Wild Thing: Sight Unseen
The Texas blind snake lives a fascinating life under the surface of the earth.
By Eva Frederick
The Texas blind snake is small — between 3 and 13 inches in length — and at first glance is almost indistinguishable from an earthworm. Its mouth is so tiny that it cannot bite humans; its only defense is poking the tip of its tail into its captor. Finally, if you needed further proof of its harmless cuteness, the snake’s Latin name, dulcis, means “sweet.”
For ants or termites, however, this tiny Texas snake is not sweet or small, but a ferocious predator with a taste for their defenseless larvae. Texas blind snakes are considered fossorial — a word for animals that dig underground — but they do not possess any digging adaptations and get around in the subterranean environment by wriggling through loosely packed earth or following the paths of other animals such as earthworms or ants. To feed, they dive headfirst into ant colonies and wriggle down the tunnels to find the young.
When the ants attack the invading snake, it secretes a mix of feces and a noxious chemical, then rolls around in it to coat its whole body like a suit of smelly armor. Now immune to the attacks of the ants, the snake proceeds into the heart of the colony to snack on pale, tender larvae.
While the snake is a terrifying threat to ants and termites, some animals look upon it as a well-meaning helper around the house — or nest, to be exact. Screech owls have been known to pick up blind snakes and take them back to their homes to clean up.
Once in the nests, the snakes eat insects and mites that pose a threat to young screech owls. A 1987 paper by Fred Gehlbach and Robert Baldridge found that nests with snake housekeepers had significantly fewer insects and arachnids, and that the baby owls from those nests grew 50 percent faster and were 25 percent more likely to live to adulthood.
Texas blind snakes nest in colonies and communicate with other snakes — both blind snakes and other species — via pheromone signals. Researchers do not know how long Texas blind snakes live, but the snakes have a long list of predators including moles, night snakes, roadrunners and domestic cats.
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