In the remote highlands of Cuba, snakes hang from the roof of a cave mouth in the hope of snagging themselves a bat leaving the roost. In fact, researchers have found that Cuban boas coordinate their hunting with other snakes in order to maximize the chance that they will catch a bat by lining themselves up along the entrance to the caves.
While the memory of the baby iguana outrunning the racer snakes from Planet Earth II is probably burnt into your mind, only a few species of snakes have actually been observed hunting in groups like this. But coordination among not just snakes but all reptiles, in which individuals will cooperate to get food rather than hunting in a non-coordinated group, is rarer still.
Yet Vladimir Dinets found that with the hunting boas, coordinating in a group to catch the bats as they left the caves drastically increased the chances that they would get a meal that night. He found that the snakes spaced themselves out along the entrance to the cave's mouth – not unlike a living, writhing bead curtain – to optimize the coverage of the mammals' only escape, publishing his results in Animal Behavior and Cognition.
Snakes have been found to engage in this behavior in a few different locations. BBC/YouTube
The more snakes there were, the more likely they were able to catch their prey, to such an extent that if they reached an optimum number spread out across the entrance, forcing the bats to fly within striking distance of at least one snake, they were effectively guaranteed to catch a bat. This compared markedly to when one of the boas tried to go it alone, where it was found that they sometimes failed to get anything for their efforts.
This new discovery of their cooperative nature, however, might have some worrying consequences. The snakes are becoming increasingly rare in Cuba, and are now found only in the most remote caves. This is thought to be because locals have started hunting them for food.
The researchers now think that as their numbers fall due to the overharvesting of the serpents, their coordinated hunting behavior could work against them, meaning that even if a few of the snakes manage to survive the onslaught from people, they may not be able to catch bats on their own and die out anyway.
Despite the snakes living in national parks, the scientists warn that the poachers are active even in these regions, threatening the future of the boas.