Herpetophobes beware: Some snakes found to hunt in unison

Snakes, central characters in many a nightmare, may have just added to their bad reputations: Researchers have found that some of the slithering reptiles attack in packs.

Cuban boas hunt as a team to increase efficiency, providing evidence of the creature’s intelligence, a University of Tennessee scientist has found.

“Coordinated hunting requires higher behavioral complexity because each animal has to take other hunters’ actions into account,” said Vladimir Dinets, the study author and an assistant research professor in the school’s psychology department.

While increased food consumption is believed to be the main reason for the behavior, it’s also possible there is a social function linked to working together, according to RedOrbit.com.

Snakes have been observed to hunt together previously, but the amount of coordination was questionable, and Dinets’ research is the first scientific recording of such behavior.

A recent much-viewed video by the BBC’s Planet Earth showing a young iguana barely escaping a seemingly endless number of attacking snakes would seem to be evidence of the reptiles working toward the same goal, though necessarily in a coordinated effort.

The new research showed how individual snakes take into account the location of others.

The snakes Dinets studied were hunting fruit bats in Cuba. At dawn and dusk, they positioned themselves around the mouth of the cave in such a way as to increase the chances of catching prey.

“Snakes arriving to the hunting area were significantly more likely to position themselves in the part of the passage where other snakes were already present, forming a ‘fence’ across the passage and thus more effectively blocking the flight path of the prey, significantly increasing hunting efficiency,” an extract from the study explained.

The Cuban boa can reach 6 feet in length, which makes the fact that they hang upside down from the roofs of caves even more remarkable.

“After sunset and before dawn, some of the boas entered the passage that connected the roosting chamber with the entrance chamber, and hunted by suspending themselves from the ceiling and grabbing passing bats,” Dinets said.

Dinets observed that the positions taken up by the snakes lowered the chances of bats getting out of the cave. Brilliantly, those hanging positions also meant they behaved like the bats they were trying to catch, according to RedOrbit.com.

For the 2 percent of us that like snakes, this is fascinating; for everyone else, it’s more fodder for bad dreams.

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Evil invertebrate vs. good vertebrate: who you got?

The BBC has a report that the squeamish will find most disturbing: Invertebrates such as spiders and centipedes feasting on vertebrates, including birds, snakes and turtles.

Among incidents included in the story: A tarantula eating 15-inch snake that it had apparently subdued and killed last year in Brazil; a dragonfly catching a hummingbird in midair and eating it in 1977 in Canada; and Scolopendra centipedes, which regularly scales walls to either grab bats as they swoop past or pluck them from roosts while they sleep. The centipedes also eat birds, mice, lizards, frogs and snakes.

Even animal lovers can find this sort of behavior unnerving – after all, vertebrates typically eat invertebrates, not the other way around.

“Most of us are happy to watch vertebrates hunting vertebrates; if lions kill a giraffe, we might feel sadness but not revulsion, and we cheer when the baby iguana escapes the racer snakes. Similarly, if a vertebrate hunts an invertebrate, that seems normal: an early bird catching the worm is simply being enterprising,” according to the BBC. “But invertebrates eating vertebrates is another matter. We find ourselves horrified by crabs preying on baby turtles, wasps targeting nestling birds, or a giant centipede munching on a bat. Somehow it seems wrong, as if the natural order has been turned on its head – but why?”

The BBC surmises that the reason may be that we instinctively recognize that we are much more akin to other vertebrates than we are to invertebrates.

“We might not use the word “vertebrate,” but a dog is clearly more similar to us than a giant centipede,” it writes. “Not only does the dog have hair and the same number of limbs, it also behaves in understandable ways, displaying familiar emotions like happiness and anger.

“ … we cannot understand invertebrates in the same way that we understand dogs, lions or eagles,” the BBC added. “They are just too alien, their behavior too strange and their bodies too dissimilar. They do not have waggy tails and their eyes are never big and soulful.”

Or, as one of my daughter said when I asked why she didn’t like spiders: “Too many eyes, too many legs!”

If you’ve ever seen a frog swarmed over and stung to death by fire ants, or a lizard being stung repeatedly by a hornet, it does appear that things sometimes go amiss in the animal kingdom.

And while Scolopendra gigantea, also known as the Amazonian giant centipede, has yet to make its way to the US from South America, that’s one creepy-crawly I can foresee showing up in my nightmares.

(Top: I chose an image of a pug eating a sprinkled donut for this story because, well, the other photos, while interesting, would have undoubtedly upset lovers of baby turtles, small birds and other cute animals which happened to have fallen into the clutches of voracious invertebrates.)

Corrupt officials scarier than death, snakes, terrorists?

corruption

Given your choice, what’s your worst fear: homicidal maniacs, venomous snakes or corrupt government officials?

The third annual Survey of American Fears by Chapman University reports that most Americans are afraid of “C,” corrupt government officials, according to a story on the report published by Bloomberg.

After corrupt government officials came terrorist attacks and not having enough money for the future.

Other items which garnered significant fear among Americans included Obamacare (35.5 percent), reptiles (33.2 percent) and being killed by a stranger (21.9 percent).

Curiously, 50 percent more Americans are more afraid of corrupt government officials (60.6 percent) than terrorist attacks (41 percent).

What the above points out is that either those conducting the survey or those taking the survey don’t understand the difference between what it means to be afraid of something and what it means to be concerned about something.

To say one is afraid of corrupt government officials implies that one lives in a third world banana republic where there is constant fear that Stasi-like thugs will kick open doors in the middle of the night and drag away opponents, rather than referring to unscrupulous politicians who misuse public funds.

To be afraid of snakes is a very real fear; to be afraid of corrupt government officials, at least the garden variety ones we breed in the US, is not the same thing.

To state a fear of Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, indicates a terror of the government program, rather than worry that it won’t work, will cost taxpayers more money or will bring chaos to the country’s medical-insurance infrastructure. You may not like Obamacare, you may think it unwise politically or economically, but do you fear it in the same way as, say, you fear finding a large, angry scorpion in one of your work boots?

Other issues with the survey:

Nearly 30 percent of Americans are afraid of a devastating tornado, just over 23 percent are afraid of a devastating hurricane, slightly more than 22 percent are afraid of a devastating earthquake or a devastating flood, and 15 percent are afraid of a large volcanic eruption.

If you’re a resident of Phoenix, Az., it’s unlikely that any of those items rank high on your list, while someone in Omaha, Neb., might be worried about tornadoes and flooding, but have little fear of earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanic eruptions, at least if they’re rational.

Hawaiians have reason to worry about volcanos, but with the rare exception of eruptions like that of Mount St. Helens in 1980, the rest of the US is pretty safe from this threat.

In other words, it depends on your location, and even then, is it a “fear” or a “concern?”

Residents of Miami have reason to be concerned over a hurricane, but is it a fear that hangs over their heads like the sword of Damocles? If so, they may want to relocate. Same if you’re a San Franciscan fearful of earthquakes.

Finally, 7.8 percent of Americans are afraid of clowns. Personally, it’s not the clowns I’m concerned with, but the people who dress up as clowns.

Besieged by a (very small) plague of (very cute) toads

Girls Riding Small Frog 5 29 2016 049

There are many advantages to spring in the South, but for wildlife lovers few things beat getting out and spending time in the woods, swamps and countryside this time of year.

During the latest three-day weekend I was able to capture or catch a view of a multitude of critters – including largemouth bass, bream, box turtles, yellow-bellied sliders, cowbirds, painted buntings, egrets, blue herons, black racers, damsel flies, dragonflies, tadpoles, leopard frogs, river rats, blue crabs, fiddler crabs and hermit crabs.

In addition, I came across a hive of bees holed up in an abandoned building, a four-foot copperhead and six-foot alligator, all of which I chose to leave undisturbed.

Those that I caught – the bass, box turtles and fiddler crabs – were all freed.

But perhaps the most interesting beast I came across this weekend was the one shown at the top of this post. Near as I can tell, it’s a very young Fowler’s toad. I found it when I opened my garage Sunday morning. And there wasn’t just one of the little amphibians, but a whole slew of them hopping about.

Pharaoh besieged by plague of frogs. Note: Believed to a depiction, not a real image of the biblical plague.

Pharaoh, apparently a deep sleeper, besieged by plague of frogs. Note: Believed to be a dramatization.

I was initially reminded of the Plagues of Egypt, one of which featured the land of Pharaoh being overwhelmed with frogs, except my driveway featured perhaps a dozen of the tiny beasts and even had there been, say, millions, they were so small the only way they could have overwhelmed anyone would have been with their cuteness.

The one in the photo was desperately intent on making his way into my garage.

Recognizing that it would likely either end up under the wheel of a car or dying of heat prostration once I closed the door, I spent the better part of thirty seconds trying to convince it to head back to whence it came. It would have none of it.

Recognizing that the diminutive toad was either very bold or very stupid, I gently scooped it up and placed him on some nearby grass.

As I did so I noticed several other small toads hopping toward me. I quickly shut the garage, hopped in my car, which was parked in the driveway, and drove off. I had no desire for anyone else to take note of my newfound talent as the Pied Piper of tiny toads.

What not to step on while ambling around Africa

Puff-Adder

How’s this for lethality? An African snake noted for its potent venom, aggressive behavior and ability to ambush its prey, also has the benefit of being able to camouflage its scent.

The puff adder, found from the Arabian Peninsula all the way across the continent to Gambia and Senegal, and down to the Cape of Good Hope, is capable of masking it sent from would-be predators, according to a new study in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

“One of the reasons the snake so effective is that the animal has no observable scent, a team of researchers from the University of the Witwatersrand in South Africa have discovered,” according to the website Red Orbit. “The study team said the snake uses a type of olfactory camouflage referred to as ‘chemical crypsis.’”

Scientists in the study trained both dogs and meerkats to identify the scent of various snakes. Both animals could differentiate between cloths that smelled like snakes and those that didn’t. The meerkats had been only exposed to brown snakes and puff adders – since those two snakes are the only ones that live in their habitat in the wild.

The two animals were actually equally incapable of selecting the scent of the puff adder.

The puff adder is a fairly thick snake that sits still and watches for prey, which includes mammals, birds, amphibians and lizards that happen by. But the adder’s scentless nature might not just serve its hunting game.

“While it’s extremely poisonous, it’s not very quick. The scientists noted that in previous reports that followed puff adders, the more mobile the snake was, the greater chance it would be caught by predators,” according to Red Orbit. “Scentlessness could be for the snake’s protection, the researchers said.”

Puff adders, normally about 3 to 4 feet in length, are a delightful species of snake; they have been known to bite humans multiple times in an attack, and half of serious untreated bites result in death.

Victims can experience pain, bleeding, renal failure and “compartment syndrome” – a condition where organs swell up to the point they restrict their own blood flow.

The snake is responsible for the most snakebite deaths in Africa due to a combination of factors, including wide distribution, common occurrence, large size, potent venom that is produced in large amounts, long fangs, their habit of basking by footpaths and sitting quietly when approached.

In addition, the relative lack of antivenin in rural Africa plays a role in the snake’s lethality.

While less than 5 percent of total puff adder bites result in death, that figure is higher than the overall death rate in Africa from snake bits, which is well below 2 percent. However, amputations and other surgeries are common in response to the bite of the snake, however.

(Top: Puff adder in action.)

Future Einsteins disappointed man not eaten by snake

anaconda

It’s not too much of a stretch to assert that the Discovery channel has declined in quality in recent years. Like many cable channels, Discovery has shifted its focus toward more reality-based programming in an effort to compete with networks and keep down costs.

Just how far the intellectual curiosity of some of Discovery’s viewers has slipped along with the channel was made evident when a recent program, titled Eaten Alive, purported to highlight an individual being swallowed by an anaconda – albeit one in a specially designed suit – apparently didn’t meet their “rigorous” entertainment standards.

When adventurer Paul Rosolie said “no mas” after the large snake had gotten halfway through his human meal, some Discovery viewers took umbrage, voicing their displeasure via social media that they’d been cheated out of seeing a man be wholly consumed by a reptile.

One individual commented on Twitter that, “The eaten alive guy didn’t get eaten alive,” followed by the hashtag : “Disappointed”; while another tweeted,  “This dude just wasted my life away.”

Newsflash for the above commenters: Methinks you two have been doing a fine job of being disappointing and wasting your lives all on your own.

For those who had the good fortune to miss the two-hour program, viewers saw a 20-foot anaconda attack Rosolie, coil around him, then start to eat his helmet.

“That’s when Rosolie opted to call in his team to rescue him, saying his arm was being crushed,” according to Time magazine. “’I started to feel the blood drain out of my hand and I felt the bone flex, and when I got to the point where I felt like it was going to snap I had to tap out.’”

Discovery has refused to say how far the snake got before Rosolie was rescued.

Rosolie said he spent months recovering from the encounter.

So, what was originally a program slammed by animal activists for animal cruelty is now being mocked on social media for not allowing the animal to go far enough in consuming a human being.

And the bread and circuses continue on.

(Top: Filmmaker Paul Rosolie with an anaconda.)

Puppies and kittens and rainbows …

puppies

Apparently, big black rat snakes aren’t everyone’s favorite creatures. Hence, the above photo of adorable puppies.

They’re not my puppies, mind you, as I have no puppies, nor even a dog.

It’s simply a way to put something on this blog so that yesterday’s image of a large black rat snake – which I personally found fascinating – would no longer be the first thing folks saw when they clicked on this site.

I sensed a tiny bit of negativity toward snakes after posting the image of a five-foot reptile (see comments in yesterday’s post) that I caught in Newberry County, SC.

Or perhaps it was Mrs. Cotton Boll’s reaction, via email: “You are nuts! I hope you put that yellow jacket and all clothing directly in the washing machine. This freaked me out!”

Of course, I had failed to inform Mrs. Cotton Boll of my success in the snake-catching department the previous day, knowing that she is deathly afraid of our no-legged friends.

She is a regular reader of this blog, but I had failed to anticipate her response to a seeing a large constricting snake, particularly one wrapped around her husband’s wrist and hand.

Needless to say, a Hazmat team was dispatched to decontaminate all clothing that may have come into contact with said black rat snake, and I was politely but firmly admonished.

Actually, Mrs. Cotton Boll is a pretty good sport, given my proclivity for capturing odd wild beasts and her distaste of same. Of course, she did know what she was getting herself into when she said “I do.”