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What’s the Difference Between a Boa and a Python?

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Picture this: you’re out hiking through a misty rainforest. After brushing aside some foliage, your heart leaps when a huge, powerful constrictor slithers by. Since the world’s most heavily-built snake species are all either boas or pythons, this reptile probably belongs to one of those groups. But how can you tell them apart? And from which family does “your” serpent hail?

Before breaking out the field guide, take geography into account. While pythons are Old World snakes, boas also dwell in the Americas. Note, however, that human globalization has helped many species artificially spread out and invade distant lands. For instance, just when everyone thought Florida couldn’t get any wilder, the enormous Burmese python (Python molurus bivittatus) began populating the Everglades during the 1980s, thanks largely to irresponsible pet owners.

Another decent rule of thumb is reproduction. Boas tend to bear live young, whilst all known pythons are egg-layers, with gravid mothers sometimes squeezing out over two dozen in a single clutch. Also, the two families sport slightly-different body plans. In pythons, but not boas, a pair of upper jaw bones called the “premaxillabear teeth.

At this point, you might be wondering where anacondas fit into all this. Well, these magnificent South American creatures belong squarely to the boa camp—in fact, they’re sometimes called “water boas.” Anacondas, like all king-sized constrictors, are great at snagging headlines. Yet, such giants are just the tip of the iceberg, for boas and pythons come in a wide range of shapes and sizes. True, the enormous reticulated python (Python reticulatus) can exceed twenty feet in length. The wee anthill python (Antaresia perthensis), meanwhile, usually attains a child-like twenty inches.

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Despite all the differences we’ve laid out, several boas and pythons occupy identical roles in their respective habitats. That handsome critter pictured above is an Aussie native called the green tree python (Morelia verdis). Half a world away lives South America’s emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus), which you can check out in the photo below.

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No, you’re not seeing double. Genetically, these aren’t close relatives: boas and pythons appear have been taking separate evolutionary paths for quite some time now. Nevertheless, their similarities are uncanny. Both dangle from tree branches while waiting for prey, both reach a maximum length of roughly six feet, and both start out as either red or yellow youngsters before turning into vibrant green adults.

This phenomenon’s called “convergent evolution,” a process whereby unrelated organisms independently evolve comparable traits as they struggle to adapt to similar niches or environments. Ain’t nature incredible?

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Big Questions
Why Do Cats Freak Out After Pooping?
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Cats often exhibit some very peculiar behavior, from getting into deadly combat situations with their own tail to pouncing on unsuspecting humans. Among their most curious habits: running from their litter box like a greyhound after moving their bowels. Are they running from their own fecal matter? Has waste elimination prompted a sense of euphoria?

Experts—if anyone is said to qualify as an expert in post-poop moods—aren’t exactly sure, but they’ve presented a number of entertaining theories. From a biological standpoint, some animal behaviorists suspect that a cat bolting after a deposit might stem from fears that a predator could track them based on the smell of their waste. But researchers are quick to note that they haven’t observed cats run from their BMs in the wild.

Biology also has a little bit to do with another theory, which postulates that cats used to getting their rear ends licked by their mother after defecating as kittens are showing off their independence by sprinting away, their butts having taken on self-cleaning properties in adulthood.

Not convinced? You might find another idea more plausible: Both humans and cats have a vagus nerve running from their brain stem. In both species, the nerve can be stimulated by defecation, leading to a pleasurable sensation and what some have labeled “poo-phoria,” or post-poop elation. In running, the cat may simply be working off excess energy brought on by stimulation of the nerve.

Less interesting is the notion that notoriously hygienic cats may simply want to shake off excess litter or fecal matter by running a 100-meter dash, or that a digestive problem has led to some discomfort they’re attempting to flee from. The fact is, so little research has been done in the field of pooping cat mania that there’s no universally accepted answer. Like so much of what makes cats tick, a definitive motivation will have to remain a mystery.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Animals
Listen to the Impossibly Adorable Sounds of a Baby Sloth
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Sometimes baby sloths seem almost too adorable to be real. But the little muppet-faced treasures don't just look cute—turns out they sound cute, too. We know what you're thinking: How could you have gone your whole life without knowing what these precious creatures sound like? Well, fear not: Just in time for International Sloth Day (today), we have some footage of how the tiny mammals express themselves—and it's a lot of squeaking. (Or maybe that's you squealing?)

The sloths featured in the heart-obliterating video below come from the Sloth Sanctuary of Costa Rica. The institution rescues orphaned sloths, rehabilitates them, and gets them ready to be released back into the wild.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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