Sea Snakes May Surf Thousands of Miles on Ocean Waves

Aloaiza, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Aloaiza, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0 / Aloaiza, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

We give historic explorers like Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan a lot of credit for their lengthy ocean voyages, but a tiny species of venomous sea snake may have them beat. National Geographic reports that, according to a recent study, the seven-ounce yellow-bellied sea snake (pelamis platura) may be capable of traveling thousands of miles by drifting along ocean currents. The findings were published in The Royal Society.

Researchers have long been baffled by the geographic dispersal of the yellow-bellied sea snake, which can be found in tropical oceanic waters all over the world. They began to theorize, starting in the 1970s, that the snake could have simply drifted across the ocean from its original home in southeastern Asia, but were unsuccessful at testing the theory: A scientist who attempted to track close to 100 snakes as they floated across the ocean managed to recapture only four.

But now, researchers have successfully modeled the theoretical trajectory of the sea snakes using a computer program to simulate ocean currents. Researchers traced the travels of 10,000 virtual snakes released from 28 different sites. They found that the snakes were theoretically capable of traveling 20,000 miles or more over the course of ten years.

Of course, tracking the survival of a computer-generated snake isn’t the same as observing the travels of a live snake first-hand. But researchers now believe it’s plausible that the yellow-bellied snake, which can hold its breath under water for an amazing three and a half hours, may have simply surfed the waves from its evolutionary birthplace in Southeast Asia to the Americas and Africa. They note that no other snake species has traveled farther. In fact, the snake’s travel range is closer to that of the average whale than the average snake.

[h/t National Geographic]

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