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article imageHow Snakes Survived Starvation for 2 Years

By Chris V. Thangham     Aug 28, 2007 in Environment
University of Arkansas researchers have found snakes that survived starvation for up to two years. Researchers say the snakes used unique survival strategies not seen in other vertebrates.
Marshall McCue is a graduate student in biological sciences in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences in University of Arkansas. He has been studying snake behavior for the past few years and has published his findings in the “Zoology” journal.
He studied Western timber rattlesnakes and two other snake species and wanted to find how they cope with long starvation periods. Many other scientists have previously reported snakes surviving long periods without any food, but so far no one has explained why until now.
Marshall McCue studied three species (62 snakes in total) -- the ball python, the ratsnake and the western diamondback rattlesnake -- and observed their responses to prolonged periods without food.
The snakes were not fed for six months simulating actual starvation routines they would undergo in the wild. McCue then took a note of the physiological, compositional and morphological changes in the snakes.
He found the snakes could lower their standard metabolic rates by as much as 72 per cent. This is beside the fact that the snakes have already low energy demands.
Without food, one would expect that the snake would not grow in size, but instead it was observed that they did grow longer.
"To me, this suggests that there must be a strong selective advantage to growing longer," McCue said.
It also means the snakes have become extremely efficient in their ability to use scarce resources.
He compares the snakes to the dynamics of supply and demand economic theory. When the snakes are cut off from food resources, they still have to expend energy. The demand is met by decreasing the metabolic rate, hence they need little food. While on the supply side, they still have to provide some basic energy needs which comes from the fat stored within the body.
A snake body is made up of water, protein, fats, ash and carbohydrates. When they are facing starvation, they use up the fat stored inside the body. Among the snakes, the rattlesnakes are not as adopted to starvation compared to other species because of abundant rodent supplies among their habitat. They end up breaking down proteins faster than pythons or rattlesnakes.
Snakes have survived for more than 100 million years, and this low-energy demand might be the chief reason for their survival.
McCue, at the University of Arkansas website journal, says studying more about the snakes' behavior could lead to better conservation strategies to determine the health of snake populations.
Who knows, if scientists study more about snakes in the molecular or genetics level, maybe they can find a solution for obesity?
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