Relocated Sea Snakes Cross Seas to Go Home

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Shetty gradually came to realize that many of the snakes marked as having come from Toberua were being sent to Mabualau a second time. The researchers found that most snakes were returning home within a month or so.

"In the end, it turned out that the snakes [originally] marked on Mabualau Island never showed up in the Toberua catch," said Shetty. "None of the Toberua snakes were found on Mabualau either."

This is "pretty strong evidence that translocation isn't going to work over small distances," said Robert Reed, a reptile ecologist at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory. "For some reason, these guys really like to go home."

Natural Navigators

Homing behavior is known to occur in other reptiles, such as crocodiles and sea turtles.

"Some turtles migrate 3,000 to 4,000 miles (4,800 to 6,400 kilometers) between nesting beaches and foraging sites," said Reed. "Some types of snake can relocate winter dens [year after year] even if their summer range is several miles away."

There are two types of homing behavior. Some animals are able to find their way home by memorizing landmarks and plotting a mental map of the local area.

Homing behavior seen in turtles, whales, and homing pigeons involves some innate ability to pinpoint a location irrespective of where the animal is. Researchers believe that these animals may be using the positions of stars or the Earth's magnetic field to point them in the right direction.

"We can't tell at this stage which of these two types of homing behavior the sea kraits are displaying," said Reed. However, they range quite widely over these reefs, so it may well be that they know their way around, he said.

It's possible that snakes learn how to recognize home at some early stage in their lives, said Reed. If this is true, he suggested, it might be possible to translocate eggs, instead and circumvent the problem.

Of course, this won't help Toberua's resort owners, who may just have to learn to live alongside the sea kraits.

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