What is the spider-tailed horned viper?
Two phobias for the price of one: this snake has a spider for a tail.
By the time you see the spider-tailed horned viper, it’s probably too late. At least if you’re a bird, that is. Its mottled beige and white body is brilliantly camouflaged against the shimmering backdrop of gypsum and limestone rocks in its natural habitat in Iran – all except for the very tip of its tail, which has evolved into an elaborate lure for unsuspecting birds.
As the name suggests, spider-tailed horned vipers have a unique growth at the tip of the tail that is covered in long thin scales resembling spider legs. They expertly wiggle this bait around to mimic the skittering movements of a spider, tricking onlooking birds into thinking they’ve found a tasty meal. But when a bird swoops in to peck at the spider, the snake is ready to strike within a fraction of a second.
However, only migratory birds seem to be fooled by the viper’s elaborate lure, suggesting local birds may have become wise to the trick.
Many snake species shake the tip of their tail before striking, and rattlesnakes famously have a rattle-like tail growth to distract prey, but the spider-tailed horned viper has really taken these ideas and run with them (well, slithered). Despite them seeming similar to a casual observer, the viper’s spider-lure is formed from soft tissue, while rattlesnake rattles are created from fused bone, so they likely evolved independently.
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Dr Claire Asher is a science journalist and has a PhD in Genetics, Ecology, and Evolution (GEE) at the University of Leeds. She also works part time as Manager of the UK Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS) Network, based at Imperial College London. Asher is also the author of Brave Green World: How Science Can Save Our Planet.
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