New paper in Biological Reviews


Perils of ingesting harmful prey by advanced snakes

Kornilev Y, Natchev N, Lillywhite H. 2022
Biological Reviews. Link. Published online 03 October 2022.


The advanced snakes (Alethinophidia) include the extant snakes with a highly evolved head morphology providing increased gape and jaw flexibility. Along with other physiological and morphological adaptations, this allows them to immobilize, ingest, and transport prey that may be disproportionately large or presents danger to the predator from bites, teeth, horns, or spines. Reported incidents of snakes failing to consume prey and being injured or killed during feeding mostly reflect information in the form of natural-history notes. Here we provide the first extensive review of such incidents, including 101 publications describing at least 143 cases of mortality (including six of ‘multiple individuals’) caused by ingestion or attempted consumption of injurious prey. We also report on 15 previously unpublished injurious feeding incidents from the USA, Austria, and Bulgaria, including mortality of five juvenile piscivorous dice snakes (Natrix tessellata) from a single location. Occurrences are spread across taxa, with mortality documented for at least 73 species from eight families and 45 genera. Incidents were generally well represented within each of three major categories: oversized prey (40.6%), potentially harmful prey (40.6%), and predator's behavioural/mechanical errors (18.9%). Reptile (33%) and fish (26%) prey caused disproportionately high mortality compared to mammals (16%). Feeding can be dangerous throughout a snake's life, with the later stages of feeding likely being more perilous. The number of reports has increased over time, and the data seem biased towards localities with a higher number of field-working herpetologists. We propose a standardized framework, comprising a set of basic information that should ideally be collected and published, and which could be useful as a template for future data collection, reporting, and analyses. We conclude that incidents of mortality during feeding are likely to be more common than previously assumed, and this hypothesis has implications for the ecology of persistence where populations are impacted by changing trophic environments.