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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

s that initiates the escape, which biologists call the "C-start." Fish ears sense the sound pressure on each side of their body. When the ear on one side detects a disturbance, it sends a message to the fishes' muscles causing its body to bend into a C-shape facing in the opposite direction so it can begin swimming away from danger as quickly as possible.

Catania is the first scientist to study this particular predator-prey interaction with the aid of a high-speed video camera. When he began examining the movements of the snake and its prey in slow motion, he saw something peculiar. When the fish that the snake targets turn to flee, most of them turn toward the snake's head and many literally swim into its jaws! In 120 trials with four different snakes, in fact, he discovered that an amazing 78 percent of the fish turned toward the snake's head instead of turning away.

Next, the biologist noticed that the first part of its body that the snake moves is not its head. Instead, it flexes a point midway down its body. Using a sensitive hydrophone that he put in the aquarium, he confirmed that this body fake produces sound waves intense enough to trigger the fish's C-start response. Because these sound waves come from the side opposite the snake's head, this reflex action drives the fish to turn and swim directly toward the snake's mouth.

"Once the C-start begins, the fish can't turn back," Catania says. "The snake has found a way to use the fish's escape reflex to its advantage."

As he studied the snake's actions even closer, he made an even more remarkable discovery. When it strikes, the snake doesn't aim for the fish's initial position and then adjust its direction as the fish moves the way most predators do. Instead it heads directly for the location where it expects the fish's head to be.

"The best evidence for this is the cases when the snake misses," says Catania. "Not all the targeted fish react with a C-start and the
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Contact: David F. Salisbury
david.salisbury@vanderbilt.edu
615-343-6803
Vanderbilt University
Source:Eurekalert  

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