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Discovery of a water snake that startles fish in a way that makes them flee into its jaws
Date:6/18/2009

Forget the old folk tales about snakes hypnotizing their prey. The tentacled snake from South East Asia has developed a more effective technique. The small water snake has found a way to startle its prey so that the fish turn toward the snake's head to flee instead of turning away. In addition, the fish's reaction is so predictable that the snake actually aims its strike at the position where the fish's head will be instead of tracking its actual movement.

"I haven't been able to find reports of any other predators that exhibit a similar ability to influence and predict the future behavior of their prey," says Kenneth Catania, associate professor of biological sciences at Vanderbilt University, who has used high-speed video to deconstruct the snake's unusual hunting technique.

His observations are published this week in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Catania, who is the recipient of a MacArthur "genius" award, studies the brains and behavior of species with extreme specializations. He was attracted to the tentacled snake because it is the only snake that comes equipped with a pair of short tentacles on its nose and he was curious about their function.

"Before I begin a study on a new species, it is my practice to spend some time simply observing its basic behavior," Catania explains. The snake forms an unusual "J" shape with its head at the bottom of the "J" when it is fishing. Then it remains completely motionless until a fish swims into the area near the hook of the "J." That is when the snake strikes.

The snakes' motions take only a few hundredths of a second and are too fast for the human eye to follow. However, its prey reacts even faster, in a few thousandths of a second. In fact, fish are famous for the rapidity of their escape response and it has been extensively studied. These studies have found that many fish have a special circuit in their brain
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Contact: David F. Salisbury
david.salisbury@vanderbilt.edu
615-343-6803
Vanderbilt University
Source:Eurekalert  

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