North America’s Rarest Snake Discovered in Florida After Fatal Battle with Centipede

Written by Gail Baker Nelson
Published: September 10, 2022
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We rarely find a snake that’s died after biting off more than it can chew. Typically, when a snake discovers something is too big to swallow, it backs off and goes elsewhere. Snakes are opportunistic hunters that, like many predators, take the easiest prey they can. Hunting is risky, so predators don’t put themselves out there unless they really need to eat.

However, they sometimes choose poorly. Usually, this results in a missed kill or a freshly killed meal that another animal will enjoy. Yet, in this case, the snake apparently did not want to give up on a meal.

Rim Rock Crowned Snake
The Rare Rim Rock Crowned Snake only measures 7-9 inches long as an adult.

A Tiny Species with a Tiny Range

The rim rock crowned snake (Tantilla oolitica) is an endangered species native to a small area of southeast Florida. Its range is less than 3,100 square miles (5,000 square km), and it’s a region high in tourism and real estate development.

This particular species had not been seen in Key Largo in over four years, so the fact that the first sighting in a while was dead isn’t exactly reassuring. Yet, simply knowing they still exist is something. The rim rock crowned snake population is on a downward slide, and every individual can make a difference.

An Epic Battle of Tiny Proportion

When a rim rock crowned snake turned up dead with a centipede sticking out of its mouth, there were bound to be questions. The biggest is “How did it die?” The hiker who discovered the epic micro-battle at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo alerted the park staff to the carnage.

It wasn’t long before the tiny snake corpse, its apparent killer still sticking out of its mouth, found its way to the Florida Museum. There, researchers wanted to determine its cause of death. While the obvious idea was asphyxiation, they wanted to be sure.

They needed a necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy. A dissection would have been the only way to do this in the past, but it permanently damages the specimen. So, perhaps modern technology had a better option.

Technology to the Rescue

Researchers have recently begun using CT scans to see an organism’s innards. First, staining the tissues with an iodine solution makes the contrast higher and internal tissues more visible. Then, researchers scan the organism; the images they obtain are used to construct a three-dimensional image of it. The payoff is pretty big, too – it allows them to get a clear look at the insides without the irreparable damage caused by necropsy.

This was attractive to researchers because it allowed them to preserve the little snake entirely for the future. So, researchers at the Florida Museum looked to the CT scan to answer their questions.

A fatal duel between a very rare snake and a giant centipede fascinated nature fans and scientists alike. 🐍 Tantilla oolitica once thrived in pine rocklands that spread from Central FL south to the Keys but now many fear it’s on the verge of extinction.— Florida Museum (@FloridaMuseum) September 7, 2022

What Killed the Rim Rock Crowned Snake?

Remember the first guess? Asphyxiation?

The CT scan gave a rare glimpse inside an incredibly rare snake – not to mention its relatively gargantuan attempted prey. 

The snake had a small wound on its side, probably from the centipede’s venomous pinchers. Scientists believe that snakes that eat poisonous or venomous animals have some resistance to the toxins. However, that’s more of an assumption than a known fact. The centipede pinch caused internal bleeding, but this wasn’t a factor in the snake’s death. The snake still tried to swallow it – and got more than half of it down before dying.

Compared to the little snake, the centipede was a monster. It was one-third the length of the snake. The centipede’s girth did the snake in and was large enough to pinch its trachea, causing it to suffocate.

This snake really did bite off more than it could chew, or in this case, swallow.

If you’re curious, the CT scans are available for the public to view online at MorphoSource and SketchFab. There’s likely a lot of information that can be gleaned from the scans, and the original specimen has been unstained and preserved for further study.

The Featured Image

Rim Rock Crowned Snake
This snake only measures 7-9 inches long as an adult.

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About the Author

Gail’s love for a very misunderstood group of animals, reptiles, led her to write about and draw them. She loves the natural world and it’s endless inspiration for her work. She is a freelance writer and illustrator, and her latest book, “Pebble Skins and Fast Walkers: What’s In a Name?” Is due out in early 2023.

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