Boa Constrictors Form Hunting Parties and We’re Totally Fine with That

himmelskratzer, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
himmelskratzer, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Scientists have observed Cuban boas lining up, suspending themselves from cave ceilings in a “curtain” of bodies, and waiting for their bat prey to fly through. A report on this never-before-seen behavior was published in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition [PDF].

At 3 to 6 feet long, the Cuban boa (Chilabothrus angulifer) is a hefty customer, the largest in its genus and one of the biggest in the West Indies. It’s a skilled hunter both on the forest floor and the cave ceiling, dangling like a fanged party streamer and snapping passing fruit bats out of the air.

Cooperative hunting is not uncommon in nature. Wolves do it, as do dolphins, apes, some birds, crocodiles, and even a few species of fish. Snakes … not so much. Scientists have seen snakes hunting in the same place, at the same time, but it was sort of an every-snake-for-itself situation. (In that nightmare-inducing scene in Planet Earth 2, for instance, researchers viewed the snakes as coordinating, not cooperating.) Or so we thought.

Yet when researcher Vladimir Dinets of the University of Knoxville settled in near a sinkhole cave in Cuba's Desembarco del Granma National Park to watch the snakes’ nightly bat-feast, he noticed something unusual: The snakes seemed to be making room for one another.

For eight nights between sunset and dawn, an apparently fearless Dinets watched the cave’s nine snake inhabitants position themselves on the roof of the cave. His first thought was that each snake just had its own favorite or assigned spot on the ceiling.

But over time, he realized that they were rotating, each arriving snake filling in gaps in the curtain space to ensure maximum bat-flightpath coverage.

This wasn’t just a bunch of snakes hunting in the same place at the same time. This was a bunch of snakes hunting together. And it was working. The boas stuffed themselves with little furry bodies.

“It is possible that boas are not unique among snakes, and that coordinated hunting is not particularly rare,” Dinets writes in his paper. “This possibility suggests that at least some snakes are not the ‘solitary animals’ they are commonly considered to be, and that they are capable of high behavioral complexity required for such hunting.”

This is fine.

Bizarre New Giant Salamander Species Discovered in Florida

There’s something in the water in Florida, but it’s not the swamp monster locals may have feared. According to National Geographic, scientists have discovered a new species of giant salamander called a reticulated siren, and you can find the 2-foot-long amphibian in the swamps of southern Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

Locals have long reported seeing a creature with leopard-like spots, the body of an humongous eel, and axolotl-like frills sprouting out of the sides of its head, but its existence wasn’t described in scientific literature until now. Researchers from Texas and Georgia recently published their findings in the journalPLOS ONE.

“It was basically this mythical beast,” David Steen, a wildlife ecologist and one of the paper’s co-authors, tells National Geographic. He had been trapping turtles at the Eglin Air Force Base in Okaloosa County, Florida, in 2009 when he caught one of the creatures by chance. After that encounter, the researchers set out to find more specimens.

Colloquially, locals have long been calling the creature a leopard eel. Because the reticulated siren only has two tiny front limbs, it's easy to mistake it for an eel. Its hind limbs disappeared throughout the course of millions of years of evolution, and it also lacks eyelids and has a beak instead of the teeth that are typical of other salamander species.

They belong to a genus of salamanders called sirens, which are one of the largest types of salamander in the world. The second part of the species’ name comes from the reticulated pattern seen on all of the individuals that were examined by researchers. The reticulated siren is also one of the largest vertebrates to be formally described by scientists in the U.S. in the last 100 years, according to the paper.

There are still a lot of unknowns about the reticulated siren. They lead hidden lives below the surface of the water, and they’re thought to subsist on insects and mollusks. Researchers say further study is urgently needed because there's a chance the species could be endangered.

[h/t National Geographic]

Forget Therapy Puppies—Michigan State Students Brush Cows to De-Stress for Finals

iStock.com/123ducu
iStock.com/123ducu

As more universities are coming to understand just how stressful the rigors of modern academics can be, many institutions have begun bringing dogs onto campus to soothe anxious students during finals week. At Michigan State University, students have a more unique option to help them de-stress: cow time.

According to Click on Detroit, the recent "Finals Stress mooove on out!" event gave students the chance to brush cows at Michigan State's Dairy Cattle Teaching and Research Center just south of the school's main campus. For $10, participants spent 30 minutes brushing one of the school's 200 dairy cows, an activity designed to relax both the human and the cow.

Not all students come to college with a working knowledge of large-ruminant etiquette, so MSU farm manager Andrea Meade was on hand to show students what to do, prevent them from accidentally spooking the animals, and answer questions about milking and dairy practices.

Studies have shown that petting dogs can help lower your blood pressure, but dogs aren't the only animals that provide people with a psychological boost. A number of animals have been found to help relax humans (though the effect tends to be greater when it's a familiar animal rather than one the person just met), including cows. One 2011 study in Norway found that after working on a dairy farm for 12 weeks, psychiatric patients showed lower levels of anxiety and depression.

And the cows need to be brushed whether there are students there or not, so the event presented a mutually beneficial situation. Many dairies employ automated brush systems to keep cows clean and stimulate blood flow, keeping them happier and healthier in the process.

You don't need to be a student to enjoy the calming effects of cattle, though. Upstate New York's Mountain Horse Farm's hour-long "cow cuddling" sessions let you pet, brush, and play with new bovine friends for $75.

[h/t Click on Detroit]

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