Sexually frustrated sea snakes are are mistaking scuba divers for mates, a new study claims,
A diver noticed some strange behaviour when he came into contact with male sea snakes.
They would coil around his fins, lick the water around him and even chase him underwater.
He now knows it was: mating season and the male reptiles thought he was a potential mate.
In a new study published in LiveScience researchers analysed 158 interactions with olive sea snakes in the Great Barrier Reef and found they were more common during mating season.
The “sexually frustrated snakes” displayed behaviours used during courtship between the sea serpents.
Rick Shine, an evolutionary biologist and reptile expert at Macquarie University Australia, told Live Science: “Males are very aroused and active while looking for ‘girlfriends’.
“But because the males can’t tell the difference between female snakes and scuba divers, it can lead to some comical interactions.”
Olive sea snakes are venomous, and potentially lethal to humans, but researchers do not believe people are at an increased risk from swimming with them during their mating season.
Tim Lynch, a senior research scientist at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency collected the data while at James Cook University in Australia in the mid-1990s.
He recorded snake encounters around the Keppel Islands and noticed a link between their unusual behaviour and mating.
“It was exciting; they are the most graceful of animals and also have no evolutionary relationship with people,” Lynch said in LiveScience. “They are not actually trying to attack you; they are just curious.”
Although the data was collected more than 25 years ago, researchers still think the findings are relevant now.
“I think the data is still sound, as the behaviors of the snakes, and probably people as well, will not have changed,” Lynch said.
As part of his research, Tim Lynch found 74 out of 158 encounters, was approached by a sea snake and these overlapped with their mating season, between May and August.
Males were also more likely to approach and display mating behaviour towards a diver during mating season.
“Males coil around females during courtship, probably to hang on effectively while they get into position to mate,” Shine said.
The males also tended to flick out their tongues at Lynch. However, the most striking behavior occurred in 13 incidents, when the males rapidly chased Lynch underwater when he swam away.
“Females don’t do any chasing; they do the fleeing [during mating],” Lynch said. “So swimming away from a male snake is mimicking courtship behavior,” which encourages the male to follow.
The researchers suspect that the snakes that chased Lynch were probably in the midst of a failed mating attempt.
“It’s clear that most approaches to divers were by males who had lost contact with the females they were pursuing,” Shine said. “They frantically search for a female if they lose touch with her.”