Smell me if you can - puff adders use chemical camouflage

2016-01-11 16:14
(Picture: Supplied)

(Picture: Supplied)

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Johannesburg – South African researchers might have discovered a feature that makes puff adders the ultimate ambush predator.

Puff adders hide using highly evolved visual camouflage, but were also difficult to find by smell, according to research by Wits University’s School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, partly done at the Montecasino Bird Gardens in Johannesburg.

The new study had provoked the interest of the United States Military, which expressed an interest in funding a part of the research.

This research, published in the journal Royal Society Proceedings B, was the first to show a terrestrial animal using chemical crypsis (chemical camouflage) to survive.

Puff adders - scientific name Bitis arietans - hunted by ambushing their prey, and could lie motionless in a single location for weeks, waiting for prey to pass, Professor Graham Alexander, head of the Alexander Herp Laboratory at Wits, told reporters on Monday.

Because this could make them vulnerable to predators, it drove the evolution of not only their impressive visual camouflage, but also their chemical camouflage.

During an intensive, 3-year telemetry project that involved radio-tracking 30 puff adders, Alexander concluded that puff adders had to possess a form of chemical camouflage.

He arrived at this conclusion by observing that puff adders remained motionless when under threat. They spent most of their time on the surface under grass or other vegetation and did not often seek refuge underground, as was usual for most other snakes.

Dogs 'failed dismally' to detect the scent

If they had a strong scent this would make them targets for predators. He also observed that dogs and tame mongooses walking directly over motionless puff adders and failed to notice them.

Of the 42 known predators of puff adders, 15 - including dogs and meerkats - relied primarily on their keen sense of smell to locate their prey.

A team led by Wits post-graduate student Ashadee Kay Miller investigated the question by training a team of dogs and meerkats – from the Montecasino Bird Gardens – to test if they could detect the scent of puff adders.

While the dogs and meerkats identified the scent of other snake species easily, they did not detect those of puff adders.

"We asked the meerkats and dogs to scent-match scent samples collected from puff adders and other snake species. The scents of most snakes were easily identified by the dogs and meerkats, but they failed dismally when it came to puff adder scent," Miller said.

It was possible to step on a puff adder without it reacting as it lay in wait for its prey.

"If a puff adder feels that it’s in danger, it’s first reaction is just to freeze. The common assumption is that they are very aggressive snakes that tend to hiss and bite you, but that is actually a very rare occurrence," Alexander said.

They only tended to be aggressive when they were on the move, as that was when they were most vulnerable.

Read more on:    animals

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