Rarest snake in North America choked to death on a centipede

(ORDO NEWS) — This winter, a visitor to a national park on Key Largo Island off the coast of Florida discovered a dead specimen of a rock tantilla, one of the rarest North American snakes.

A scolopendra protruded from the reptile’s mouth. After examining the find using computed tomography, herpetologists came to the conclusion that the snake died by choking on a scolopendra.

Snakes are reluctant to show themselves to the eyes of a person. Representatives of many species of these reptiles are rare even for professional herpetologists.

And about 800 species of snakes are not captured in any photograph, which seriously complicates their study and protection.

Most of these species live on the islands of the Caribbean Sea, in Southeast Asia, Northeast Africa and Oceania.

In North America, one of the most secretive snakes is the rocky tantilla (Tantilla oolitica) from the colubridae family.

This small and harmless reptile lives only in South Florida and the Florida Keys, where it lives in pine forests growing on oolitic limestones.

Herpetologists suggest that this species is suffering from habitat destruction, so the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies it as endangered (Endangered, EN). Sometimes rock tantillas are even called the rarest North American snakes. However, it is possible that they are just good at hiding.

The fact is that rocky tantillas spend most of their time underground, and their habitats are covered with impenetrable vegetation.

In recent years, experts have found rock tantillas only on Key Largo in the Florida Keys (apparently, there is a stable population of the species here). In 2015, they met a living individual here, and in 2018 they found its relative killed by a cat.

Four years later, in February 2022, a National Park visitor on Key Largo found a dead T. oolitica on a trail. From the mouth of a twenty-centimeter reptile protruded a centipede Scolopendra alternans 72.8 millimeters long.

After a visitor reported the find to a park ranger, the snake was picked up, fixed in ethanol along with the prey, and placed in the herpetological collection of the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Rarest snake in North America choked to death on a centipede 2
Dead rock tantilla (Tantilla oolitica) with Scolopendra alternans in its mouth

A team of herpetologists led by Kevin M. Enge of the Fish and Wildlife Research Institute decided to find out what killed the Key Largo tantilla.

To answer this question without damaging the valuable specimen of a rare species, the authors stained it with iodine solution and subjected it to computed tomography (after the work, the specimen was discolored again).

It turned out that the centipede, which became the prey of the snake, is quite large. If a reptile swallowed a centipede completely, it would take up a third of its volume.

Usually snakes can easily cope even with such large prey relative to their own size, but in this case, the swallowed centipede squeezed the tantilla’s trachea at one point. Apparently, this resulted in fatal suffocation. Similar cases when snakes. especially young ones, suffocate when trying to eat too large prey,

According to an alternative assumption, the tantilla died from the bite of a centipede. Enge and co-authors did find a bite mark on the underside of the snake’s belly, but its strength was not enough to kill the reptile.

The authors also admit that the centipede could inject venom into the snake. However, the tantilla is unlikely to have died from poisoning.

Although little is known about the effect of centipede venom on snakes, it is assumed that those species that regularly prey on centipedes, including tantillas, are immune to the venom of these invertebrates.

According to Enge and his co-authors, their study allowed us to learn more about the little-studied rock tantillas.

In particular, in the course of the work, it was possible for the first time to establish exactly what these snakes eat (previously, their food preferences were reconstructed based on the diet of closely related species).

Scientists hope that the approach they have used will allow them to study other samples of rare species that are too valuable for autopsy.

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