See Inside April 2011

Natural-Born Killer: The Tentacled Snake

Lethal from day one, the tentacled snake uses surprisingly sly tactics to capture fish

Kenneth C. Catania

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.

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