America's Rarest Snake Chokes to Death on Giant Centipede

One of America's rarest snakes has been found dead in Florida, having choked on a giant centipede.

The Tantilla oolitica, also known as the rim rock crowned snake, was found in the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo. This was the first time the snake has been seen for four years, the Florida Museum of Natural History said in a press release. The snake was dead, with a giant centipede locked halfway through its mouth.

The snake was found by a hiker, who alerted park staff. Scientists then brought the specimen back to the Florida Museum for research. A study into the find was published on September 4 in the journal Ecology.

The rim rock crowned snake is a non-venomous, endangered species. It is endemic to southern Florida and rarely spotted.

Before this, scientists did not know what the rare snake ate, although it was known that similar species had a taste for centipedes. This is the first time the rim rock crowned snake has been seen eating the arthropod.

Snake centipede
The rim rock crowned snake is pictured with a giant centipede halfway in its mouth. Drew Martin

Co-author of the study Coleman Sheehy, the Florida Museum's herpetology collection manager, said in a press release he was "amazed" when he first saw the photos.

"It's extremely rare to find specimens that died while eating prey, and given how rare this species is, I would never have predicted finding something like this. We were all totally flabbergasted," Sheehy said.

To determine the cause of death, scientists performed an autopsy,

The autopsy found that the centipede's venomous pinchers had caused a wound on the snake's side, causing some internal bleeding. But scientists determined that snakes who regularly eat centipedes would be immune to the venom, meaning it is unlikely that this was the cause of death.

Scientists determined that it must have been the size of the centipede that killed the snake. Many snakes are able to swallow prey much larger than themselves without suffocating, as their jaws are flexible, meaning they can wrap around wide prey. But occasionally, snake's may overestimate themselves.

CT scans revealed that the snake's windpipe was blocked where the centipede was the widest. This caused it to suffocate.

The study gave a rare glimpse into the elusive species—as they are so scarce, scientists do not often have the change to study them. They are so rarely spotted that it is feared they are on the verge of extinction. But for now, there seems to be a remaining population in Key Largo.

"We can't say for sure whether or not they're still present in peninsular Florida. Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, but their habitat has basically been destroyed," Sheehy said.

Snake and centipede
The snake is pictured during research at the Florida Museum. Jerald Pinson