Sea Snake Attacks Are Just Failed Attempts at Romance

Snakes aren't the only animals that 'court inappropriate objects'
By Liz MacGahan,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 20, 2021 2:29 PM CDT
Sea Snakes Attacking Divers Are Just Looking for Love
In this undated photo provided by the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, a diver monitors the health of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast.   (Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority via AP)

Love is blind. That’s the best explanation researchers have for why sea snakes occasionally attack divers. Sometimes a fishing net will trap a venomous sea snake and the snake will try to bite its way out. But why would a snake, venomous or not, approach and tangle with someone just quietly checking out a coral reef? A recently published study suggests it has more to do with romance than aggression. “We suggest that these ‘attacks’ are misdirected courtship responses,” the paper in Nature says—the most relatable sentence ever printed in a scientific journal.

For example, a male Olive sea snake in the Great Barrier Reef off of Australia will start looking for a partner in the winter. If he comes across a diver he might mistake it for a female and start flirting hard. But snake flirting can be pretty scary to divers who don’t know why a slithery critter is suddenly coiling around a leg or two. Swimming deep underwater with scuba gear is a particular business and panicking, not the actual snake, can put the diver at risk, Vice reports.

The study’s lead researcher, Tim Lynch, was reading about snake attacks for his PhD thesis when he noticed the uptick in reports during snake breeding season. He did the research and came up with the idea in the mid ‘90s, but co-author Richard Shine didn’t get around to collaborating on a publishable paper until the pandemic lockdowns freed up his schedule. The data are still relevant, and the findings are still helpful. The study notes that lots of species “court inappropriate objects” and offers very simple advice for a diver pursued by an amorous sea snake: don’t panic. Just be still and let the snake look you over enough to tell you’re an inappropriate object of desire. (More scientific study stories.)

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