To survive, organisms must avoid predation and acquire nutrients and energy. Sensory systems must correctly differentiate between potential predators and prey, and elicit behaviours that adjust distances accordingly. For snakes, strikes can serve both purposes. Vipers are thought to have the fastest strikes among snakes. However, strike performance has been measured in very few species, especially non-vipers. We measured defensive strike performance in harmless Texas ratsnakes and two species of vipers, western cottonmouths and western diamond-backed rattlesnakes, using high-speed video recordings. We show that ratsnake strike performance matches or exceeds that of vipers. In contrast with the literature over the past century, vipers do not represent the pinnacle of strike performance in snakes. Both harmless and venomous snakes can strike with very high accelerations that have two key consequences: the accelerations exceed values that can cause loss of consciousness in other animals, such as the accelerations experienced by jet pilots during extreme manoeuvres, and they make the strikes faster than the sensory and motor responses of mammalian prey and predators. Both harmless and venomous snakes can strike faster than the blink of an eye and often reach a target before it can move.
- Received January 6, 2016.
- Accepted February 24, 2016.
- © 2016 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.