Fri, Jul 26, 2013 - Page 5 News List

Viper found dead in ‘apparent suicide’

DEBATE:While some snake species may die from their own venom, zoology expert Cheng Hsi-chi dismissed the concept of ‘deliberate suicide’ in the animal world

By Tung Chen-kuo, Hsieh Chieh-yu and Stacy Hsu  /  Staff reporters, with staff writer

An undated photo shows a viper that was captured in Nantou County and found dead the next day.

Photo: Tung Chen-kuo, Taipei Times

A pointed-scaled pit viper was found dead with its fangs stuck inside its body one day after it was captured and caged by firefighters from Nantou County’s Guosing Township (國姓), raising questions whether it committed suicide because of its captive environment.

Officials from the Guosing fire department said they received a call earlier this month from a local resident saying a snake had invaded his home.

After discovering that the target was a 1m-long pointed-scaled pit viper, whose venom contains hemotoxin — a type of toxin that can cause tissue damage and internal bleeding — firefighters donned protective suits before using snake tongs to capture it and put it in an iron cage.

Firefighters Liu Hsin-hua (劉新華) and Hung Wei-lan (洪偉嵐) were preparing to transfer the serpent to the county government’s Agriculture Department the following day when they discovered that it had died in what they said appeared to be a suicide, with its mouth wide open and its fangs inside its body.

The Council of Agriculture’s Endemic Species Research Institute said that while the center had never encountered cases of snakes committing suicide by biting themselves and could not confirm whether a pointed-scaled pit viper’s venom might be lethal to itself, it did not rule out such a possibility.

“Research has shown that cobras and banded kraits are immune to their own venom, but foreign researchers have reported cases of cottonmouth water moccasins and rattlesnakes being killed by their own toxins,” the institute said.

The institute added that another snake species, the Vipera aspis, is also vulnerable to its own venom. Since the pointed-scaled pit viper belongs to the same family — the Viperidae — there is a possibility that it could also be killed by its own venom.

However, the institute’s zoology division chief, Cheng Hsi-chi (鄭錫奇), cast doubt on the suicide speculations.

Chen said there was no such thing as “deliberate suicide” in the animal world.

“Most of the time, it is humans that subjectively label some animal behaviors as suicides, such as when a large pod of whales die after beaching themselves,” Cheng said.

He added that most incomprehensible, extreme and collective behaviors of animals could be attributed to overcrowding, inter-species competition or drastic changes in their habitats.

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