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That snake skin in Maine? It’s from an anaconda

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Snake skin found along the Presumpscot River in Westbrook earlier this month came from an anaconda.
Snake skin found along the Presumpscot River in Westbrook earlier this month came from an anaconda.

The results are in — and they're potentially terrifying.

Authorities confirmed Tuesday that a snake skin found along the Presumpscot River in Westbrook, Maine, earlier this month came from an anaconda.

"One hundred percent," said Westbrook Police Captain Sean Lally, who had a portion of the skin DNA-tested by a herpetologist at a lab in Texas.

The skin, which was found Aug. 20 and was about 12 feet long, had further fueled speculation and rumors that a mysterious reptile was living along the stream near Riverbank Park, feasting on mammals.

Since June, there have been several reported sightings of a large snake near the park. One witness claimed the creature had a head as big as a basketball, and a body as long as a truck.

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The reports — including finding the skin — garnered national media attention, and attracted cryptozoologists, those who track the likes of Bigfoot, to the city in search of the snake. Residents in Westbrook dubbed the elusive creature "Wessie," and businesses and musicians were quick to add to the fanfare by brewing a beer named after the reptile and even writing a song.

While the skin has been identified as that of an anaconda's, it's still not clear whether it was placed near the river as a prank, to perpetuate stories of Wessie's existence.

"It could be a hoax, I don't know. It's certainly interesting," Lally said of the results of the DNA test. "But I don't know where you find a 10- or 12-foot anaconda skin."

Anacondas are native to South America. They have been reliably measured at more than 30 feet long, though most do not get more than 16 feet long. They can kill animals by throwing their coils around them or by using their mouth and sharp teeth. They often drag their kills back into the water, according to britannica.com.

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Experts said the skin found by the river likely belongs to a juvenile green anaconda, the bigger of the species, that's roughly 8-to-9-feet long. Snake skin can be longer than the animal's actual body once it's shed.

Lally said various witness statements about snake sightings, including reports from two officers in his department and a public services employee for the city, seem consistent with the behavior of an anaconda.

Lally said that as a public safety entity, police have to consider the worst case scenario. But "as a person," he's skeptical about the presence of an anaconda.

"I don't know what to think at this point. Now that the skin has been identified, it's going to take it to a different level — people are going to be even more interested than they already are," he said. "It's a big mystery."

Police plan to work with specialists to try and locate, capture, and possibly euthanize the snake, whether or not it's an anaconda, according to a statement from the department that was posted on Facebook.

Derek Yorks, a wildlife biologist for the state's Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, said it's illegal to own an anaconda in Maine.

But he said it's feasible someone may have kept one as a pet, and then released it into the wild when it grew to a massive size.

"If it's indeed an anaconda, probably someone didn't want it anymore and let it go because it was big and required large food prey items," he said. "You'd have to be buying this thing rabbits or chickens."

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Yorks said it's also "totally possible" that someone in another state, or even in Maine, who has an anaconda illegally, could have brought the skin to Westbrook and placed it out in the woods along the Presumpscot River.

"The fact that police officers saw a large snake makes me think there is some big snake out there," he said. "But whether that snake matches up with the skin they found, no one knows."

The DNA testing and identification was done by John Placyk Jr., an associate professor in the department of biology at the University of Texas at Tyler.

Placyk said he reached out to Lally in Maine after he learned through a friend and on social media that the skin had been found by the river, following multiple sightings of a large snake.

Lally agreed to snip a piece of the skin off and send it to Texas. The rest is being stored at the department's headquarters.

Placyk said to identify the species, he extracted DNA from the skin and then amplified a mitochondrial gene before comparing it with a national genetic resources database.

When he got a match, his jaw dropped, he said.

"It was pretty unexpected, I'll tell you that," he said. "This was a one-hundred percent match to an anaconda."

Placyk said the question still remains whether the skin was put there "to mess with people" as interest in Wessie has grown this summer. He said it seemed "odd" that the skin was so well intact, since anacondas are known to shed in smaller pieces that can rub off on nearby branches.

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Still, "It is possible there's one there" on the river, he said, because the skin "looked pretty fresh."

With that in mind, Placyk — like police — warned the public to remain vigilant, not let small pets run loose near the river, and report any large snake sightings.

But if the snake is an anaconda, or other tropical or subtropical species, people won't need to worry about it for much longer.

"The winter will kill it," said Placyk. "Once [temperatures] start floating around 50 for a sustained period, it will most likely die in short order."


Steve Annear can be reached at steve.annear@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @steveannear.