WHAT’S BEING CLAIMED:
- A group of researchers found that unprovoked sea snake attacks likely stem from a case of mistaken identity.
- Most unprovoked ‘attacks’ come from males, and typically during the animal’s winter mating season.
- Some of the behaviors can be described as “courtship,” such as curling around a diver’s leg.
Imagine you’re snorkeling along a beautiful coral reef, admiring all of the color and marine life that nature has to offer. And then suddenly, your picturesque underwater adventure turns into a nightmare as an aggressive sea snake comes out of nowhere and attacks you for no reason.
Ocean scientists have offered an explanation to ease your worry, should this ever happen to you: don’t panic and try to stay still, because the snake is probably just trying to mate with you.
At least according to a new study led by Tim Lynch, a senior research scientist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. His findings are based on his 158 encounters with olive sea snakes (Aipysurus laevis) as a diver in the Great Barrier Reef.
Lynch and his team noticed that unprovoked aggression from these slithery creatures usually involves males during the winter breeding season, which suggests these occurrences are a result of “mistaken identity during sexual interactions.” The new study, published earlier this month, is “the first quantitative evidence on sea snake ‘attacks.'”
Males approached humans far more often than females and displayed behaviors that could be related to courtship, like coiling around a diver’s limb.
“Agitated rapid approaches by males, easily interpreted as ‘attacks,’ often occurred after a courting male lost contact with a female he was pursuing, after interactions between rival males, or when a diver tried to flee from a male,” the researchers wrote.
These suggest that a “reproductively active male, highly aroused, mistakes the diver for another snake (a female or a rival male),” they added. “At first sight, the idea that a snake might mistake a human diver for another snake seems ludicrous, given the massive disparity in size and shape between those two objects. Nonetheless, this offers the most plausible explanation for our observations.”
Though you may be tempted to try to escape one of these strange encounters, experts note that you’re unlikely to outswim a sea snake. The best course of action, unpleasant though it may be, is to stay still and let the snake give you a once-over. Allowing the snake to explore by “tongue-flicking” or making contact with skin or wetsuit is likely to de-escalate the situation, as they’ll realize it’s a mix-up.
“If mistaken identity underlies most ‘attacks’ by sea snakes on divers, the best strategy for divers in such a situation may be to allow the snake to investigate them and in particular to allow for the snake to investigate chemical cues with its tongue; a bite is unlikely unless the animal is threatened or injured,” the authors wrote in the study. “Attempting to flee is likely to be futile and may even increase the ardour of the pursuit; and attempting to drive the animal away may induce retaliation.”
Photo credit: “Olive Sea Snake” by Tchami is licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/