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This Snake Has a Tail That Looks Like a Spider
National Geographic ^ | 7/10 | Ed Yong

Posted on 07/14/2013 12:11:59 AM PDT by nickcarraway

Bryan Fry has been bitten by more venomous snakes than I’ve even seen. He studies their toxins for a living. He used to keep loads of them at his mountainside home, when his university ran out of space. Man knows his snakes. So, when Bryan Fry tells me that something is “easily the coolest snake ever”, I pay attention.

The creature he’s talking is new to science, having only been described in 2006. It’s the spider-tailed viper (Pseudocerastes urarachnoides) and it is aptly named.

The tail is bizarre. If you saw a close-up photo of it, you’d struggle to believe that there was a snake at the other end. There’s a large orange or grey bulb at the tip, and the scales just before that are bizarrely long and thin. Together, these features look a bit like the legs and abdomen of a spider or their close relatives, the solpugids or ‘camel spiders’.

The resemblance is even more striking when the snake moves. It keeps the rest of the tail still, while moving the tip in a disconcertingly jerky way. When studying animal behaviour, it’s important to remember that we’re watching with human eyes and to avoid biased interpretations. That said, just look at the video below!

The first spider-tailed viper was collected in the deserts of western Iran in 1968, and made its way to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Steven Anderson first inspected it in 1970 and at first, he thought there was a small camel spider clinging onto the animal. On closer inspection, he realised that the “spider” was actually part of the tail.

Was it a tumour, a growth caused by some parasite, a genetic deformity, or a natural part of the animal? With just one specimen, it was impossible to say. “Thus, the specimen languished, but was not forgotten, for nearly four decades,” wrote Anderson’s team.

Then in 2003, Iranian scientist Hamid Bostanchi found a second viper with exactly the same tail. That’s no tumour. It’s what the animal actually looks like. Another Iranian scientist Behzad Fathinia confirmed this by catching a live spider-tailed viper in 2008.

The viper’s scales are so rough and ridged that it looks like it’s encrusted with rock. That provides it with perfect camouflage among the rough gypsum sediments of its desert home. Local people, who knew about it long before scientists came on the scene, call it Mar-e-pardar (feathered snake) or Mar-e-gatch (gypsum snake). The viper’s texture gets even rougher when it’s alarmed. It hisses and inflates its body, which separates the rough scales and makes them stand out from each other. The effect is electric—the snake appears to bristle.

Spider_tailed_viper3 Credit: Barbod Safaei Mahroo And then there’s the tail. It’s probably a lure, like a fisherman’s fly. By resembling a tasty morsel, it draws potential prey into the snake’s striking range. Fathinia tested this idea by putting a chick into the same enclosure as his captive viper, which duly undulated its tail.

“It was very attractive and looked exactly like a spider moving rapidly,” Fathinia wrote. “After approximately half an hour, the chick went toward the tail and pecked the knob-like structure. The viper pulled the tail structure toward itself, struck and bit the chick in less than 0.5 seconds. The chick died after 1 hour.” A sparrow met the same fate.

Many snakes use similar “caudal lures” like this, including death adders (see below), some boas, and many vipers. But usually, these lures are nothing fancier than a thin tail tip that wriggles like a worm. If that’s good enough to attract a lizard or frog, why has the spider-tailed viper evolved a tail that’s so much more elaborate?

Maybe it’s meant to lure a different type of prey, but what? We definitely know that the viper eats birds, since the first specimen had a bird inside its stomach and the live one had feathers in its faeces. But beyond that, the function and the origin of the spider-tailed viper’s spider tail is still a mystery.


TOPICS: Pets/Animals; Science; Weird Stuff
KEYWORDS: wildlife

1 posted on 07/14/2013 12:11:59 AM PDT by nickcarraway
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To: nickcarraway

2 posted on 07/14/2013 12:12:59 AM PDT by nickcarraway
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To: nickcarraway

Click

3 posted on 07/14/2013 12:15:09 AM PDT by Jeff Chandler (Harriet Meiers is looking pretty good right about now.)
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To: nickcarraway

I’m tired and read “snail”. Good night, and Happy Skittles.


4 posted on 07/14/2013 12:20:23 AM PDT by Jeff Chandler (Harriet Meiers is looking pretty good right about now.)
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To: nickcarraway
Never seen that before.


5 posted on 07/14/2013 12:22:43 AM PDT by South40
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To: nickcarraway

Snakes are infinitely fascinating creatures.

:)


6 posted on 07/14/2013 12:30:28 AM PDT by Salamander (.......Uber Alice!.......)
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To: nickcarraway

the development of the spider tail is still a mystery???

it is to lure prey that feed on spiders...

mystery solved.

i hear it is on the endangered species list, because there are so few around... /sarc

teeman


7 posted on 07/14/2013 4:20:49 AM PDT by teeman8r (Armageddon won't be pretty, but it's not like it's the end of the world.)
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To: nickcarraway

Let’s name it the Marco Rubio for the behavior of trying to lure in the unwary conservative until the liberals strike.


8 posted on 07/14/2013 4:34:54 AM PDT by Truth29
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To: Salamander

They’re all so cool IMO.


9 posted on 07/14/2013 4:57:06 AM PDT by pallmallman (Q)
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To: Jeff Chandler

I think I just went to an alternate universe.


10 posted on 07/14/2013 6:40:09 AM PDT by dljordan (WhoVoltaire: "To find out who rules over you, simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.")
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