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Did you know that snakes eat other snakes?

Avatar of inke inke 05. September 2017 - Environment, Discover Namibia

Head first, the dead Leopard whip snake is swallowed by the bird snake. Usually this species’ diet consists mainly of lizards, chameleons and frogs. Birds and other snakes are rarely eaten.

In the midst of a dense bush an Oates’ bird snake (Thelotornis capensis oatesi) is holding on to a Leopard whip snake (Psammophis leopardinus). The prey, gripped behind its head, finds itself lodged askew in the far back of the bird snake’s mouth. This is necessary because the bird snake is a colubrid whose short poisonous teeth are located at the back, more or less below the eyes. The hemotoxic poison (destroys red blood cells) is already working: the writhing movements of the Leopard whip snake, also known as Leopard grass snake, have become very slow. The bird snake starts to swallow up its prey in one piece, head first. The prey is a little less than one third of the bird snake’s length.

Bird snakes usually eat lizards, chameleons and frogs. They rarely catch birds and other snakes. Bird snakes are extremely well camouflaged and it is said that they are among the few snake species that are able to recognise motionless prey. The pupils of bird snakes are striking: they are shaped like a keyhole. Leopard grass snakes are known to eat lizards, geckos, mice and small birds – and occasionally other snakes, too.  

Cobras in particular are known for eating other snakes. An Anchieta's cobra (Naja anchietae) with a length of almost 1.80 metres regurgitated a puff adder (Bitis arietans) measuring 1.01 metres when it was caught. Cobra venom is neurotoxic (paralyses the respiratory centre), whereas puff adder venom is cytotoxic (destroys cells and tissue). It had taken the cobra several minutes to swallow its sizable prey, head first. As the middle part of its body trebled, the cobra became rather sluggish. In order to improve its capability to defend itself it regurgitated the puff adder in a matter of seconds.

Some snakes, however, eat snakes which are much longer than they are. A young puff adder, for example, was 30 cm long when it swallowed a nonvenomous Brown house snake (Boaedon capensis) that measured 47 cm. Later the puff adder’s stomach area showed the neat windings of the house snake that had been forced into it. 

Of all the snakes in Africa, Cape cobras (Naja nivea) have the most dangerous venom – a highly concentrated neurotoxin. They are known for killing and eating many different snake species, irrespective of whether or not they venomous themselves. Garter snakes (Elapsoidea), shield-nosed snakes (Aspidelaps), black mambas (Dendroaspis polylepis) and puff adders also eat other snakes.

Dirk Heinrich

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