If you’ve ever been diving and a six-meter-long sea serpent storms out of the shadows, here’s what you need to know.
Keep calm first. While sea snakes rarely attack recreational divers, a venomous bite from someone can quickly turn fatal, as was the case for a trawler fisherman in Australia in 2018.
Second, your best chance of survival when being charged by a sea serpent is to resist the urge to flee or fight.
“These big sea snakes can swim much faster than us, so we can’t get away,” said Rick Shine, a herpetologist at Macquarie University in Australia. He adds that hitting the snake is also a bad idea. “The snake will probably get quite angry about it and may even fall into a more aggressive frame of mind.”
So what should a diver attacked by sea snakes do? According to a study published Thursday in the journal Scientific Reports, Dr. Shine and his co-authors suggest that you slide that highly venomous reptile straight up and let it lick you.
The sea serpent doesn’t want to bite you, they say. It wants, well…
“Basically, it’s just a guy in love looking for a girlfriend and making a rather silly mistake,” said Dr. Shine.
dr. Shine took advantage of last year’s Covid-related shutdowns to analyze a data set collected in 1994-95 by Tim Lynch, a study co-author. At that point, Dr. Lynch’s Ph.D. by observing olive sea snakes (Aipysurus laevis) off the northeast coast of Australia. And over the course of 250 hours underwater with 158 sea snakes, he discovered some notable trends.
For starters, olive sea snakes tended to approach divers most often during the breeding season, which runs through the winter months of the Southern Hemisphere between May and August. Male snakes swam to divers much more often than females. Men also spent more time surveying human observers than women, sometimes clinging to Dr. Lynch or waving their tongues against his wet suit or exposed skin.
Finally, the habit of attacking something, such as when a sea serpent swam quickly toward a diver, was almost always preceded by other sea serpent shenanigans — such as two male snakes wrestling with each other, or a female fleeing from a chasing one. male.
“There have always been consistent stories from divers of what appeared to be thoroughbred attacks by sea snakes,” said Dr. Shine. “And you hear commercial divers say, ‘Oh, you really shouldn’t be diving in the winter in this part of the world because the sea snakes are so aggressive.'”
But now, he says, all this observational data has put the sea snakes’ peculiar behavior into context.
“I’ve always expected the motivation for this behavior to be sex,” said Kate Sanders, an evolutionary scientist at the University of Adelaide in Australia who was not involved in the study.
After all, there are countless examples of males attempting to mate with something other than a female of their own species.
“I mean, I’ve been courted by sea turtles in the water,” said Dr. Sanders, who is also co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Sea Snake Specialist Group. “So yeah, I mean, I’ll buy it.”
If you’re wondering how a male sea snake might mistake a human for a mate, keep in mind that sea snakes gather information about the world around them through intermingled senses of taste and smell, much like snakes on land.
“But when snakes went back into the ocean, they naturally lost that ability to pick up signals from tongue movements because most of these important chemicals are too large to be transferred through the water,” said Dr. Shine. “And so they have to rely on a vision, and it’s just not that good.”
Interestingly, Dr. Sanders said these waters are home to about a dozen species of sea snakes, but only the olive sea snakes and their closest relatives, typically tango with divers.
One possible explanation is that male olive sea snakes are a lot smaller than females, which could mean they need extra motivation to find and secure a mate. And sometimes that enthusiasm can lead them to look for love in the wrong places.
“I don’t know how you would say it, except the snakes have their beer glasses on,” said Dr. sander. “Their hormones influence their behavior.”