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Zoologists: Sea snakes seek out freshwater to slake thirst
Date:11/6/2008

GAINESVILLE, Fla. Sea snakes may slither in saltwater, but they sip the sweet stuff.

So concludes a University of Florida zoologist in a paper appearing this month in the online edition of the November/December issue of the journal Physiological and Biochemical Zoology.

Harvey Lillywhite says it has been the "long-standing dogma" that the roughly 60 species of venomous sea snakes worldwide satisfy their drinking needs by drinking seawater, with internal salt glands filtering and excreting the salt. Experiments with three species of captive sea kraits captured near Taiwan, however, found that the snakes refused to drink saltwater even if thirsty and then would drink only freshwater or heavily diluted saltwater.

"Our experiments demonstrate they actually dehydrate in sea water, and they'll only drink freshwater, or highly diluted brackish water with small concentrations of saltwater 10 to 20 percent," Lilywhite said.

Harold Heatwole, a professor of zoology at North Carolina State University and expert on sea snakes, termed Lillywhite's conclusion "a very significant finding."

"This result probably holds the key to understanding the geographic distribution of sea snakes," Heatwole said.

The research may help explain why sea snakes tend to have patchy distributions and are most common in regions with abundant rainfall, Lillywhite said. Because global climate change tends to accentuate droughts in tropical regions, the findings also suggest that at least some species of sea snakes could be threatened now or in the future, he added.

"There may be places where sea snakes are barely getting enough water now," he said. "If the rainfall is reduced just a bit, they'll either die out or have to move."

Sea snakes are members of the elapid family of snakes that also includes cobras, mambas and coral snakes. They are thought to have originated as land-dwelling snakes that later evolved to live i
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Contact: Harvey Lillywhite
hbl@zoo.ufl.edu
352-392-1101
University of Florida
Source:Eurekalert

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