 1984; Haagner, 1992) have considered this record lacking details that would be needed to accept the size of the snake. To my knowledge the letter to Pope and the specifics of this animal have never been investigated in detail. Although one author claims this is the largest known snake.
The Largest Well Documented Snake
The largest know snake that can be verified was documented by Barton and Allen (1961) and what makes this record unique is that they have several data points because it was a captive snake measured several times. Colossus, a female Reticulated Python (Broghammerus reticulatus) housed in the Pittsburgh Zoo from August 10, 1949 until its death. When the snake was obtained by the zoo it was 22 feet (6.7 m), on June 4, 1951 it was 23 feet 3 inches (7.1 m) (growing 15 inches or 0.38 m in 22 months). She weighed 295 pounds (133.8 kg) in February of 1954 after fasting for 4.5 months at a measured length of 27 feet, 2 inches (8.28 m). This was 47 inches (1.2 m) of growth in 32.5 months (or a growth rate of 36.6 mm per month). On November 15, 1956 she was measured at 28 feet 6 inches (8.7 m), growing 16 inches (0.4 m) in 33 months. Her average growth rate was 10.75 inches (0.27 m) per year well after she had sexually matured. Colossus would eat only pigs (refusing rabbits, chickens and ducks) and during her 11 years of captivity she ate 1991 pounds (903 kg) of pork.