It’s called having eyes bigger than your stomach.
At Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, a natural park located in Florida, a walker came across a strange scene; he surprised a small snake devouring a giant centipede… or rather what was left of it. Because the poor animal, unable to entirely swallow its prey, found itself stuck in this uncomfortable position until it suffocated.
The snake measured barely twenty centimeters. But that didn’t stop him from attacking an arthropod that was certainly juvenile, but also particularly plump. After all, these reptiles are known for their ability to swallow prey much larger than themselves. But some foods are still more difficult to pass than others, and the hero of this story learned the hard way.
A proper autopsy
Researchers subjected the remains to an X-ray scanner in an attempt to identify the specific cause of death. For example, they suggested that the large claws available to this species of centipede could have caused damage to internal organs. But the latter had just a few small, barely significant internal bleedings.
These claws are also poisonous, and specialists have speculated that the snake could have been poisoned. But these centipedes are part of the menu of a large number of snakes; the majority of them have therefore developed a resistance to this venom. They therefore quickly ruled out this very improbable lead.
They therefore decided in favor of another more plausible explanation; its trachea would have simply been crushed by this too bulky prey. They would have died of asphyxiation after trying somehow to swallow the last third that still exceeded his mouth.
According to Coleman Sheehy, one of the local museum’s collection managers, it’s an anything but usual scene. “It is extremely rare to find specimens that have died while eating prey“, he says. However, it is not this element that most fascinates researchers. What interests them even more is the identity of this little snake.
Because even if it does not look like much, it is in fact a specimen of Tantilla ooliticaan extremely rare species.
An extremely rare and mysterious species
Alone 25 of these snakes have been identified since they were discovered, and the last sighting of this little beast was in 2018. Since that date, no one had observed a single one.
A situation not necessarily surprising, since they are very discreet animals. Specialists consider that they spend most of their time in crevices and under rocks in the steep pine forests where it resides. They would therefore be difficult to observe even if they were present in abundance.
But it also happens that these famous pine forests have been doing quite badly for many years. This ecological niche is shrinking at a significant rate, which is of great concern to local naturalists. “Their habitat was completely devastated”, explains Sheehy.
Some of his colleagues thought that this dynamic could have led to the complete disappearance of Tantilla oolitica; after all, it had already been on an endangered species list since 1975.
Fortunately, these doubts were removed with the discovery of this fascinating specimen; it is now one of the finest exhibits in the State Museum of Florida. “I was speechless when I first saw the photos,” says Sheehy. “Given this is a very rare specimen, I would never have imagined finding something like this. I am amazed,” he admits.
This discovery therefore puts a little balm in the hearts of researchers; this shows that these snakes have not entirely disappeared. This is also interesting information about their diet since until now no one had any idea what Tantilla oolitica ate. With a bit of luck, this discovery will allow specialists to discover other elements that would allow them to save this mysterious species.
The text of the study is available © Drew Martin.