Coral snakes recorded battling it out in a tug-of-war for food

A couple of red-tailed coral snakes have been caught on camera battling it out over a tasty meal in the first documented wild case of “food theft” in elapid snakes.

Kleptoparasitism, or food theft, is a well-documented behaviour in many animal species – particularly birds – but rarely is it reported in snakes in the wild.

But in a new observation, detailed in a paper published in the journal Herpetozoa, 2 snakes (Micrurus mipartitus) were caught engaging in a tug-of-war contest over a caecilian – a limbless amphibian.

“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,” says lead author Henrik Bringsøe.

Credit: Henrik Bringsøe and Niels Poul Dreyer

The showdown occurred in the dense rainforests of Valle del Cauca, western Colombia in March 2023. The authors of the paper, Bringsøe and Niels Poul Dreyer, stumbled upon the coral snakes mid-conflict.

“Upon our arrival, the battle had already started as the two coral snakes kept bite-holds on the caecilian,” they write.

“They continued biting the prey at different places on the anterior parts and tugging in opposite directions. The snakes also made rotations along the longitudinal axis as they maintained their bite-holds.

“Surprisingly, one snake also bit the body of the other snake once.”

Credit: Henrik Bringsøe and Niels Poul Dreyer

The authors say that at no point did the prey, which is either the species Caecilia leucocephala or C. perdita, attempt to bite the coral snakes in defence. Ultimately, after 17 minutes, one snake emerged victorious while the other released its hold.

The authors conclude that: “In general, kleptoparasitism may occur more frequently amongst snakes than indicated by the very few published cases considering that numerous cases from captivity are known.”

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