Weighing in on why some types of sea snake approach humans uncomfortably closely,
The animals have been known to swim right up to an unexpecting person and lick them, and they’ve even pursued people who’ve attempted to flee—behaviors markedly different from those of their land-based kin. Marine ecologist Tim Lynch and his colleagues may have figured out why: based on data from Lynch’s firsthand experience with sea snake encounters, the researchers concluded that the animals simply get confused and mistake divers for fellow sea snakes or other marine life.Christie Wilcox, “Sea Snake “Attacks” Are Cases of Mistaken Identity: Study” at The Scientist (August 19, 2021)
Okay, but if humans were mistaken for orcas (killer whales, who must eat something like 225 kg of animal life forms per day to survive), the outcome might be different. More relevantly:
More than 25 years later—at the urging of a professor who assessed his PhD, Macquarie University’s Rick Shine—Lynch dusted off his binders of data to ask a different question: Why are olive sea snakes so diver-friendly? Indeed, as he dove with the animals for his graduate work, he recorded dozens of instances where the animals actively approached him and even licked him before swimming away. The analysis, published today (August 19) in Scientific Reports, suggest the majority of cases involve lustful male sea snakes unaware that divers aren’t extra-large females. “We were gonna call it Dangerous Liaisons, but they wouldn’t let us,” Lynch says.Christie Wilcox, “Sea Snake “Attacks” Are Cases of Mistaken Identity: Study” at The Scientist (August 19, 2021) The paper is open access.
It’s all funny — except that the olive sea snake has a “highly venomous bite.” An interview with Tim Lynch follows.
Along those lines:
Scientists based in Germany and Austria found that western diamondback rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox) quickly ramp up their rattling frequency when a potential threat appears to be getting closer to them. The sound produced by the switch to a higher-frequency rattle is perceived by human listeners as being louder, tricking them into thinking the snake is closer than it really is.
“I think this is a really cool study,” says David Pfennig, an evolutionary biologist at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who was not involved with the research. Pfennig says the observations are an example of phenotypic plasticity, or the ability of organisms to change their features in response to their environment. The snakes don’t just rattle at a set frequency, he says. “They can modulate that. And they can change that frequency depending upon their current environmental circumstances—in this case, the perceived distance from the threatening organism to them.”Annie Melchor, “Snakes on a Plain” at The Scientist (August 19, 2021) The paper is open access.
So, basically, snakes can be stupider than we think and smarter than we think at the same time. Except, around here, we don’t think that the “smartness” stuff is the snakes’ own. They got that from the design of the universe. Otherwise, they would be coiling around the stock market too. And they aren’t.
You may also wish to read: Yes, even lizards can be smart. (And so can snakes.) If you catch them at the right time. But can we give machines what the lizard has by nature?