The rim rock topped snake is alleged to be the rarest legless slitherer in North America.
Not solely does this small snake spend most of its life underground, hiding in crevices or burrowing beneath rocks, however solely about 26 people are recognized to exist. These survivors are confined to what’s left of southern Florida’s pine rocklands and hardwood hammocks.
Till lately, nobody even knew what the elusive rim rock topped snake (Tantilla oolitica) ate, regardless of being first described in 1966. Actually, nobody has seen head or tail of it, alive or useless, since 2018
This February, that dry spell got here to an finish. A customer to John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park stumbled upon a useless rim rock topped snake whereas strolling alongside a path on Key Largo.
Much more unbelievable, the snake’s corpse was frozen in time, suffocating on the physique of an enormous centipede.
“I used to be amazed once I first noticed the photographs,” says Coleman Sheehy, the Florida Museum’s herpetology assortment supervisor, the place the specimen is now stored.
“It is extraordinarily uncommon to seek out specimens that died whereas consuming prey, and given how uncommon this species is, I’d by no means have predicted discovering one thing like this. We have been all completely flabbergasted.”
Different kinds of topped snakes additionally eat large centipedes and different probably harmful prey, together with scorpions, however that is the primary meals document of any variety for this explicit species.
The lifeless particular person present in Key Largo was simply over 20 centimeters in size (eight inches), and regardless that the Caribbean large centipede (Scolopendra alternans) it was attempting to swallow was a juvenile, the predator had eyes a lot larger than its throat.
Solely about 50 millimeters (2 inches) of the snake’s meal bought down its gullet earlier than it choked to dying; there was nonetheless one other 23 millimeters of centipede to go.
“We have been capable of carry out a digital post-mortem, which allowed us to look at the centipede and snake, together with its accidents and intestine contents, with out ever selecting up a scalpel,” explains Jaimi Grey, an evolutionary morphologist museum.
Grey and her colleagues suspect asphyxiation is what finally killed the snake.
CT scans – the primary to be carried out on the species – present that predator’s trachea was pinched at exactly the place the place the centipede was widest. The girth is what in all probability minimize off the person’s air provide.
Envenoming was one other chance the researchers thought-about.
A wound from the centipede’s venomous pincers was discovered on the predator, however other than a little bit of inner bleeding, the centipede’s pincers seem to have accomplished little different injury to the snake.
The snake had doubtless advanced some degree of resistance to its prey’s venom, as different snake species inclined to gorge themselves on large centipedes have.
Since 1975, the state of Florida has listed the rim rock topped snake as threatened, and on the mainland, the species is very endangered.
City sprawl stretching from West Palm Seaside to Miami has left solely 2 % of the snake’s pine rockland habitat intact exterior of the Everglades.
Nobody has seen the snake on this area for a few years. Key Largo could also be one of many final havens left for herpetologists to check.
“We will not say for certain whether or not or not they’re nonetheless current in peninsular Florida. Absence of proof will not be proof of absence, however their habitat has principally been destroyed,” Sheehy says.
Scientists are hopeful the findings will permit us to raised perceive the species’ anatomy and weight-reduction plan because it teeters on the point of extinction.
In 2007, the rim rock topped snake was listed as endangered by the Worldwide Union for Conservation of Nature. It has but to obtain a federal conservation standing in america.
The examine was printed in Ecology.