Recoiling the 7 best snake stories of 2021

Cosmos Magazine


Cosmos is a quarterly science magazine. We aim to inspire curiosity in ‘The Science of Everything’ and make the world of science accessible to everyone.

By Cosmos

Snake season is upon us. Whether you love them or hate them, there’s no denying that these are some of the most fascinating animals around. From sensuous sea snake love-lives to an uncanny ability to detect radioactivity, here are some of our most ssscintillating snake stores from the past year.

1. Sensitive sea snakes are sexier

The ritual of snake love is a little different on land than it is in water – up here, snakes use tongue-flicking to sense sex pheromones left by other snakes and can follow these trails. Of course, pheromones are diluted in water and so quite hard to perceive.

In a new paper, published in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, researchers from the University of Adelaide, University of Melbourne and colleagues detail the enlarged touch receptors that help turtle-headed sea snakes (Emydocephalus annulatus) find and woo their mates.

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Two black snakes are coiled up in a reef
A males and female turtle-headed sea snake. Credit: Jenna Cowe-Riddell.

2. Deadly venomous snakes no match for ancient primate ancestor

Venomous cobras may not seem like snakes we should get up close and personal with, but an ancient Homininae ancestor of chimps, gorillas and humans evolved strong resistance to neurotoxins in snake venom – and passed it on to us.

But grandad Hominine (not to be confused with their hominin descendants, which excludes gorillas) didn’t end up with resistance due to happenstance – it was part of an ongoing evolutionary arms race between African apes and deadly venomous snakes.

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3. How snakes got their fangs

The mystery of the evolution of snake fangs may have been solved by scientists at Flinders University.

Fangs have evolved independently time after time among many lineages of venomous snakes, but are rarely seen in other reptiles. Now, scientists have revealed that microscopic features of snake teeth – that may have evolved for an entirely different purpose – make them uniquely capable of developing into fangs.

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4. Animal magnetism is real

Franz Mesmer might have been on to something when he described animal magnetism as an invisible force possessed by all living things – at least, that seems to be the case with these snakes.

A study by Richard Harris and Bryan Fry of the University of Queensland found that snakes may have evolved to resist their own venom by utilising a magnet-like mechanism to “repel” the molecules in their venom from damaging their nerves.

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Alessandro palci sa museum discovery centre min
Flinders University researcher Alessandro Palci with a non-venomous snake at the SA Museum Discovery Centre. Image credit: Flinders University

5. Snakes dined out after dinosaurs died out

Around 66 million years ago, the dinosaurs died out. But it wasn’t a sad day for everyone, with mammal and bird evolution exploding, leading to a variety of new species.

But what about snakes?

Researchers have found that snakes also experienced rapid evolution following the demise of the dinos. This was primarily driven by a new item on their menu – fresh meat.

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6. Lizard vs. snake: venom showdown

The humble blue-tongue lizard, an iconic Aussie species, is resistant to the venom of the deadly red-bellied black snake, according to new research from the University of Queensland (UQ).

The surprising find, detailed in a study out yesterday in the journal Toxins, was made when UQ scientists looked to compare the effects of various reptile blood plasmas when exposed to the venom. UQ researcher and study co-author Nicholas Youngman says mammalian – and especially human – reactions have been widely studied, but very little is known about the effects of snake venom on other reptiles.

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A hand holding a snake, showing a gps tracker attached to the snake's tail.
A Japanese rat snake is fit with a GPS transmitter that will allow researchers to track its movements over the next several weeks. Credit: Hannah Gerke

7. Snakes monitor radioactive contamination

You might be familiar with the concept of canaries in a coal mine, but have you heard of snakes in a radioactive zone?

Ten years on from the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan – the most severe nuclear accident since Chernobyl – researchers are still investigating the ecological impacts on the landscape. Now, a study led by the University of Georgia in the US has measured radioactive contamination in the Fukushima Exclusion Zone – using snakes.

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