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Two coral snakes caught in rare food fight over caecilian

In the depths of a Colombian rainforest, a slithering snake fight unfolded. Two brilliantly colored coral snakes, their venomous fangs bared, were locked in a fierce tug-of-war. The prize? A hapless, wriggling caecilian – a bizarre amphibian that looks like a giant earthworm.

This epic battle, captured on film by scientists Henrik Bringsøe and Niels Poul Dreyer, marks the first time researchers have documented a phenomenon called “kleptoparasitism” among wild elapid snakes.

Decoding kleptoparasitism

Ever seen a seagull swoop in to steal a chip from a distracted beachgoer? That’s kleptoparasitism in a nutshell – plain old food thievery.

Kleptoparasitism is a way to survive. In it, one animal, called a kleptoparasite, takes food from another. The other animal has already found, caught, or prepared the food. This sneaky tactic saves the kleptoparasite time and energy. Sometimes, it lets them get food they couldn’t get by themselves.

Kleptoparasites are everywhere in the animal kingdom. Birds, such as skuas, bother other seabirds to take their fish. Hyenas steal kills from lions. Even some bees and spiders do this. They invade nests and webs to snatch food.

Elusive elapids: Coral snakes

The coral snakes in this clash belong to the elapid family. If you’re a snake enthusiast, you know this group packs a serious punch (or rather, bite).

Elapids include some of the world’s deadliest snakes: mambas, with their lightning speed; cobras, famous for their hoods and potent venom; and the coral snakes themselves, with their dazzling colors and neurotoxic venom that can paralyze their victims.

Coral snakes are often mistaken for non-venomous species due to their colorful patterns. This mimicry serves as both a warning to potential predators and camouflage against prey. Their venom is predominantly neurotoxic, targeting the nervous system and leading to paralysis.

Unlike their more aggressive relatives, coral snakes are shy and elusive, preferring to avoid confrontation unless directly threatened or stepped on.

Fight of the snakes

So, let’s revisit the rainforest rumble. As the scientists arrived, the coral snake fight was in full swing. Imagine two snakes, jaws clamped onto the same wriggling caecilian, their bodies twisting in a desperate power struggle.

“They continued biting the prey at different places on the anterior parts and tugging in opposite directions,” the scientists described in their study.

Things got even more dramatic when one snake accidentally bit the other snake during the frenzy. After battling for a grueling 17 minutes, one coral snake finally gave up, leaving its victorious rival to claim the caecilian and slither away to enjoy its meal in peace.

Snake food fight

Why is this wild snake food fight such a big deal? Henrik Bringsøe explained: “Snakes in captivity do that often when only one prey is offered in a terrarium with two or more snakes. But it is rather surprising that it has not been observed more frequently in the wild.”

Snakes in terrariums are in close quarters and can’t easily escape from each other. In the wild, where snakes can disperse more easily, it’s far less common to see them risk a dangerous fight over a meal.

Evolutionary perspective

The observed interaction between coral snakes and caecilians highlights the fascinating narrative of evolutionary biology. Marked by the prey’s unique defensive mechanisms and the snakes’ advanced predatory strategies, this encounter showcases millions of years of adaptation and natural selection.

The arms eace of evolution

At the heart of this dynamic is an evolutionary arms race – a continuous cycle of adaptations and counter-adaptations between predator and prey. This concept is fundamental to understanding how species evolve to enhance survival and reproduction.

Coral snakes, with their potent neurotoxic venom, are a prime example of predatory evolution, capable of swift prey capture, minimizing struggle and risk. Caecilians, despite their unassuming appearance, possess sophisticated defenses.

Their skin secretions, from noxious chemicals to sticky mucus, are the result of natural selection favoring individuals that could deter predators, increasing their chances of survival.


The coral snake-caecilian relationship highlights coevolution, where species reciprocally affect each other’s evolution. As coral snakes developed their venomous bite, caecilians with resistance – through toxicity, mucus, or other means – were more likely to survive and pass on their genes.

This, in turn, likely influenced coral snake evolution, selecting for traits that enable them to overcome caecilian defenses.

Environmental and ecological influences

Environmental and ecological factors also shaped these species. Climate, habitat, and other predators and prey all influence which adaptations prove successful.

Dense, humid rainforests, the common home of both species, create a backdrop for their interactions. The complexity of the rainforest offers caecilians hiding spots, potentially selecting for coral snakes with heightened senses for detecting prey.

Conservation and understanding evolution

Understanding the coral snake-caecilian interaction through an evolutionary lens underscores the need for conservation efforts that protect ecosystems and their evolutionary potential. Disrupting habitats can sever these long-standing evolutionary dynamics.

This evolutionary interplay reminds us of the complexity and interconnectedness of life on Earth. Biodiversity is a testament to evolutionary processes, and the loss of species means the loss of both unique evolutionary histories and future potential. Moreover, it highlights how each organism plays a role in the broader ecological and evolutionary narrative.

Significance of the snake fight

So what’s so special about caecilians that might inspire coral snakes to risk it all in a food fight? Turns out, they’re a lot tougher than they look.

Some caecilians secrete toxins in their skin as a defense mechanism, and others produce huge amounts of sticky mucus to make themselves hard to swallow. Coral snakes might have powerful venom, but their caecilian prey can put up a surprisingly good fight.

This encounter gives us a fascinating glimpse into the secret lives of venomous snakes. “While such behaviors may be more common in captivity due to controlled environments, their occurrence in nature has been largely underreported,” said the researchers.

The study is published in the journal Herpetozoa.

Video & Image Credit: Henrik Bringsøe and Niels Poul Dreyer.


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