If you're volunteering to be swallowed by a giant green anaconda… yeah, you're going to want to wear more than just a T-shirt.
In Discovery's Eaten Alive special (airing this Sunday), snake researcher and conservationist Paul Rosolie is the one volunteering, but he's not going in there alone. He'll be wearing a protective suit designed to keep him alive while the giant snake strikes, constricts, and ultimately ingests him.
So how do you design a suit that can allow a man to become a snake's dinner and still live to tell the tale? To find out, we asked Dr. Cynthia Bir, biomedical engineer and professor of research at USC. She's won a pair of Emmys for lending her scientific expertise to TV shows like Sports Science, and now she's part of the team constructing Paul's snake-proof suit for Eaten Alive.
"We wanted to keep Paul safe, so the first step was to determine the things he might be exposed to," Bir explains. "We need to protect him against the snake's strike, and the actual constriction, and any gastric acids that may be released from the snake." So the protective suit ended up being made of multiple layers, each designed to protect against a specific danger.
First, Paul dons a biometric vest equipped with a Bluetooth health monitor: "We wanted to be able to monitor Paul's biometrics: his heart rate, his respiratory rate, his core body temperature while everything was happening. So that had to be closest to him," Bir says. Then he adds a cooling vest on top of that designed to keep him from overheating while inside the snake's body.
Over that, Paul wears a full-body Tyvek hazmat suit (it looks like what Walter White wore to cook meth on Breaking Bad) to protect against the snake's gastric juices. And no, no one had to actually climb inside a snake to test that layer out, Bir assures us. Instead, "We looked at what captive snakes had been known [to have], in terms of their gastric pH, and we tested using that level of acid on the suit to make sure there was no breakdown of the suit."
Paul also wears a layer of chainmail-type material to defend him against the snake striking him with its fangs. Finally, what Bir calls the "most important" layer: an ultra-strong carbon-fiber shell to defend against the snake's crushing constriction. And that element was definitely tested in advance. "We did a really elaborate test where we took the torso section and tied a big rope around it — boat ropes, you know, the really big nautical ones — and then we had two tow trucks pull on each side to constrict. We tested it to over 300 psi, and it didn't fail." (By comparison, the highest measured force from a constricting anaconda is 90 psi.)
All these layers of protection present another problem, though: How do you keep Paul small enough that the anaconda will still view him as prey? Bir says they worked hard to make sure the finished suit wasn't too bulky: "We wanted to keep his profile as small as possible to have the greatest success in terms of him being eaten. So we had to make sure that we didn't add inches to his girth."
But for all your armchair adventurers out there, don't think that you can just slip into this suit and jump into an anaconda's mouth. For one thing, the suit is custom-made: "We actually did a full-body scan of Paul," says Bir. "So this suit fits Paul and no one else. If anybody else has a burning desire to go and get eaten by a snake, they're gonna have to get their own suit made."
Plus, Paul is a trained snake expert: "For as young as he is, he has tons of experience working with anacondas," Bir reminds us. "I don't think this is something that a person off the street can say, 'Hey, I want to go try this out.' You have to know how to interact with the snake. There's still a lot of danger, even though he had this suit."
And of course, she says, safety was the top priority for everyone working on Eaten Alive. "You would not believe the safety protocols we had in place for this; it was like a book that we all went through. We had several meetings about, 'OK, this is code red, this is code orange, this is code yellow, when do we stop this?' We had an ambulance on standby, we had a veterinarian on standby for the snake… this is definitely one of those things that's 'DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME.'"
Bir won't reveal how they were able to get Paul back out of the snake again ("That might be giving away too much"), but she's happy for the opportunity to use TV as a teaching tool. "I love the fact of getting the science out in front of people. I think once you watch the show, you'll see the science. We did a lot of different things to try to educate the general public on the Amazon and about just how powerful these creatures are."
Eaten Alive airs Sunday, Dec. 7 at 9 p.m. on Discovery.