African rock pythons rank among the largest snake species in the world, and they're capable of gobbling down everything from warthogs and herons to adult antelope and even the odd crocodile. Hyenas, though? We can't imagine they feature on the menu too often...

While on safari in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve earlier this month, Dutch tourist Jos Bakker came across a writhing ball of reptilian predation near a swampy culvert beside the road. It turned out to be a 13-foot rock python gorging itself on an adult hyena.

These massive snakes have been known to dine on other predators from time to time, but it's practically unheard of for one to successfully take out a carnivore as sizeable and cunning as a fully grown hyena.

Aware that the sighting was something special, Bakker and his tour group reached out to a clan of hyena researchers at a nearby camp. Research assistants Mike Kowalski and Olivia Spagnuolo were skeptical at first. "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," Kowalski told National Geographic.

Kowalski and Spagnuolo are based at Fisi Camp, the field site for zoologist Kay Holekam, a hyena researcher who has been studying the clans around these parts for over three decades. Losing a hyena to a python would have been a first.

Eager to get to the bottom of the incident, the research assistants headed out the next morning to see if they could track down the snake. And track it down they did: the constrictor was found submerged in a swamp, its swollen belly full of carnivore.

While it seems hard to believe, Kolawski suspects that the savvy snake did indeed manage to ambush and constrict the hyena. These spotted predators often seek out cool spots to rest in the afternoon heat, and the unlucky victim possibly wandered past the wrong spot at the wrong time.

Fortunately for the researchers (not so much for the hyena), this individual was not a member of the clans currently being studied. Instead, the animal was more than likely a young male on the lookout for a clan to join.

To pull off the attack without injury, the python would have had to time its ambush perfectly. "If it did not immediately strike and coil the neck-chest region to immobilise the head, the hyena could've easily crushed the python's skull," Kowalski explains.

Being nonvenomous constrictors, pythons use their powerful bodies and needle-like, backward-facing teeth to grip their prey before squeezing it with enough force to cut off the blood supply, resulting in organ failure and cardiac arrest. Sorry, hyena. What a way to go.


H/t: National Geographic

Top header image: Arno Meintjes/Flickr