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Ralph, the McJunkin Family Python

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The story of this Reticulated Python (Python reticulatus)

The MCJunkin Family Python
Reticulated python (Python reticulatus)

How Was the Python Found?

This spectacular 19-foot-long skeleton of a reticulated python was donated to Cornell University by Reed L. McJunkin, College of Engineering, Class of ’32. It was collected in 1915 and brought back from the Philippines by Mr. McJunkin’s father, Norman L. McJunkin.

Norman McJunkin found the python while he was stationed in Santa Maria, northwestern Luzon, where he taught and supervised the development of local schools. An avid hunter, he occasionally arranged trips to the nearby mountains for groups of Army Officers. The groups usually included four or five hunters and at least that many local people to carry supplies.

On the first night of such a trip in 1915, Norman’s party gathered around a large campfire they built in the middle of camp. Local Filipinos were terrified of snakes, and the men became visibly agitated by a loud commotion in a nearby tree, evidently caused by some animal disturbed by the smoke. Norman fired a shotgun two or three times in the direction of the noise. A few minutes later something crashed to the base of the tree but no one dared investigate in the darkness. The next morning they discovered the ruckus had been made by a now dead python, about 26 feet (7.9 meters) long. Since it was impractical to carry the python on the rest of the trip, they laid the carcass out in a nearby cluster of ten-foot-high anthills and continued into the mountains.

When they returned a few days later, Norman’s party found that the python had been cleaned of all flesh by ants. Norman gathered the bones and eventually brought them back to the United States, along with a small collection of Philippine baskets and other souvenirs. Over the next four decades the python skeleton resided in Norman’s Pittsburgh and New York homes, where he delighted in showing it to friends and family. The snake was known informally as “Ralph,” and his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren came to view it as an expected family ritual that the skeleton would be laid out across the parlor floor for display.


Assembling the Skeleton

Before the skeleton was mounted for public display, Cornell herpetologist Harry Greene enlisted the aid of two experts on snake osteology, David Cundall and Frances Irish of Lehigh University, in studying the massive specimen. They spent dozens of hours painstakingly examining and reassembling the more than 1,000 individual bones. The skeleton had been stored with the vertebral column strung on a cord, with the ribs and skull elements boxed separately.

With so many bones, it was not surprising that the skeleton required the help of specialists. For example, the sequence of the strung vertebrae included some errors. The roughly 360 vertebrae were reassigned to their proper position based on measurements and alignment of adjacent articulating surfaces. Further, about one third of the skull elements, more than 100 ribs, the vestigial pelvis, and the tiny hind limb spurs are missing—easily understandable given the difficulties Norman would have had in recovering these small bones, especially in a situation where scavengers might have rapidly removed some of them.

The mounted skeleton is about 19 feet (5.8 meters) long, reasonably close to the original measurement of 26 feet when one considers shrinkage caused by the bones drying, the loss of soft tissue from around the vertebrae, and tight juxtaposition of bones in the prepared specimen.


Scientific Significance


Scientifically, the McJunkin family python skeleton is especially interesting for several reasons. There are relatively few giant snakes in museums with accurate data  identifying where the animal was collected, so this one affords future researchers the unusual opportunity to study the skeletal anatomy of a wild individual from a specific locality.

Although the bones themselves provide no evidence about the big snake’s sex, its size suggests that it was probably a female. Male reticulated pythons typically reach only about 16 feet (5 meters) in length and all really large individuals are females. Based on measurements of wild individuals, the McJunkin python would have weighed more than 165 pounds (75 kilograms) in life.

The Cornell and Lehigh University researchers discovered striking proof that this snake had survived at least three violent incidents. At least 50 ribs showed evidence of healed fractures (visible as enlarged bumps, usually about one third to one half the distance down a rib from the backbone). Moreover, there are at least two regions where sets of adjacent vertebrae have broken, as well as healed neural spines and other evidence of injury.

We’ll never know whether these fractures were caused by encounters with predators or prey. Adult female reticulated pythons eat deer, wild pigs, monkeys, and even occasionally people, but the healed injuries show that even such a formidable serpent can have a rough go of it at times, yet survive.


Acknowledgments

This enormous python skeleton will inspire students, visitors, and scientists in perpetuity, thanks to Reed McJunkin’s far-sighted generosity in donating the specimen to Cornell and providing for its exhibition. We are also grateful to Mr. McJunkin’s grandson, Scott Palmer, for overseeing its careful shipment to Ithaca, and to Allison Riley, Charles Dardia, John Friel, Kim Bostwick, and Scott Sutcliffe for facilitating its installation here.

Created by ksb6
Last modified 2014-04-09 13:34