Southeast Asia’s bizarre tentacled snake (Erpeton tentaculatum) is a long-time favorite of mine and I’ve kept and bred a great many in zoo collections over the years. Despite watching them intently for so long, I’ve never quite been able to figure out how they manage to so effectively catch fast-moving fishes while striking out in a direction that seems designed to insure that they miss the intended target.
A Unique Escape Strategy
Recently published (Vanderbilt University, Tennessee: June, 2009) research has provided the answer. Many fishes, it seems, utilize an escape maneuver known as the C-Start. Upon sensing danger, the body contorts into a “C” shape, the tail is flicked and the fish, in a millisecond, darts away.
Exploiting the Defensive Maneuver
Tentacled snakes, anchored to submerged objects by their tails and resembling water-logged roots, lie in wait for passing fishes. The snake always holds itself in a very distinctive “J” shaped position. As a fish approaches, the snake “feints” with its body by sending a ripple of water towards the fish. This incites the C-Start reaction and propels the fish directly toward the snake’s jaws.
Once initiated, the C-Start maneuver cannot be altered, so the hapless fish is doomed. The snake’s “J” position allows it to strike not at the fish but rather where the fish will be once it flees. What’s more, the strike nearly always catches the fish in the head region, assisting the snake in swallowing its slippery prey.
To learn more about the natural history and captive care of tentacled snakes, please see my article The Tentacled Snake, an Unusual Pet Serpent .