Few animals can claim to have both a fighter jet and a sports car named after them, but the viper is one, and with good reason. Famous for its lightning-fast spring attack, this family of venomous snakes contains some of the most formidable reptilian predators on the planet, and scientists have now filmed a viper strike in the wild using super slow-motion cameras for the first time.
The team used radio transmitters to track Mohave rattlesnakes in New Mexico as they slithered into striking position for the night, and then set up high-speed cameras in order to catch them in action, filming at 500 frames per second.
The snakes were awaiting Merriam’s kangaroo rats, although of the eight predation attempts caught on camera, only half were successful.
This may seem somewhat surprising, given the fact that the vipers accelerated at up to 362 meters per second squared as they launched themselves at their prey, from distances ranging from 4.6 to 20.6 centimeters (1.8 to 8.1 inches).
In their write-up, which appears in the journal Scientific Reports, the researchers explain that failed strikes were due to a combination of inaccuracy on the snakes’ part and speedy reactions from the rats as they swiftly evaded their would-be slayers.
The study authors say the rodents may use “elastic energy storage” to rapidly accelerate away from the snakes. “Elastic energy storage is when the muscle stretches a tendon and then relaxes, allowing the tendon to recoil like an elastic band being released from the stretched position,” explained study author Timothy Higham in a statement. “It's equivalent to a sling shot – you can pull the sling shot slowly and it can be released very quickly. The kangaroo rat is likely using the tendons in its lower leg – similar to our Achilles tendon – to store energy and release it quickly, allowing it to jump quickly and evade the strike.”