Westbrook officials sent a sample of the snakeskin off to John Palcyk, a biologist at the University of Texas at Tyler, for genetic analysis. Placyk then sequenced the skinâ€™s mitochondrial genome and found that it belonged to an anacondaâ€”a shocking find that officials announced on August 30.
â€œIt was pretty unexpected, Iâ€™ll tell you that,â€ Palcyk said to Steve Annear of the Boston Globe. â€œThis was a 100 percent match to an anaconda.â€
To refine the ID, Placyk sent along his sequence to JesÃºs Rivas, an anaconda expert at New Mexico Highlands University, who compared it to a genetic database of anacondas from across South America.
In a phone call, Rivas says that the skin belongs to a female green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) thatâ€™s at least 10 to 12 years old, based on the skinâ€™s size. The snakeâ€™s genetic quirks also suggest that its ancestors were most likely from Peru or Bolivia, though the snake probably was bred in the United States. (Find out more about green anacondasâ€”the worldâ€™s largest snakes, pound for pound.)
So how did the snake end up in Maine?
First, itâ€™s still not clear whether the skinâ€™s placement was an elaborate hoax meant to stoke Wessie hype. But if Westbrook is legitimately home to a loose anaconda, Lally thinks that it was released into the wild by its owners, perhaps because they could no longer care for it.
â€œIt would have had to come from someone who either caught it or bought it somewhere, brought it here, and then decided to let it go, for some reason,â€ he says.
The green anaconda can grow up to 20 feet long and weigh a whopping 200 pounds. That’s a big body to feed. And the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, is the perfect entree.
This sort of reptile buyerâ€™s remorse is rare in Maine, says Lally, but it happens elsewhere in the United States. In Florida, the phenomenon has contributed to a boomingâ€”and ecologically disastrousâ€”population of Burmese pythons in the Everglades, an invasive group seeded mostly by the 1992 destruction of a reptile breeding facility by Hurricane Andrew. (Find out how pythons have wreaked havoc on Floridaâ€™s native wildlife.)
But given the snakeâ€™s size and age, Rivas suspects that its owners were dedicated, and he maintains instead that the anaconda got out of its enclosure. â€œPeople who have a snake of this size normally are responsible keepers, [and] itâ€™s very unlikely that they donâ€™t have the awareness that the snake wonâ€™t survive in the wild,â€ says Rivas. â€œI doubt that it was released; more likely, it escaped.â€
If Wessieâ€™s owners accidentally lost her, however, thereâ€™s a good reason why they arenâ€™t putting up â€œlost petâ€ signs: Itâ€™s illegal in Maine to own an anaconda.
Regardless, Maineâ€™s bitterly cold winter ensures that the snakeâ€™s escape will be brief, one way or another. In the wild, Rivas says that anacondas arenâ€™t found in areas with temperatures below 72Â°F. Temperatures below 50Â°F are considered fatal, and night temperatures in Maine are poised to cross that threshold.
â€œIf there is an anaconda, itâ€™ll be dead pretty soon,â€ says Lally.
Lally adds that the snake doesnâ€™t pose a major public safety threat, though he recommends that people not let their dogs and cats loose along the Presumpscot River. In the meantime, officials continue to look for the snakeâ€”and Rivas remains hopeful that they can catch it alive and unharmed.
â€œItâ€™s a curiosity, not a crisis,â€ says Rivas. â€œThe only one in danger here is the anaconda.â€
Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.