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Fake Rubber Snake

January 19, 2010

I was wrong. I can admit it. Normally I would say “I don’t know what that is.” but in this case I was quite sure that the Wood Stork (Mycteria americana) that had landed near me during my alligator presentation at Lake Trafford, FL, was eating a snake. I don’t mind being shown up so I placed the juvenile American Alligator (Alligator mississippiensis) back in its exhibit and directed all eyes to the four-foot tall wading bird wrestling with a two foot long “snake” at stage right.

With cameras snapping pictures of the spectacle, I explained that Wood Storks are tactile feeders who wade in the shallows, swinging their sturdy beak through the water and feeling for fish, crabs, frogs, baby gators and other critters to gobble up. I noted the rarity of a Wood Stork feasting on a snake as I too focused my camera lens on the impromptu natural theater.

When a second Wood Stork dropped in to “share” the bounty, the first Wood Stork displayed a bit of justifiable avarice and took off with its catch to devour it in solitude.

When I returned home I uploaded my photos to my computer and was embarrassed when I realized that the Wood Stork appeared to be eating a fake rubber snake. It was slick and pliable, but I could see no scales or pattern in the photo whatsoever. And then it hit me – it was an Amphiuma! I had never seen one in person, but it was clear now that the Wood Stork had captured a rarely seen Two-toed Amphiuma (Amphiuma means) during its foraging.

Two-toed Amphiumas are slippery, long-bodied creatures found throughout the southeastern United States. On land they are often confused for snakes and in the water mistaken for eels, when in fact they are toothed amphibians that can inflict a nasty bite.

They can reach nearly 30 inches in length and have two useless anterior limbs that have, as their name suggests, two-toes on each. Amphiumas are nocturnal predators that can be found in ponds, marshes, canals, ditches and slow moving streams. They spend the sunlight hours burrowed in mud, hidden in crayfish holes or generally tucked away from probing beaks and prying paws.

This Amphiuma was not so lucky, and thanks to a hungry Wood Stork, was a rare sighting for an excited group who might never see such an unusual creature again.

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