When mysterious rumors of a massive snake began perplexing a Maine town, it took University of Texas Tyler biology professor to identify the culprit.
Dr. John Placyk said he's a fan of "weird" news and had been following rumors of a massive snake being sighted in Westbrook, Maine over the course of the summer. The beast had attained an almost mythical status, with locals dubbing it Wessie P. Thon, and some even began churning out merchandise to honor the critter.
Rumors came to life when locals found a 12-foot long shedding of snakeskin near a riverbank.
Placyk said he was skeptical of an intact shedding of that size being found but said the police could have set it up neatly for the photo.
"So I contacted Westbrook Police Department and offered to identify it for them," he said. "They sent me a small piece, and I immediately started the (extraction process)."
Officers told Placyk they had personally witnessed a massive snake eating a beaver or similar sized mammal, which piqued his interest even more.
Placyk was trained as a behavioral biologist, but when he began his doctoral studies, he moved into genetics research. He also is heavily involved in the study of threatened species.
"It was a skill that helped me answer some questions," he said. "I was looking at snakes on islands (in Lake Michigan) and wanted to know why they were different."
Placyk spent about six hours over the course of last Thursday and Friday working on the shedding to get it ready to send off to a lab.
Placyk said he was shocked when the results came in on Tuesday. He had expected to find the culprit was simply a large rat snake, but it was identified as a green anaconda derived from Peruvian relatives and that Peru is a common source for pet trade anacondas.
He joked that the lab may have worked the sample so quickly because he labeled it "mystery snake."
"They don't have anything this big up (north)," he said. "The question is, 'did someone put the skin there ... and is the anaconda what they've seen?'"
The snakes can grow up to 30 feet long. By Placyk's estimate, the 12-foot shedding is indicative of a juvenile that would measure in at around 9 and a half feet, due to the skin stretching as it sheds.
Placyk said the snake wouldn't last long in the far north of the United States.
"They're from the tropics, so once it hits 50 degrees, it's going to conk out and not be able to function," he said. "I think it will freeze to death before they find it."
Placyk said the anaconda would fair slightly better in East Texas, but one cold winter would be enough to wipe it and any others out.
"That's one of the problems with southern Florida - irresponsible pet owners," Placyk said. "It would have a good chance of surviving (in East Texas) if the winter was mild, but it's only going to take one bad winter to wipe them out."
Placyk said instances like this have led to ecological disaster in south Florida as foreign species such as anacondas, Nile crocodiles and other exotic pets have taken over the swamps and marshes and bred unchecked.
The best course of action, he said, is for residents of Westbrook to let trained professionals find the snake.
"They're not nice. If you encounter it, you're best off leaving it to the professionals," he said. "And if you're a poodle, you're dead."
For now fans across the country eagerly await updates as Wessie continues to roam the wilderness of Maine.