North America’s Rarest Snake Bites Off More Than It Can Chew

The pine rockland ecosystem of southern Florida evolved atop ancient coral reef systems and came to support an abundance of rare plant and animal species. The limestone substrate of the dead corals is good for trees but, unfortunately, it’s a good foundation for houses as well. Human development has led to the destruction of much of the pine rocklands and poses a threat to the wildlife that makes them home. 

The rim rock crowned snake, Tantilla oolitica, is one of the rare species to live in the pine rocklands. Since 1975, the small snake has been listed as threatened in Florida, and efforts are ongoing to list it federally. 

Given the rareness of the snake, it was a surprise when a rim rock crowned snake was found dead, and with prey still sticking out of its mouth. The small snake, it seems, was trying to swallow a giant centipede when it died.

“I was amazed when I first saw the photos,” said study co-author Coleman Sheehy, herpetology collection manager at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “It’s extremely rare to find specimens that died while eating prey, and given how rare this species is, I would never have predicted finding something like this. We were all totally flabbergasted.”

The snake was discovered by a visiting hiker in John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park on Key Largo, and was given to the Florida Museum for analysis.

It seemed likely that the snake died of asphyxiation from swallowing a too large prey animal, but the scientists couldn’t be sure without looking closer. A traditional autopsy would require cutting the snake open and damaging a valuable specimen. Modern technology, however, offers some alternatives, and the experts chose to conduct a CT scan. 

The results of the CT scan showed that the centipede bit the predatory snake but it was choking that likely caused the reptile’s demise. The CT scans were made available online for free and the scientists hope that others will glean more valuable information from them.     

The study is published in the journal Ecology.

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