Indiana University Research & Creative Activity


Volume 30 Number 1
Fall 2007

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Bone Crunchers

by Jeremy Shere

It's rare for a scientist to discover something entirely new in nature. Robert Pope, a biologist at Indiana University South Bend, is one of the lucky few. Working with fellow biologist Jean-Hervé Lignot of Louis Pasteur University in France, Pope has found a previously unknown cell in the digestive tracts of Burmese pythons that may be a key to why the snakes can survive on only a few meals per year.

Burmese pythons are culinary opportunists. They lie low, waiting for prey to wander by, and then pounce. Consequently, the snakes don't eat much--in a good year, they may swallow and digest one or two wildebeests and a deer. (There's at least one documented case of a python attempting to swallow and digest a large alligator--a gastronomic experiment that ended badly for both creatures when, in mid-swallow, one of the alligator's legs ripped through the snake's intestine.)

An animal that eats so infrequently must have a digestive system able to make the most of every meal. When a python feeds, its stomach balloons, its intestinal mass doubles, and its heart enlarges to pump more nutrient-absorbing blood--physiological mechanisms that have been well documented by other researchers. What's new, Pope says, is the identification of a type of cell, called a "pit cell," in the python's intestine that captures bits of bone and milks calcium.

"We initially thought that pythons were getting too much calcium, which is toxic in high concentrations, and that the cells were there to get rid of excess calcium," says Pope, whose discovery garnered a spot on NPR's Science Friday. "But then we found that the cells actually grab bone particles and digest them. I don't know of any other cell in another animal that does this."

Although more research is needed to determine exactly how the cells work, they are clearly there to help Burmese pythons absorb the maximum amount of nutrients from their rare meals. Examine a python's fecal matter, Pope says, and you'll find mostly hair and only trace amounts of bone matter. Everything else--bones included--has been digested.