The data suggest that smaller snakes have more to gain from an enlarged gape size that enables them to eat relatively larger prey. That means baby pythons have a leg up (figuratively) on other snakes their size since they can exploit a wider range of prey.

Greater body size not only provides a broader menu for snakes, the researchers add, but it also helps them stay off the menu for other predators.

“Once those pythons get to a reasonable size, it’s pretty much just alligators that can eat them,” Jayne says. “And pythons eat alligators.”

Past research shows that constrictors such as Burmese pythons kill their prey not by suffocating it, but by cutting off the helpless animals’ blood flow.

While the new research is more about understanding a biological curiosity than figuring out how to control an invasive species, it could at least help scientists anticipate the cascading effects of Burmese pythons on wetland ecosystems.

“It’s not going to help to control them,” Jayne says. “But it can help us understand the impact of invasive species. If you know how big the snakes get and how long it takes for them to get that size, you can place a rough upper limit on what resources the snake could be expected to exploit.”

The study was published in Integrative Organismal Biology.