Boa constrictors are large, heavy-bodied snakes found in a wide variety of habitats from Northern Mexico to Argentina. Instead of poisoning their prey, these carnivores wrap themselves around lizards, birds, or small mammals, squeeze so forcefully that blood can longer make it to the brain, and then swallow the critter whole.
Constricting around their quarry and expanding to consume it creates strong mechanical constraints that interfere with normal respiration. You might well wonder how boas can keep breathing.
Scientists from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Brown University recently reported on their research into this question. It turns out boa constrictors can shift the action of ventilating — sucking air in and pushing it out — around where they are squeezing or swallowing. They can modulate the segments of their skeletons, which resemble extremely elongated rib cages, to breathe around the places where ingesting or compressing their prey impedes inspiration and expiration.
That breathing is a complex ability isn’t quite as strange or far-fetched as it might first appear.
Though we don’t often consider it, human beings also have more than one way to breathe. For instance, we can bring air into the lungs by expanding the ribcage or contracting the diaphragm. What’s more, the construction of the human chest also gives us the ability to move in highly refined ways. The result is a varied respiratory repertoire, which makes it possible to alter our breathing according to the demands of the moment. That means we have the capacity to modulate the way we breathe according to our orientation in space — how you breathe is different depending on whether you’re standing, lying down, or upside— and the kind of activity — singing a lullaby, threading a needle, running a race, and so on — we are engaged in at the moment.
From a Feldenkraisian perspective, problems often arise when we lose our innate ability to adapt how we’re breathing to our circumstances. You can learn how to improve your breathing in the Awareness Through Movement course I call It’s a Matter of Life and Breath.
(For another series with a subtle serpentine association, please check out Shedding the Skin of the Past Year.)
Credit where credit is due:
- Thanks to Meryl R for alerting me to the New York Times article titled How Boa Constrictors Breathe While Squeezing the Life Out of Their Prey.
- I created the boa constrictor image based on a pinterest.com image (Brian F on Bones).
- If you like boa constrictor skeletons, I found one on a cool t-shirt on Etsy.
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