In Oceania, divers regularly report an attack by a sea rattlesnake. In most cases, the culprit appears to be the olive sea eel, a species that lives among coral reefs and is one of the most venomous snakes in the world. The diver always escapes unscathed: the eel quickly sways towards him, but he does not bite.
To explore what sea snakes do on land, ecologists have observed the snakes’ behavior while diving. In total, they observed 158 olive sea eels, the researchers wrote in the scientific journal Scientific Reports. It is noteworthy that the attackers were mostly males and they struck mainly during the breeding season.
When a snake approaches a diver, it inflames: the characteristic movement the snake makes as the animal sticks its tongue in and out of its mouth. In some cases, he even wrapped his body around a diver’s limb. It’s behavior very similar to that of mating: a reason to suppose that sea snakes mistake a diver for a female rattlesnake.
Matthias Pettenbender, a biologist and doctoral student at VU and Naturalis, thinks it’s very reasonable. “How snakes wrap around divers’ limbs, and how they talk: It is a typical curious behavior that males also exhibit when they interact with a female.”
But why would they mistake a diver for a snake? Bittenbinder: “Because light is refracted in water, sea snakes have less vision than their terrestrial counterparts, so they have to rely on their sense of smell or their tongue. This is also easier on land: there, the smell particles remain on land when a female passes by, but in the water they are much more difficult to detect. Then the male should really go to the female and only when he is near and tongues knows: I may or may not try. So they also do it with divers.
The study authors conclude their research with advice to divers who see a ramshackle sea snake approaching: Don’t move. As long as the snake does not feel trapped, it will not harm you. Good advice, Bittenbinder agrees: “It is ingrained in our culture to be afraid of snakes: with Adam and Eve the snake was already a symbol of Satan. But snakes do not want to bite at all, they prefer to keep this poison; Snakes are really nice.
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