MAR./APR. 2006 VOLUME 108 NUMBER 5
King Snake | AN UNUSUAL FAMILY HEIRLOOM FINDS A NEW HOME
WHERE DO YOU DISPLAY your twenty-six-foot-long reticulated python? First, find a very long wall. For the Cornell Museum of Vertebrates, new owners of a giant snake skeleton donated by Reed McJunkin '32, the only space big enough to handle the reptile was a hallway tucked away in a non-public area at the Lab of Ornithology. This spring, visitors at the Lab of O will be able to ask for a staffguided viewing of the python that McJunkin and his family knew as "Ralph."
McJunkin's father, Norman, shot the snake while stationed in the Philippines in 1915 with the Army's Bureau of Insular Affairs. The elder McJunkin was an avid hunter who often went into the countryside with Army officers and local guides. His party was gathered around a campfire one night when a commotion in the trees prompted him to fire a shotgun into the darkness. The next morning, the hunters found the carcass of a reticulated python at the base of a tree. They measured the snake and left it among nearby ten-foothigh anthills before heading into the mountains. A few days later, they returned to find the animal's defleshed remains. McJunkin gathered the bones and brought them back to the U.S., where he stored them in his Pittsburgh basement in two cardboard boxes--one for vertebrae, the other for skull and ribs.
For decades, Ralph the python lived a quiet second life as a family heirloom. Its spine strung on a cord, the snake made appearances on holidays such as New Year's Eve, says Reed McJunkin, now ninety-seven. "When things slowed down around one o'clock, I'd drag out the snake skeleton and string it out on the living room floor. A couple of the women would get down on their knees and try to count the vertebrae." Norman McJunkin eventually gave the skeleton to his son, who decided to donate it to Cornell in 2003. "I thought it was time that we took Ralph out of the basement and gave him a new home," he says.
The reticulated python is the longest reptile in the world (one example measured thirty-three feet), and putting Ralph's almost one thousand bones in the proper order proved a daunting task for herpetologist Harry Greene, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology. In August 2003, Greene summoned a pair of snake osteology experts from Lehigh University to help. "We wanted to get this right," Greene says, "and snake skeletons are obviously very complicated." They reassigned some of the roughly 360 vertebrae and discovered that many smaller bones, including about a hundred ribs and the small vestigial pelvis, were missing. They also determined that Ralph had not lived an easy life: numerous healed fractures offered evidence of at least two or three "traumatic events" involving prey. "Pythons ambush from hiding by striking, seizing in their jaws, and then killing by constriction," Greene says. "Doing that to something like a large wild pig could be dangerous for the snake as well."
Ralph would have weighed more than 165 pounds in life and was undoubtedly a she: female pythons are far longer than males. Reassembled and mounted, the snake now stretches twenty-two feet, consistent with Norman McJunkin's original measurements, given the loss of soft tissue between bones. Its scientific and educational value is significant, Greene says, because few big snakes--especially ones collected in the wild--make it to museums where they can be studied. He's queried other museums, including the American Museum of Natural History and the Smithsonian, and so far hasn't found any with a specimen as long. "Here was a large reticulated python skeleton from a known locality, and it was reasonably intact," he says. "We rarely get this kind of glimpse into the lives of such animals."