The Best Place to Find a Snake Is Inside a Different Snake

The search for the elusive Cenaspis aenigma ends inside another snake's belly.

Central American coral snake...
DEA / C.DANI / I.JESKEGetty Images

It’s a snake-eat-snake world out there, which is great news for herpetologists who have a hard time finding rare and elusive specimens that burrow underground. This time, we have the Central American Coral Snake to thank for consuming a completely new genus of snake and then ending up in the hands of University of Texas herpetologist Jonathan Campbell and his team, who recently published their discovery in the .

Not a single living specimen of the consumed snake has been found. Scientists have been searching since 1976, when palm harvesters in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas first discovered one, also in the belly of a coral snake. Aptly named Cenaspis aenigma, Latin for “mysterious dinner snake,” the reclusive species is physically distinct from its reptilian relatives in a number of ways.

It has unusual markings on its underbelly—a strange place for them, given that such markings are typically naturally selected for how they visually communicate with other animals. The shape of its skull and the scales under its tail are also unique among snakes. Its upper jaw is equipped with a set of 14 stubby teeth, which has led scientists to speculate about their subterranean diet of insects and spiders.

Most unusual, however, are its reproductive parts. While most snakes are “festooned with spines,” the Cenaspis sports a spineless member covered in cup-like shapes, “like some kind of otherworldly honeycomb.” Campbell and his colleagues point out that no other colubroid in the Western Hemisphere shares such characteristics.

It makes you wonder why the coral snake, whose venom causes respiratory paralysis, has made the Cenaspis a regular part of its diet. A predator can reveal a lot about the prey it seeks—more than scientists have managed over the past 42 years, at any rate.

It’s a good lesson in biocentrism, or at least ecological interconnectedness: To understand a species is to understand its relationship to other species, which necessarily broadens the scope of scientific research from the specimen level to the ecosystem level. This is particularly important when researching animals that are evolutionarily isolated and not known to exist anyplace else on earth. This mysterious little snake has essentially made a posthumous case for the preservation of the remote highlands of western Chiapas where it was found.

What other treasures lurk in the bellies of Neotropical serpents? Be grateful for herpetologists like Campbell, who can do the snake wrangling for us.

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