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4 October 2018
Cannibalism among Cape cobras

(Published - 4 October 2018)

In January Dr Bryan Maritz from the University of the Western Cape found himself in the Kalahari Desert to study snake species. This is when Dr Maritz and his team came across “Hannibal” - a 1,672m long male Cape cobra swallowing a smaller male Cape cobra.

Maritz and his fellow researchers were prompted to explore cannibalism among these “dangerously-venomous” snakes. They established that these reptiles often devour each other.

“Inspired by our field observation, we set out to establish how widespread cannibalism and ophiophagy are in cobras,” said Dr Maritz from UWC’s Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biolog. Ophiophagy refers to a specialised form of feeding or alimentary behavior of animals that prey on and eat snakes.

Dr Maritz and his team - including Robin Martiz from UWC - conducted an extensive review of the South African cobra diets.

“We found that snakes account for 13 – 43% of all prey species detected in the diets of wild cobras,” he noted.

Other than the cobras eating each other, they discovered that puff adders accounted for 27% of all snakes consumed by the cobras.

Male cobras were at the top of the hit list and Dr Maritz said this poses an important question – Did cannibalism evolve from male on male combat?

“This range of potential manifestations of cannibalism in snakes offers an opportunity to examine the possible drivers of cannibalism, especially when viewed in the context of ophiophagy in general, and the potential massive energetic value of snake-shaped meals,” said Dr Maritz.

The research - The underappreciated extent of cannibalism and ophiophagy in African cobras - was published in the Ecology journal on October 1.