Jos Bakker, a Dutch web designer on vacation, first spotted and filmed the rare incident at a swampy roadside in the Masai Mara National Reserve. In short order, Bakker and his tour guide passed word along to scientists at Fisi Camp, the field site of Michigan State University zoologist Kay Holekamp, who has studied Masai Mara’s spotted hyena clans since the 1980s. (Learn more about hyenas' intelligence and complex social lives.)
On the evening of March 1, Fisi Camp research assistants Mike Kowalski and Olivia Spagnuolo then went out looking for the snake, skeptical that a python could take down a carnivore as large and as smart as a hyena. “To my knowledge there has been no precedent for this in terms of documentation,” says Kowalski via email. “Large carnivores can certainly interact with large pythons, as their cubs are probably on the menu, but an adult lion or leopard or hyena would likely dispatch the python very quickly.”
But the next morning, they discovered what Kowalski described in a Holekamp lab blog post as “a gigantic rock submerged in a swamp”: a sated, swollen rock python that clearly had eaten something large.
By comparing Bakker’s footage with the snake before them, Kowalski and Spagnuolo were forced to conclude that the python had, in fact, ambushed the hyena and constricted it before it could get away—likely an epic struggle. Kowalski suspects that the rock python attacked the hyena as it wandered through a drainage area in search of an afternoon resting spot.
Fortunately, the python did not snack on one of their research subjects; its prey was likely a newcomer male seeking out a new clan before he met his untimely end.
“For the hyena, I would say this rock python had to be perfect,” says Kowalski. “If it did not immediately strike and coil the neck-chest region to immobilize the head, the hyena could've easily crushed the python's skull.”
If any snake is going to kill a hyena, it's the rock python: Africa's largest snake, which can get up to 25 feet long and weigh up to 200 pounds, is notoriously aggressive. They're "so mean, they come out of the egg striking," Kenneth Krysko, senior herpetologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, said in a previous interview.
In its native habitat, sub-Saharan Africa, the African rock python eats small mammals, antelope, warthog, herons, and other animals.
Pythons and boids are known for their ambitious appetites: Indonesia’s reticulated pythons can take down and eat slow lorises, sun bears, and even adult Sulawesi pigs, which weigh between 90 and 150 pounds. Green anacondas in South America can comfortably eat capybaras, the world’s largest rodents.
Pythons and other large nonvenomous snakes kill their prey by constricting them, which cuts off blood flow through the prey’s body. Restricting blood flow quickly starves the heart, brain, and other vital organs of oxygen, causing cardiac arrest and rapid organ failure. (Read "Why We Were Totally Wrong About How Boa Constrictors Kill.")
The snakes then swallow their prey whole, relying on exceptionally flexible jaws to accommodate the meal. “Snakes have no chin, no chin bone, so their jaws aren't connected the way ours are; there’s nothing to dislocate,” Terry Phillip, curator of reptiles at Reptile Gardens in Rapid City, South Dakota, said in a previous interview. “Instead there are really stretchy ligaments that determine how wide the mouth can open.”
If the snake successfully swallows its prey—which doesn’t always happen—digesting the meal could take weeks, particularly if a prey item is as massive as this rock python’s hyena. (See giant python meals that went bust.)
“[The python] will likely lie motionless in a warm, safe place nearby for a couple of months [and] will digest the hyena in totality,” wrote Kowalski in his blog post. “Given a kill of this magnitude, it will not need to eat for several months after.”
But it will take far longer for the surrounding humans to digest the story: Already, Kowalski says that news of the rock python has ricocheted across Masai Mara and surrounding conservancies. “That rock python has become a local legend,” he adds. “At this point, I wouldn't be surprised if people are being told there's [a] monster rock python on the war path and hunting down hyenas left and right.”