So How Do Animals Swallowed Alive Actually Die and Do Any Animals Ever Get Out Alive After?
We’ve all heard the story of Jonah being swallowed by the whale, and then, along with his father Geppetto, creating a fire so that the whale sneezes them out … Or something like that. Whatever the case, being swallowed whole is a fate that has permeated our mythology and stories throughout time. But what is the actual typical progression to death when an animal gets swallowed whole? And are there any animals outside of more commonly known things like tapeworms that occasionally survive the ordeal and go along their merry way, whether by fighting their way out or simply being pushed out the other end?
As you might expect, death for creatures swallowed whole depends on what creatures eat them. Some of the most famous animals known for swallowing prey whole—snakes—actually kill their prey before consuming it, either through venom or constriction. However, in some instances certain animals take their prey directly into their mouths while the creature is still alive and kicking. Such creatures include frogs, certain fish and birds, varieties of snake and even people (we’re looking at you, goldfish-swallowing-craze college students).
One especially creepy example of a creature that eats its prey whole is the Kinabalu giant red leech. This large annelid/tiny lovecraftian horror preys on a species of giant earthworm native to the jungles of Borneo and sucks the whole thing into its mouth like a giant piece of spaghetti … being eaten by another giant piece of spaghetti.
While there is some contention among experts, it appears these worms are swallowed alive as there have been instances of the leeches having to spit out worms whose size they underestimated, after which point the worm goes on its wiggly way. So what happens to them once inside? It is generally thought the worms die relatively quickly, since the stifling confines of the leech’s body aren’t exactly ideal for the worm’s respiration, causing it to suffocate long before being converted into leech dooky.
In some examples, such as with certain birds, the predator may attempt to stun or incapacitate its prey with its mouthparts before swallowing, though this may simply result in debilitating injuries rather than death., A conscious trip to the stomach is also a legitimate possibility in the case of things like frogs and fish, which commonly push their food to the backs of their mouths with little or no injury before swallowing.
So, supposing an animal’s prey survives its foray in the mouth of its predator: what happens to it next? While some might claim the strong contractions of the predator’s esophagus is enough to crush the animal, anyone who’s thrown up and seen a fully intact french fry from lunch can attest that esophagial contractions are seldom strong enough to crush food- only strong enough to encourage its trip down to the stomach.
Once in the stomach, while the most obvious cause of death for animals swallowed alive would be the powerful stomach acid of a predator, it’s generally unlikely that this is going to cause the death, at least not in the flesh melting way occasionally mentioned in Hollywood. Rather, thanks to sphincters—everyone’s favorite variety of muscle—the interior of a stomach is largely bereft of breathable air. Thus, such an environment would likely cause an air-breathing animal to pass out and die
relatively quickly. By contrast, it would take much longer for stomach acid to eat through the skin or outer surface to the point where it would do any life threatening damage. Even in the case of fish being swallowed alive, the high-acid/low-oxygen content of the stomach acid and chime present in the predator’s digestive tract would likewise cause it to perish from suffocation fairly quickly.
Of course, the next question that’s bound to arise when considering this morbid issue is: Outside of obvious creatures like certain parasites, can other creatures feasibly survive being swallowed alive?
It turns out- yes. For example, some snails, which have been known to make the long and undignified journey through an animal’s entire digestive tract and come out, Shawshank Redpmetion-style, on the other end.
For example, the Tornatellides boeningi snail of Japan’s Hahajima Island are known to have a small chance of surviving an entire trip through a bird’s digestive system after being eaten. We like to imagine this process leaves the snail’s shell with a shiny new buff job, though it probably never smells quite the same.
As to how often they survive, Shinichiro Wada and his colleagues at Tohoku University found that, when these snails were fed to bird species native to Hahajima Island, about 15% of them survived the trip, with one of them even giving birth after the journey.
As for the exact mechanism that allows the snails to survive the trek down the bird’s bowels, this isn’t clear. However, the researchers theorize the snail’s shell, coupled with an ability to seal itself in with a powerful coating of mucus (called an epiphragm), prevents stomach acid from touching the snail. Additionally, the gastropod’s small size ensures that it encounters minimal complications, such as being crushed, as it makes its stinky journey. It’s even hypothesized that this mechanism might even be an element of the snail’s evolution, allowing it to propagate its species about the island via handy transportation inside birds. Scientists have seen similar phenomena in pond snails eaten by fishes and birds.
So what about other creatures? Well, in 2012, biologists in East Timor observed a strange, wormlike species of snake, known as a blind snake, emerging from the rear end of a toad. As to how the snake survives such an event, the researchers hypothesize this is due to the creatures overlapping scales, which made it resistant to damage; its wormlike shape, which allowed it to crawl through the toad’s bowels; the fact that the toad hadn’t eaten recently, leaving a nice, poop- free intestine for the snake to climb through; and, finally, the blind snake’s ability to thrive underground with only minimal oxygen.
All that said, unfortunately the intrepid blind snake died several hours after its triumphant emergence, though it wasn’t really clear why.
Moving on from there, what about animals that perhaps attempt at least to fight their way out?
While most creatures have the sense to not to swallow anything alive that has sharp spines, claws, or toxins, it just so happens that there is a kind of creature in which such a scenario has played out multiple times in the past. Enter the snake eel.
The snake eel has a barbed tail which it uses to burrow in the sand. However, when eaten by fish, it has been observed to use this tail to attempt to bore through the stomach of the animal that ate it. However, as far as researchers can tell, these attempts always end up being in vain as the eel inevitably finds itself trapped in the space between the stomach and abdominal wall, where it often suffocates, though does at least get a little revenge on its killer.
Generally, however, such SNAFUs are avoided by the evolutionary instincts of the predator in question. When it comes to the highest-evolved of animals, however, that animal’s greatest asset— personality and free thought—sometimes override this safeguard. Enter humans.
For example, in 2016 a drunk man from the Netherlands was coaxed into swallowing a live catfish. Now, for those not acquainted with catfish anatomy, these creatures have sharp spines on their pectoral fins (and in some species these spines can be quite venomous) used in self-defense scenarios … such as being swallowed by an inebriated Dutchman.
The fish ended up lodging itself in the man’s throat, and the poor reveler/zoophage was rushed to intensive care, vomiting blood, where the siluriform was subsequently and safely removed. The man lived to experience further parties, and perhaps swallow other creatures. The fish, however, while successfully achieving its goal of extraction, wasn’t so lucky: Despite its valiant efforts to carve its way from the innards of the beast that consumed it, it perished in the fight, likely due to lack of oxygen, or being drowned in cheap Dutch beer.
But have there ever been any happy endings- where an animal has safely fought their way out?
One such feat of derring-do has been observed from the bombardier beetle. These critters have the ability to release a burst of highly irritating chemicals that shoot from their insectoid moneymakers with extremely high pressure. You might recall how, earlier, we mentioned that some frogs tend to swallow prey without incapacitating it first—well, Shinji Sugiura and Takuya Sato, researchers at Kobe University, observed instances of frogs consuming the beetles, after which point the beetles’ defensive mechanisms, once applied from the confines of the frog’s stomach, would cause the amphibians to regurgitate the beetle. The beetle, in spite of its trip to the Gastric Hilton, generally remained unharmed after the ordeal.
Even more impressive is the rough-skinned newt, an amphibian that produces a powerful toxin that has the potential to kill any predators foolish enough to ignore the newt’s cautionary orange coloring. The newt’s poison is so powerful, in fact, that frogs have been observed swallowing the critter, then succumbing to the toxin so quickly that the newt has time to exit through the frog’s mouth before the predator’s digestive juices and lack of oxygen takes effect.
Moving on from there, the epomis beetle larva has been known to take things a step further. In fact, this beetle—and its nighmarish offspring—are known as frog hunters.
So how does a tiny invertebrate hunt down and slowly eat alive a creature many times its size? In short, the larvae have a tactic of dodging the frog’s tongue before being swalloed, then latching onto the creature, where they proceed to devour it. In at least one instance, however, the frog actually succeeded in consuming the larva, whereupon it was regurgitated. At this point, the food turned on its diner, grabbed it with its mandibles and proceeded to feed. Thus, not only surviving the event, but ultimately consuming the creature that swallowed it.
But let’s go back to the beginning and talk about Jonah and Pinocchio. Are there any animals that can swallow people whole and alive? Although there have been some very rare instances of snakes swallowing people, such reptiles have a means of incapacitating you first, mainly through
constriction, so you’d be dead before being swallowed, especially considering that the swallowing process in such cases would likely take hours or longer.
Crocodiles and sharks again rarely consume people, and in such cases, the prey would be dead first by being ripped apart or significant damage done by the predator’s powerful teeth and jaws. This leaves whales as the only candidate for swallowing people alive. However, the largest animals on the planet, the blue whale, along with the largest fish, the whale shark, are not equipped to swallow humans, having tiny esophagi which would cause them to choke on us. That leaves the sperm whale, the largest carnivorous cetacean.
And some experts claim that it may theoretically be possible for a sperm whale to swallow a person whole, though there are two problems with this. One is that the sperm whale’s dagger-like teeth would likely kill the prey first, in which case you’d be long dead before suffocating in the whale’s several stomachs. But this point is rendered mostly null, as sperm whales only feed deep beneath the surface of the water and would never view humans as prey. So any accidental swallowing would have to derive from a rather bizarre sequence of events.
That said, there is a commonly told story of one James Bartley being swallowed by a sperm whale in the late 1800s, after which he was cut out of the whale by fellow mariners apparently many hours later. Though his skin had supposedly been bleached white and his eyes rendered blind, he allegedly survived.
However, in more recent times, most find this story a bit farfetched, given the particulars, including the extreme amount of time Bartley supposedly spent in the whale’s insides, among other issues with the tale. On top of that, there really isn’t much of any hard evidence to indicate this actually occurred, despite the story making the rounds back in the day. Perhaps a bit akin to the legend of the dolphin Pelorus Jack that was a world-wide sensation in his day and even still widely credited today for something he never once actually did, as we tracked down for our video on the subject.
On the plus side, humans can apparently take heart in the fact that, among the multitudes of unpleasant ways we can die, we’ll never have to worry about being swallowed alive, unless Cthulhu emerges from his sunken palace beneath the tides to once more begin his terrible reign over mankind.
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