Mistaken identity may explain why male sea snakes (Aipysurus laevis, Elapidae, Hydrophiinae) “attack” scuba divers

Tim P. Lynch, Ross A. Alford, Richard Shine*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    3 Citations (Scopus)
    67 Downloads (Pure)

    Abstract

    Scuba-divers on tropical coral-reefs often report unprovoked “attacks” by highly venomous Olive sea snakes (Aipysurus laevis). Snakes swim directly towards divers, sometimes wrapping coils around the diver’s limbs and biting. Based on a focal animal observation study of free-ranging Olive sea snakes in the southern Great Barrier Reef, we suggest that these “attacks” are misdirected courtship responses. Approaches to divers were most common during the breeding season (winter) and were by males rather than by female snakes. Males also made repeated approaches, spent more time with the diver, and exhibited behaviours (such as coiling around a limb) also seen during courtship. Agitated rapid approaches by males, easily interpreted as “attacks”, often occurred after a courting male lost contact with a female he was pursuing, after interactions between rival males, or when a diver tried to flee from a male. These patterns suggest that “attacks” by sea snakes on humans result from mistaken identity during sexual interactions. Rapid approaches by females occurred when they were being chased by males. Divers that flee from snakes may inadvertently mimic the responses of female snakes to courtship, encouraging males to give chase. To prevent escalation of encounters, divers should keep still and avoid retaliation.

    Original languageEnglish
    Article number15267
    Pages (from-to)1-7
    Number of pages7
    JournalScientific Reports
    Volume11
    Issue number1
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 19 Aug 2021

    Bibliographical note

    Copyright the Author(s) 2021. Version archived for private and non-commercial use with the permission of the author/s and according to publisher conditions. For further rights please contact the publisher.

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