Later tonight on US television, people will be able to see a man attempt to become a 25-foot, giant green anaconda's dinner—willingly. And to make sure our human snake snack makes it out alive, scientists spent months designing, testing, and building one incontrovertibly snake-proof suit. Air mask, chainmail, pig's blood and all.
Paul Rosolie, the naturalist and meal-to-be, didn't come to his decision with a death wish. Rather, the whole stunt is supposedly an attempt to bring awareness to the rapid destruction of the Amazon (and don't worry, both snake and snack come out alive). While diving headfirst into an anaconda's mouth may or may not be the best way to go about that, the fact remains that if Rosolie wanted to survive rib-crushing constriction, gnashing teeth, and corrosive stomach acid, he was going to need one hell of an outfit. We spoke to Dr. Cynthia Bir, a biomedical engineer and one of the suit's lead designers, to find out what it takes to keep a man alive in the belly of the snake.
Unsurprisingly, embarking on anything anaconda-proof comes with quite a few constraints. As Dr. Bir explained to us over the phone:
Well, our first priority was to keep Paul safe, so we had to sit down and figure out what exactly he'd be facing. There were factors like protecting him from the snake's initial strike, the pressure from the snake's constriction, all the various stomach acids—and he was going to need to be able to breathe throughout the whole process.
They finally settled on something of a modular design, with each layer and add-on taking care of one the snake's potential death-traps. Step one, though, was just about monitoring Rosolie's vitals. After swallowing a tiny transmitter in the form of a pill earlier in the day, that little capsule will send signals to team of scientists (positioned nearby), giving them constant updates on Rosolie's vitals: hearth rate, breathing rate, and his core body temperature.
Speaking of body temperature, snake-proof suits—not to mention snake innards—can get awfully toasty. So layer two comes in the form of a cooling vest that's constantly circulating with water. The pipes may looks small, but they're enough to protect you in temperatures of up to 40 degrees Celsius.
Then, a Tychem chemical suit acts as the ultimate barrier between his flesh and any hydrochloric stomach acid the snake is bound to start pumping out. While the suit promises protection against a whole mess of chemicals, though, it can't do any good if an anaconda fang comes crashing through. Enter the chainmail.
Beloved by knights, shark divers, and now snake soufflés everywhere, chainmail sleeves and boxers promise to keep his fingers and baby-making bits safe from the anaconda's killer bite. And if you're thinking that leaves his entire chest open—fear not. The chainmail's just on the parts that need to move. Everything else is getting covered with a constriction-proof carbon fibre shell.
The shell gets piled on in multiple parts, leaving Rosolie joints to move about with relative freedom. Which is even more impressive considering the suit was actually tested to be able to stand up to about 300 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure. "We actually tied rope around the shell and used two tow trucks to pull it in either direction," explained Bir. Since the strongest snake grip measured in somewhere in the range of 90 psi, Rosolie's in pretty good shape.
Then, a face mask creates a seal to keep him breathing, with Dr. Bir's team keeping several backup tanks on hand to supplement the external oxygen source should the need arise (which, fortunately, it did not). Finally, stick a composite carbon fibre helmet on top, cover the whole thing in a nice, flesh-esque layer of neoprene, and you are more or less fully dressed for dinner.
The very last step, though, was about making all that armour actually appealing to a snake. Because none of this would make a difference if the snake wasn't tempted to bite down in the first place. And the easiest way to accomplish that? A light dusting of pig's blood.
Of course, even with Rosolie's many, many layers of protection, there was still a whole mess of worst-case scenarios that Bir's team had to prepare for.
We'd gone through so much testing, but there's always going to be some concern about something coming up, so we had hundreds of pages of potential protocols to deal with pretty much any situation you can imagine. And we were just monitoring Paul—there was a whole other team of herpetologists standing by monitoring the snake.
As for the real question, what's the point of all this danger in the first place? That's what animal rights activists want to know—some even going so far as to send death threats. But as Rosolie told the New York Post:
For the type of attention that this is getting and for the type of emergency that's going on down there — desperate times, desperate measures.... Once they see the show, these are people who are going to be supporters. It's a cool little dissonance there—they're all coming out against me, but I'm the guy that's been down there in the jungle trying to protect these things.
Whether the stunt actually manages to raise some real awareness remains to be seen. But at the very least, neither snake nor human are supposedly any worse for the ware—thanks in no small part to Dr. Bir and her team's highly-researched, high-tech, snake-proof coating.