Stressed Snakes Are More Likely To Bite

Posted: Dec 24 2016, 6:36am CST | by , in News | Latest Science News

 

Stressed Snakes are More Likely to Bite
Cottonmouth snake. Credit: Mark Herr/Penn State
 

New study shows a connection between stress hormones and behavior in wild animals

Snakes are one of the most feared yet poorly understood creatures in the world. 

It is widely assumed that snakes tend to strike first if someone tries to harm or harass them. But a new research suggests something otherwise. The strike of a wild snake during an encounter depends on its baseline stress level. 

Like humans, animals can also suffer from stress related conditions. However, it’s hard to predict exactly when an animal is under stress.

“Most people think a snake is more likely to strike after you have handled or harassed it,” said co-researcherTracy Langkilde from Pennsylvania State University. “Our results show this is not true. We show that how stressed a snake gets when handled or harassed does not determine how likely it is to strike.”

For the study, researchers analyzed the level of stress hormone in cottonmouth snake and found that snake with high baseline levels of corticosterone were more likely to strike during an encounter with a person than those with lower baseline levels of hormone. Surprisingly, increased corticosterone levels right after a standardized stressful experience did not make the snakes more likely to strike. 

During the experiment, only 11 in 32 snakes attempted to strike when they were held by snake tongs in the first encounter, while only 7 struck again after being held by the equipment for a brief stressful period.  Based on the study, researchers suggest that snakes may be less likely to strike humans if they are not stressed to begin with. This could reduce the incidence of snakebite which kills up to 90,000 people worldwide every year with higher number of deaths occuring in developing countries like South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. 

Stress is an important factor that affects behavior but the interaction between stress hormones and behavior in wild animals is not properly understood. Though, the new study also shows no direct link between corticosterone levels and behavior in cottonmouth snakes, it could pave the way for further relevant research in future.

“These are some of the first results we know of that connect stress biology with anti-predator behavior in the wild.” Mark Herr, lead researcher of the study said.

Next, researchers are planning an experiment to manipulate the stress levels of cottonmouths to better understand its impact on snakes’ behavior.

 

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Hira Bashir covers daily affairs around the world.

 

 

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