Tag Archives: snake

“A curtain of snakes” — for the first time, scientists confirm snakes can hunt in packs

As if snakes weren’t good enough as predators — they can also team up for even better results.

The Cuban boa (Chilabothrus angulifer) is the first snake shown to cooperatively hunt. Image credits: Vladimir Dinets.

Although snakes are as social as birds or mammals, hunting is usually a one-snake job. Although they do sometimes (very rarely) hunt in groups, coordination and cooperating in snake hunting have never been demonstrated before. Now, Vladimir Dinets, a research assistant professor of psychology at UT, observed the Cuban boa (Chilabothrus angulifer) doing just that, significantly increasing its success rate.

“It is possible that coordinated hunting is not uncommon among snakes, but it will take a lot of very patient field research to find out,” he said. “This is the first scientifically documented case of coordinated hunting by snakes,” the researcher wrote. “It is also the first study on reptiles to statistically test for coordination between hunters and to show that coordination increases hunting success.”

Writing in the journal Animal Behavior and Cognition, he describes how boas hang down from the ceiling of the cave entrance filled with bats. They patiently wait for their prey and then attempt to catch the bats mid-air. Sometimes they’re successful, but sometimes they’ll return without a catch. But when they hunt in a group, they’re always successful.

Strength in numbers

The key for the group is to create a curtain-like structure at the entrance of the cave, so that bats can’t safely fly anywhere without coming close to a snake. Basically, if one or a few snakes hunt at the cave entrance, bats can simply go around them, and the snakes’ success rate drops. But if there’s enough of them, there are no safe spots. They share the spoils and each snake only takes one bat.

This may be a unique behavior, but there’s also a good chance that many other snakes hunt together. Out of the world’s 3,650 snake species, we’ve only observed the hunting habits of few of them, and much of what snakes do remains a mystery to us.

“It is possible that coordinated hunting is not uncommon among snakes, but it will take a lot of very patient field research to find out,” Dinets said.

Dinets also raises a big alarm flag, saying that Cuban boas are becoming harder and harder to find. For starters, they’re now only found in the most remote caves, which is natural, but they’re also being increasingly hunted for food and pet trade. Cuban wildlife, in general, is expected to undergo a critical period as the country slowly opens up to the rest of the world and external pressures will also increase.

“I suspect that if their numbers in a cave fall, they can’t hunt in groups anymore and might die out even if some of them don’t get caught by hunters,” Dinets said. “A few of these caves are in national parks, but there’s a lot of poaching everywhere.”

Vladimir Dinets has been very active in the study and description of reptiles, helping disprove many of the wrong stereotypes surrounding these animals. In a previous guest post for ZME Science, Dinets dispelled the most common crocodile myths. Crocs and alligators are extremely intelligent, social, playful, and even funny, contrary to what most people believe.

A serious killer. Credit: University of Queensland

A snake with the largest venom glands and known as the ‘killer of killers’ might help us make the best painkillers

A serious killer. Credit: University of Queensland

A serious killer. Credit: University of Queensland

Meet the blue coral snake (Calliophis bivirgatus) — a mesmerizing long-gland snake that’s called as the ‘killer of killers’ because it’s known to attack and eat some of the deadliest snakes in the world. King cobras are on the menu, for instance. Now, a team of researchers who studied the snake’s glands say its venom targets brain receptors that are involved in processing pain in humans. The next generation of painkillers which are quicker and stronger than anything before it could come from this slithering assassin.

You often have to look in peculiar (and dangerous) places for innovation

The snake's venom gland can be as long as a quarter of its body length. When bitten, a prey will spam becoming instantly paralyzed. Credit: Queensland University

The snake’s venom gland can be as long as a quarter of its body length. When bitten, a prey will spam becoming instantly paralyzed. Credit: University of Queensland

Native to southeast Asia, the blue coral snake has the biggest venom glands in the world, reaching one quarter of its 2-meter long body length. An international team of researchers, among them Dr Bryan Fry from the University of Queensland, sought to investigate the therapeutic potential of this killer’s venom because it acts very fast.

Venomous snakes can kill people, but the venom itself is typically slow-acting. The prey is dead in hours, but if you extract the venom and turn it into a drug, you can get a nice sedative. The blue coral snake’s venom, however, acts lightning fast because it needs to kill dangerous predators as soon as possible so as not to leave room for retaliation. Making drugs out of this kind of venom, which is similar in action to that of some scorpions and cone snails, could make for a nice painkiller. The added benefit is that it would come from a vertebrate, which would make the drugs more compatible to humans from an evolutionary perspective than venom sourced from scorpions, for instance.

“The speciality in my lab is to use evolution as our map, so we seek out the weirdest things we can find,” Dr Fry told News.com.au. “Because we have a very simple premise that if you want to find something new and wonderful for use in human medicine, you’re more likely to find it from a very unusual venom.”

Simply put, “We can’t predict where the next wonder drug is going to come from,” the venomologist said.

“Here out of this enigmatic, extraordinarily rare animal we have made a discovery that could greatly benefit human health.”

Dr Fry and colleagues found out how the blue coral snake causes its victims to instantly spasm. Inside the venom, a number of unusual peptides bind to receptors in the brain and causes all of the victim’s nerves to fire at once. This neural overload causes instant paralysis.

[ALSO READ] How anti-venom is made and why it’s so precious

These peptides act on a particular set of sodium channels which are known to be important in treating human health. So, even if the snake’s venom doesn’t get turned into a drug itself, at least we can learn a lot about how pain relief in the brain works, said Fry.

Also, what Fry and colleagues have done is an exercise in creativity and taking cues from nature. In the future, however, such exercises will become increasingly difficult as the threat to biodiversity becomes greater. Nowadays, the blue coral snake is very rare after its habitat has been reduced by 80 percent. Who knows what other wonders of nature hold secrets and keys to human happiness, longevity or wellness. The products of millions of years of evolution stand before our noses — and we’re squandering them.

Fossil Friday: the bug inside the lizard inside the snake

Forty-eight million years ago, a snake, a lizard, and an insect would unknowingly had a very, very bad day. But their Eocene tragedy would yield one of the most spectacular fossil finds of this year: the three animals fossilized together, one inside the other.

Yummy, yummy, get in my tummy. Forever!
Image credits Smith, K.T. & Scanferla A. / Palaeobio Palaeoenv (2016).

The fossil includes an unidentified insect ingested by a Geiseltaliellus maarius stem-basilisk (lizard,) which itself ended up as dinner for a juvenile Palaeopython fischeri snake. It was found in the Messel Pit, Germany, an area “renowned for the fidelity of preservation.” Today it’s a disused quarry but while these animals still lived, Messel was a volcanic lake with deep, toxic waters, and prone to belch out deadly clouds of carbon dioxide.

It’s unclear how the snake died, but no more than two days after eating the lizard it lay dead on the lake floor encased in fine sediment which would fossilize it, the lizard inside, and the insect inside both.

The fossil is the second of its kind ever found, and it preserves both the animals and a little piece of the day’s food chain. The other one was described in 2008 by a team led by the University of Vienna’s Jürgen Kriwet — it was a fossil of a shark that ate an amphibian with a spiny fish in its stomach.

It is, by all accounts, an astonishing find.

“It’s probably the kind of fossil that I will go the rest of my professional life without ever encountering again, such is the rarity of these things,” says Krister Smith, lead author of the paper describing the fossil.

“It was pure astonishment.”

The fossil will help define the range of Paleopython, which despite isn’t closely related to modern pythons.

“This fossil is amazing,” says Agustin Scafalera, co-author of the paper.

“We were lucky men to study this kind of specimen.”

Interpretive drawing of the fossil, overlaid on its photograph.
Image credits Smith, K.T. & Scanferla, A. / Palaeobio Palaeoenv (2016).

Maybe this is why my grandma told me not to swim after eating.

Scientists figure out why snakes have such long bodies

It’s something kids (and even grownups) often ask – why are snakes so long? When we think of animals, they generally have a head, a body, and limbs, but snakes only have a head and a very long body, so what makes them so different? Researchers from Portugal believe they finally have the answer.

This beautiful snake is shaped as it is thanks to a specific gene. Image via Pixabay.

A research team led by Moisés Mallo from Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (IGC, Portugal) has uncovered the mechanisms controlling the tissues that form the trunk, including the skeleton and the spinal cord. Their experiments have shown that the key is a gene called Oct4 one of the essential regulators of stem cells. However, it’s interesting to note that several other vertebrates contain the same gene, without having a similar body structure.

“We had found that Oct4 is the switch that leads to trunk formation, still we couldn’t explain the different trunk length observed in vertebrates, particularly in snakes. Therefore, we tested if this switch was being turned on or off during different periods of embryonic development in snakes compared to mice.”

What they found was that the gene remains active much longer in snakes than it does in other animals. If the gene was switched off sooner, then the snakes wouldn’t grow so long.

“The formation of different body regions works as a strong-arm contest of genes. Genes involved in trunk formation need to start ceasing activity so that the genes involved in tail formation can start working. In the case of snakes, we observed that the Oct4 gene is kept active during a longer period of embryonic development, which explains why snakes have such a long trunk and a very short tail”, says Rita Aires, who was also involved in the study.

The team also found that the gene emerged sometime during their reptile evolution, based on its DNA location.

A snake embryo. Photo by Francisca Leal, University of Florida.

The development of the body structure is generally dictated by genetic activity, so this doesn’t really come as a surprise. However, finding the mechanism which ensures this growth could enable us to better understand the development of other creatures and in time, it could even provide some medical benefits. Researchers are especially interested in the regeneration of bones and the spinal cord.

“We identified a key factor that allows essentially unlimited growth of trunk structures, as long as it remains active. Now we will investigate if we can use the Oct4 gene and the DNA region that maintains its activity to expand the cells that make the spinal cord, trying to regenerate it in case of injury.”

“We identified a key factor that allows essentially unlimited growth of trunk structures, as long as it remains active. Now we will investigate if we can use the Oct4 gene and the DNA region that maintains its activity to expand the cells that make the spinal cord, trying to regenerate it in case of injury.”

Ouroboros

Literally Ouroboros: snake gets trapped in a circle of its own shedding skin

Ouroboros

Visitors to the Alice Springs Reptile Centre, home to the largest reptile display in Central Australia, were stunned by the sight of a snake who spun in circles countless times in a ring made from its own skin. The Stimson’s Python specimen somehow managed to “shed completely within itself with its tail finishing inside its ‘sloughed mouth’,” a facebook update from the official Alice Springs Reptile Centre reads. “It actually looks like a steering wheel,” the update continues.

 

A classical depiction of the Ouroboros. Credit: Aquarius the water bearer

The snake eating its own tail is the symbol for Ouroboros, which is a Greek word meaning ‘tail devourer’. It’s one of the oldest mystical symbols in human culture, and like all good symbols, it has many meanings. Foremost, the serpent biting or devouring its own tail represents the cyclic nature of the universe — creation out of destruction, life out of death. It can also be envisioned as a symbol of time with the tail of the serpent representing the past which appears to be devoured (gone), when in reality it moves into a new inner domain of existence vanishing from view but still existing.

Thankfully, the Stimson’s Python managed to free himself and emerged out of the Ouroboros with a new skin — but not before three hours had passed.

The snake after it finally escaped. Credit: Alice Springs Reptile Center

The snake after it finally escaped. Credit: Alice Springs Reptile Center

via Sploid

Underwater maintenance robot-snakes look scary but are actually quite cool

Eelume  developed a snake-like robot for underwater maintenance tasks. The deceptively simple robots could drastically reduce operating costs for deep sea rigs.

Image via youtube

Remember “Terminator”? Or that diamond of modern cinema, “Snakes on a Plane”? Both terrifying in very different ways. Now scientists, not content to be one-upped by mere movies, mixed the two together into a whole new blood curling package — underwater robot snakes.

Admittedly they’re not out to hurt anyone. In fact, they’re here to help: the Eelume bots were developed to maintain underwater equipment in working order, an otherwise very pricey task. They will be permanently deployed on the seabed, where they will tend to gear that is difficult and expensive to reach for human personnel.

The robot is designed with this snake-like form so it can slither in and around underwater rigs to clean and perform quick visual inspections. The robot’s head can clamp down on small components so it can perform tasks such as adjusting valves, for example.

Eelume, the company behind this project, is a spin-off company out of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU). It collaborated with oil and gas company Statoil and Norway’s Kongsberg Maritime in developing the robot. The latter — with over 25 years experience, including operating the robot that captured the Sherlock Holmes movie model of the Loch Ness monster last week — lent its underwater robot know-how to the project, while Statoil provided real-life installations for testing.

The developers hope that the robot snakes can take over the bulk of subsea inspection tasks, drastically reducing the need for costly vessels. Eelume stated that the bots can be permanently deployed to both new and existing underwater systems, where they will serve as a “self-going janitor on the seabed.”

The videos below show how the snakebot swims, both with thrusters attached and just with slithering motions. For now, they require a cable connection to a surface power supply, but this is presumably for test purposes only.

Huh, they’re actually quite awesome. Can I have one as a pet?

Story source Kongsberg.

Four-legged snake is missing link between lizards and serpents

An “absolutely exquisite” fossil of a juvenile snake with limbs has been discovered by paleontologists, forgotten in a museum. The fossil dates back from the early Cretaceous, 110 million years ago, and is the oldest evidence of a definitive snake.

Snakes are elongated, legless, carnivorous reptiles that evolved in the late Cretaceous; the earliest evidence (before this) of a snake was 94 million years old, but the fossil record of snakes is relatively poor because snake skeletons are typically small and fragile making fossilization uncommon. Based on comparative anatomy, there is consensus that snakes descended from lizards, and these legged snakes further strengthen this theory.

Dr Dave Martill from the University of Portsmouth who conducted the study, says this fossil can show how and why snakes lost their limbs.

“It is generally accepted that snakes evolved from lizards at some point in the distant past. What scientists don’t know yet is when they evolved, why they evolved, and what type of lizard they evolved from. This fossil answers some very important questions, for example it now seems clear to us that snakes evolved from burrowing lizards, not from marine lizards.”

The first observation that they made is that the limbs show adaptation for burrowing, not swimming, which indicates that snakes evolved on land, not in water, as was proposed by some scientists.

“This is the most primitive fossil snake known, and it’s pretty clearly not aquatic,” said Dr Nick Longrich from the University of Bath, one of the study’s authors.

Researchers were actually surprised by how clear the features of the fossil are – they were expecting something more ambiguous, more “in between”. Instead, he saw “a lot of very advanced snake features” including its hooked teeth, flexible jaw and spine – and even snake-like scales.

Furthermore, the fossil also reveals that the ancient snake had ingested a vertebrate – a clearly snake behaviour.

“And there’s the gut contents – it’s swallowed another vertebrate. It was preying on other animals, which is a snake feature. It was pretty unambiguously a snake. It’s just got little arms and little legs.”

The snake, named Tetrapodophis amplectus by the team, measured just 20 cm from head to tail, though it likely grew much bigger than that in adulthood. The head was about the size of a fingernail and the limbs were actually very little, but still useful.

“They’re actually very highly specialised – they have very long, skinny fingers and toes, with little claws on the end. What we think [these animals] are doing is they’ve stopped using them for walking and they’re using them for grasping their prey.”

The fossil had a history as strange as the snake itself. It was simply acquired by a private collector, where it languished for decades before a museum in Solnhofen, Germany, acquired and exhibited it with the label “unknown fossil”. It was actually when Dr David Martill, another of the paper’s authors, took his students out for a field trip that the fossil was rediscovered and properly appreciated.

“All of a sudden my jaw absolutely dropped, when I saw this little fossil like a piece of string,” said Dr Martill, from the University of Portsmouth. He immediately asked for permission to study the fossil more closely. “The fossil was part of a larger exhibition of fossils from the Cretaceous period. It was clear that no-one had appreciated its importance, but when I saw it I knew it was an incredibly significant specimen.”

Journal Reference:

  1. Dave Martill et al. A four-legged snake from the Early Cretaceous of Gondwana. Science, July 2015 DOI: 10.1126/science.aac5672

 

Snakes evolved on land, possibly with toes and feet

A new analysis conducted by Yale researchers revealed that the first snakes may have actually evolved on land, not in water. These proto-snakes were likely night hunters that might have had hind legs and even toes.

“We generated the first comprehensive reconstruction of what the ancestral snake was like,” said Allison Hsiang, lead author the study published online May 19 in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology. Hsiang is a postdoctoral researcher in Yale’s Department of Geology and Geophysics.

Image via Smithsonian.

Snakes emerged about 128.5 million years ago, during the early Cretaceous. The Cretaceous was a period with a relatively warm climate, with high sea levels and numerous shallow inland seas. Some paleontologists proposed that snakes actually evolved in these seas, ultimately differentiating in the over 3,000 species we see today.

However, this study claims otherwise. Researchers integrated genetic sequencing and fossil analysis, adding it to the anatomical comparison of 73 lizard and snake species. With this, they believe they’ve created the most comprehensive snake family tree to date. Furthermore, they propose that ancestral snakes had sharp, needle-like teeth with which they grabbed small, rodent-like creatures and swallowed them whole.

“We infer that the most recent common ancestor of all snakes was a nocturnal, stealth-hunting predator targeting relatively large prey, and most likely would have lived in forested ecosystems in the Southern Hemisphere,” Hsiang said.

But it gets even better – according to their analysis, the first snakes also had tiny hind limbs, and even toes.

“Our analyses suggest that the most recent common ancestor of all living snakes would have already lost its forelimbs, but would still have had tiny hind limbs, with complete ankles and toes. It would have first evolved on land, instead of in the sea,” said co-author Daniel Field, a Yale Ph.D. candidate. “Both of those insights resolve longstanding debates on the origin of snakes.”

This was actually the most surprising result for paleontologists, but the science seems to back it up.

“I was most amazed by how strongly we inferred that the common ancestor retained hind limbs,” Field said. “Sometimes evolution plays out in unexpected and strange ways,” he added. “We think we’ve got a strongly supported idea, and based on the mathematical reconstruction it is what is most likely to be true.”

The study was published in BMC Evolutionary Biology.

Journal Reference: Allison Y Hsiang, Daniel J Field, Timothy H Webster, Adam DB Behlke, Matthew B Davis, Rachel A Racicot and Jacques A Gauthier. The origin of snakes: revealing the ecology, behavior, and evolutionary history of early snakes using genomics, phenomics, and the fossil record, BMC Evolutionary Biology 2015. DOI: 10.1186/s12862-015-0358-5

snake_antivenom

Antivenom: how it’s made and why it’s so precious

Every year, roughly 100,000 people around the world die from a venomous snake bite. Depending on the toxicity of the venom and how much venom is injected into the body, a snakebite will cause tingling, muscle weakness, nausea, swallowing difficulties, excess saliva, and potentially fatal breathing problems.

To avoid death, a snakebite victim must immediately go to a hospital for antivenom treatment. If the patient arrives in due time — and if the hospital has the corresponding antivenom in stock — there’s an almost 100% chance of survival. As you might have guessed, the reason why so many people die from venomous snake bites is that even if a hospital is nearby, there often isn’t enough antivenom to spare. In this post, you’ll learn how antivenom is made, the challenges to antivenom production, and why antivenom is so precious.

snake_antivenom

Photo: P. Mirtschin, Venom Supplies

The first antivenom

It’s amazing to find out that antivenom was first introduced only 100 years ago — until then, people could only rely on their own immune system to survive, which frequently didn’t cut it. Albert Calmette, a protege of the famous Louis Pasteur, made the first antivenom serum in 1896 in present-day Vietnam after a flood forced monocled cobras into a village near Saigon, where they bit at least 40 people and killed 4. A man of science, Calmette wasn’t satisfied with hope alone to save those unfortunate enough to get bitten, so taking inspiration from the then-innovative vaccination wave, he made it his mission to create antivenom. He eventually discovered a process by which horses could be injected with venom to produce antibodies. He then extracted blood from those horses and injected it into the snake-bitten victim. Today, although techniques have improved over the century, the process remains more or less the same.

How to make antivenom

In a typical antivenom institute, various species of snakes are bred, cared for, and constantly monitored to ensure they are in good health. When the time is ripe, professionals introduce the snakes (which can include some of the deadliest, like banded kraits or black mambas) into a milking room. The snake is grabbed with the thumb and index finger at the very back of the head just behind the angle of the jaw where the venom glands reside. This allows the snake milker to press the snake’s glands without allowing the snake to turn and bite — even so, many professional snake handlers are bitten hundreds of times during their career.

The quantity of venom even seasoned professionals can milk is very small, so the snakes have to be milked many, many times to produce a useful amount. For instance, it took a total of three years and 69,000 milkings to produce a single pint of coral snake venom. Once milked, the venom must be cooled to below -20℃ and is then typically freeze-dried for easier storage and transport. This process also concentrates the venom by removing water. Of course, each vial of venom needs to be correctly labeled with the snake’s species, geographical position and so on. Then comes the immunization part.

Traditionally, horses are used to create antibodies because they thrive in many environments worldwide, have a large body mass, get along with each other and are familiar enough with humans that they aren’t easily scared by the injection process. Goats and sheep are also used, as well as donkeys, rabbits, cats, chickens, camels, and rodents. Some institutes even experiment with sharks. The antivenom produced from sharks is quite effective, but they’re rarely used for obvious reasons.

Before injecting the animal, chemists carefully measure the venom and mix it with distilled water or some other buffer solution. Most importantly, an adjuvant is added to the solution so that the horse’s immune system reacts and produces antibodies that bind to and neutralize the venom. A veterinarian supervises the process at all times so that the horse (or another animal of choice) remains in a healthy condition. Antibodies in the horse’s bloodstream usually peak in about 8-10 weeks. At this point, the horse is ready to have its blood harvested — typically 3 to 6 liters of blood is drained from the jugular vein.

Blood vials are centrifuged for purification. Photo: USFWS/Southeast/Flickr

Blood vials are centrifuged for purification. Photo: USFWS/Southeast/Flickr

The next step in the antivenom fabrication process is purification. The blood is then centrifuged to filter the plasma — the liquid portion of blood that doesn’t contain blood cells — to allow separation of the antivenom. During this step, producers typically employ their own methods, many of which are kept a trade secret. However, typically, unwanted proteins are discarded through precipitation by either adjusting the plasma’s pH or adding salts to the solution. One of the last steps in antivenom preparation involves using an enzyme to break down the antibodies and isolate the active ingredients. The last step is usually checked by an outside regulatory body like the FDA in the United States. Once approved, the samples are concentrated in powder or liquid form, then frozen and shipped to hospitals where they’re most needed.

As you can see, the process is extremely complicated, expensive, and of little yield. For instance, a typical antivenom vial costs $1,500 to $2,200, but a snakebite requires between 20 and 25 vials to be neutralized. If you add these up, a man bitten in the US by a venomous snake would have to pay $30,000 in pharmacy costs alone. Yet most snake bites occur in developing countries, especially in rural areas of the tropics. Because the costs and energy required to produce antivenom are so large, producers don’t make enough to provide to these areas because it’s not financially feasible, despite high demand for the product. As such, even if these individuals make it to a hospital for treatment, antivenom is in little or no supply.

How to turn yourself into an antivenom

Antivenom isn’t the only way to survive a highly venomous snakebite. An alternate route, which is only feasible for those that are constantly exposed to the risk of being bitten by venomous snakes, is to build tolerance — after all, humans have been intentionally exposing themselves to poisons for millennia. The first account of such practice may be found in the story of king Mithridates, the ruler of Pontus (a region of in Asia Minor). Mithridates was openly opposed to the Romans, and in those times, the weapon of choice for assassinating the upper class was poison. Paranoid about getting killed after every morsel of food, Mithridates eventually became a veritable scientist and poison control expert. The details are sketchy and have been lost in time — some say he poisoned ducks, then drank of those who survived. Nevertheless, we know that he discovered that by gradually exposing himself to a nonlethal dose of poison (say, arsenic) he would eventually build up immunity — up to a point. Ironically, he killed himself by ingesting an immense amount of poison after suffering a decisive defeat at the hands of the Romans. The practice is now commonly known as mithridatism, which also works for snake venom.

Haast handling a nervous cobra. Photo: bilhaast.com

Haast handling a nervous cobra. Photo: bilhaast.com

Bill Haast, a famous snake handler who died at age 100, was known for milking up to 100 snakes a day. You can imagine that, at this rate, he would get bitten often. Realizing this, in 1948 he began injecting himself with increasing doses of diluted cobra venom in order to develop his own immune resistance. By the time he died — of natural causes, we should add — Haast had survived 172 bites from many of the world’s deadliest snakes, including a blue krait, a king cobra, and a Pakistani pit viper. He even flew around the world and donated his blood for direct transfusion, thus saving 21 victims.

Amazing fungus gnat larvae group together to form a ‘snake’ [VIDEO]

Fungus gnats (Bradysia species) – also known as dark-winged fungus gnats, are small, mosquito-like insects often found in homes and offices, usually in the vicinity of houseplants. The larvae that hatch are legless, with white or transparent bodies and shiny black heads. From the first glimpse you’ll notice they’re not the prettiest sight, but what they lack in looks, they make up in cleverness.

The fungus gnat larvae are incredibly vulnerable when alone; they’re puny, non-poisonous and practically at the mercy of predators – basically anything larger than them. To survive, the larvae have adapted a group behavior in which they join together by the hundreds to form a slimy, moving mass. The video embedded in this post illustrates this behavior. At first, you might be fooled to think you’re watching a snake (a two-headed snake?), but once the video zooms in all hell breaks loose.

While this instance of fungus gnat larvae behavior is very clever (or grouse), they’re consider serious pests and can cause severe damage to both houseplants and commercial crops. Some fungus gnat larvae are known for their propensity to feed on the roots and lower stem tissues of plants. These feeding habits stunt and might kill affected plants.

Snake missing link found: it crawled by T-Rex

Researchers have discovered what they believe to be a grandfather of snakes, which descended from terrestrial rather than marine ancestors.

“It’s the missing-link snake between snakes and lizards,” says Nicholas Longrich, a postdoctoral fellow in the geology and geophysics department at Yale University and the lead author of a paper published in the journal Nature.

The paper argues that snakes developed from terrestrial ancestors once lizards developed long, limbless bodies for burrowing. The snake in case has a serpentine body but a lizard like head, and it represents one of the extremely few fossils which showcases a transitional life form, shedding light on the divergence of snakes from the broader family of lizards.

Snakes today have jaws that unhinge, thus allowing it to swallow preys much larger than themselves; in contrast to modern snakes, this ancient one, Coniophis precedens, has jaws that remain fixed, limiting his dient which probably consisted mostly of small reptiles and amphibians.

“It moves like a snake, but it doesn’t feed like a snake,” says Longrich, who notes Coniophis‘ body is made up of vertebrae characteristic of snakes, allowing it to slither “beneath the feet of T. rex.”

For more than a century, researchers had only a single isolated Coniophis vertebra, and hardly anything was known about its anatomy or lifestyle, much less his place in reptilian evolution. Longrich and colleagues established a more detailed picture, pinning down an important piece of the puzzle, after analyzing some smaller bones which had previously been gathered, but not studied.

“Compared to what we knew before, this is now one of the better-known snakes from the Cretaceous period, 145 million to 65 million years ago,” he adds. (Coniophis itself is from 65 million years ago).

The additional bones, which were basically pieces of upper and lower jaw, teeth, and additional vertebrae were found in several museum collections, including Yale’s personal one. What’s interesting is that even though paleontologists believe snakes evolved from Coniophis, it is not the oldest snake ever found – being a living fossil in its time, co-existing with other, more evolved snakes, much like humans and chimps today.