ADDERS HAVE A LURE AT BOTH ENDS
saw my first puff adder in the wild in South Africa in 2013. By the
end of the week, we had found eight more. This highly venomous viper
has enormous fangs, reaches lengths well over 5 feet, and the largest
ones have a girth of more than 15 inches.
head of one of the biggest ones we found was as wide as my boot. Similar
to our rattlesnakes, puff adders are shy, if not provoked. Yet the species
is credited with the majority of human deaths from snakes on the African
continent. My assessment is that some folks excel at provoking them.
the gentle nature of a puff adder, finding one was always an adrenalin-laced
adventure. We were catching them as part of a research project by Xavier
Glaudas and Graham Alexander of the University of the Witwatersrand
method invariably led to each snake being provoked. This is in no way
an indictment of the snake. We were the ones invading their territory,
grabbing them with snake tongs and eventually capturing them. All were
released unharmed, nonetheless they did not take kindly to being study
none of us came close to being bitten. But part of the ongoing research
made it clear that the same cannot be said of the prey that these impressive
snakes pursue. They eat small mammals, birds, lizards and amphibians.
are typically secretive and well camouflaged. Two of those we found
were coiled only a few feet away when I heard someone say, Stop.
Youre about to step on a puff adder. He had to point it
out on the ground before I even saw it. The leaflike body pattern of
puff adders renders them virtually invisible.
and Alexander recently published a cutting-edge scientific paper on
why these imposing snakes are such effective predators. Once they strike
an animal and inject their highly potent venom, their meal will soon
begin, because few prey survive the bite of a puff adder. But how do
they get close enough to strike at wary animals that are constantly
on the lookout for danger in the South African bush?
published in the prestigious professional journal Behavioral Ecology
and Sociobiology, provides a partial answer. Puff adders do not
approach their prey. They lure their prey to them. Using continuously
recording video cameras, the researchers were able to observe how the
snakes attracted other animals within striking range.
toad was in the vicinity of a snake, it used lingual luring, which means
it flicked its long, forked tongue, mimicking a worm or insect a toad
might view as prey. When the toad came closer, the snake would strike.
The cameras revealed that a puff adder will also wave its tail to attract
larger prey in a similar manner, a second form of luring.
research was tedious but led to a significant biological discovery
the first documentation of two different kinds of luring being used
by the same species of predator to attract prey. On an even broader
scale, another conclusion by the researchers was that the study demonstrated
that these predators possess higher cognitive abilities than first
snakes have mental capabilities involving reasoning and perceptiveness
that we seldom credit other animals, especially reptiles, with having.
The same is probably true of many other species we consider to be lower
life forms whose abilities we should appreciate more than we do.
field ecology experiments is a time-consuming enterprise and
with puff adders, a risky one. But uncovering details about how ecological
systems work is the way we increase our understanding of the natural
I did not contribute to the research on luring behavior, I was captivated
seeing these highly camouflaged, incredibly dangerous snakes up close
in their native habitat. I also was glad I was not what they consider
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