That snake in the grass could be a cannibal

South Africa is crawling with cannibals‚ researchers have announced

A male Cape cobra in the Kalahari consumes a smaller male‚ a display of cannibalism previously thought to be rare among the species.
A male Cape cobra in the Kalahari consumes a smaller male‚ a display of cannibalism previously thought to be rare among the species.
Image: Bryan Maritz

They slither across the landscape in the form of cobras‚ which eat each other in “surprising abundance”‚ according to Bryan Maritz from the University of the Western Cape.

Maritz’s fascination with cannibalistic Cape cobras was sparked by seeing a large male devouring a smaller male in the Kalahari desert about a year ago.

His study‚ published in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Ecology‚ said while it was well known that other snake species made up about a third of cobras’ diet‚ recorded instances of cannibalism were rare and were previously regarded as aberrant.

Maritz and his team found the only snakes Cape cobras enjoyed devouring more than themselves were puff adders.

They also found that the cannibals and all their victims were male‚ sparking the theory that the predators were eliminating rivals by eating them.

Maritz‚ from UWC’s biodiversity and conservation biology department‚ said it was “incredibly challenging” to study snakes’ natural feeding habits because they are elusive and eat infrequently.

“As a result‚ scientific understanding of snake dietary ecology [beyond simple prey lists] remains remarkably superficial outside of a few species‚" he said.

“This work highlights a renewed effort to meaningfully quantify several aspects of snake natural history‚ especially in poorly studied regions such as Africa.”

“Cobras” consist of about 30 venomous species‚ six of which were included in the study.

The results suggest that cobras frequently eat other snakes — they accounted for up to 43% of all species they consumed — and that cannibalism may be common‚ since five of the six species displayed the behaviour.

Maritz said understanding how snakes interact with each other and other species could provide a basis for learning about more complex behaviour in different scenarios.

He hoped that “improved understanding of snake ecology and feeding in general will help to highlight the ecological functional roles that snakes are performing in African ecosystems”.

Cape cobras occurs are found throughout the Western Cape‚ Northern Cape‚ Eastern Cape‚ Free State‚ and North West Province. They are also found in the southern half of Namibia‚ southwestern Botswana‚ and western Lesotho.

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