Every once in a while, a video comes along that reminds us of nature’s extraordinary — and sometimes disgusting — mystery. For many people this week, that reminder came in the form of a stomach-churning video that captured one snake disgorging another.
The video was shot by Christopher Reynolds, who spotted the serpents outside his mother’s home in Newton, Tex., on May 28, according to the Houston Chronicle.
“That other snake’s aliiiive!” the Texas resident can be heard saying on the video. “. . . That is that other snake’s super-ultra, lottery-lucky day. Wow. I can’t believe that little dude is still alive. Oh, look at him. He’s still licking his lips and swallowing, trying to figure out what’s going on. . . . He couldn’t breath. . . . That dude was just in stomach acids and all kinds of stuff.”
The footage is slimy, gross and absolutely compelling — like watching some mixture of a prison break and an alien birth.
Some viewers find the video revolting. Others say they are unexpectedly fascinated. Inevitably, a simple question usually follows:
“What exactly did I just watch?”
To answer that question, we decided to seek out someone who would know: David Steen, a wildlife biologist who specializes in amphibians and reptiles at Auburn University. We asked Steen to watch the video and help us unpack the epic snake regurgitation.
— David Steen, Ph.D. (@AlongsideWild) February 5, 2017
Q: First of all, David — in your own expert words — what exactly are we looking at here (some of us quite reluctantly)?
A: This video shows a startled snake that had just eaten a large meal. As you can imagine, it is difficult for snakes to make a speedy getaway when they feel threatened after a big meal like this, so a common defense mechanism is to regurgitate.
Q: What kind of snakes are these exactly?
A: This looks like a coachwhip that had just eaten a closely related species, either another coachwhip or a whipsnake is my guess.
Q: How can we be certain — assuming we can — that this video isn’t a fake? Does it look real to your snake-loving eyes?
A: It never occurred to me that this could be a fake. It does not look doctored, and the behavior is not particularly unexpected.
Q: I thought snakes ate rodents and insects like the kind you see in glass aquariums at exotic-pet stores. Am I confused? Perhaps more importantly, is it unusual to see a snake eat another snake?
A: There are many different species of snakes, and they are all unique. Different species eat different things. There are species that specialize in eating other snakes, like king snakes and indigo snakes, and snakes that eat other snakes only occasionally, like coachwhips. Snakes are an important part of our ecosystems, and a lot of different kinds of animals eat them. We even have a word for it: ophiophagy.
Q: How unusual is it to capture this type of behavior on film? Have you ever seen anything like it?
A: This is not a particularly unusual behavior. I have seen hognose snakes throw up toads that hopped away. But it is not often caught on film. When you don’t have any arms, it’s not always practical to kill your prey before you start to eat it.
Q: Why do you think people have reacted to this video with so much disgust? As someone who spends most of your time with snakes, how does the video make you feel when you watch it?
A: Many people are fascinated by snakes. Sometimes that fascination inspires appreciation, and sometimes it inspires disgust. The combination of snakes, regurgitation and getting eaten alive is a recipe for viral. When I watch it, I feel bad for the coachwhip for losing out on a nice meal.
Q: As far as animal escape videos go, the consensus seems to be that “Planet Earth II’s” “Iguana vs Snakes” is as good as the genre gets. Where does this one rank?
A: I give this one an 8 out of 10 because both snakes escaped. Often people will kill even harmless snakes they see in their yards, and I’m glad to see that wasn’t the case here.
— David Steen, Ph.D. (@AlongsideWild) June 2, 2017