Academic journal article The Science Teacher

How Snakes Survive Starvation

Academic journal article The Science Teacher

How Snakes Survive Starvation

Article excerpt

Starving snakes use novel survival strategies not seen before in vertebrates, according to research conducted by a University of Arkansas (UA) biologist. These findings could be used in conservation strategies to determine the health of snake populations.

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"These animals take energy reduction to a whole new level," says Marshall McCue, a graduate student in biological sciences in the UA J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences. He reported his findings in the journal Zoology.

While scientists have known that some snake species could survive for up to two years without a meal, no studies have examined the physiological changes that take place when a snake goes for prolonged periods without food. McCue examined three snake species--the ball python, the ratsnake, and the western diamondback rattlesnake (see photo, p. 18)--to study their responses to prolonged periods without food.

The 62 snakes studied went about six months without eating--a time period that could easily be duplicated in the wild, where food supplies can be scarce. McCue then looked at physiological, compositional, and morphological changes in the snakes. The results showed that the snakes could lower their standard metabolic rates, some by up to 72%. "Snakes already had low energy demands. We did not know they could go lower," McCue says.

Another surprising finding: The snakes continued to grow despite the lack of food--a counterintuitive finding, but a measurement that again does not appear in the research literature. "To me, this suggests that there must be a strong selective advantage to growing longer," McCue says. …

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