We humans are pretty smug about our large brains and sophisticated ways. But if there is one thing I have learned as a biologist, it is to never underestimate the abilities of animals that most people consider primitive and simple-minded. Usually mammals teach me this lesson. But recently the complexity of the behaviors I observed in a peculiar reptile known as the tentacled snake made my jaw drop in amazement.
The tentacled snake, Erpeton tentaculatus, is a fully aquatic serpent native to Thailand, Cambodia and South Vietnam. A relatively small snake (adults are about two feet long), it gives birth to live young and feeds exclusively on fish. The animal’s name refers to its most distinctive trait: the pair of tentacles that project from the sides of the snout. I first became interested in these creatures around a decade ago on a nostalgic visit to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C., where I had worked summers as an undergraduate. Walking through the reptile house, I came across an aquarium thick with vegetation where a tentacled snake was lying in wait. It hung motionless in the water trying hard to look like a stick, its body curved into the characteristic J shape that the snakes adopt when hunting.