Severed Snake Heads Can Still Deliver a Fatal Bite

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Venomous snakes are scary when they're alive, but there's also reason to fear these fanged creatures after they're dead, a recent news report suggests.

Trace explains how snakes evolved to become venomous, and why they must keep evolving this tool to keep their deadly reputation.
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The tale of a chef in China who was preparing a rare delicacy known as cobra soup and was fatally bitten by the decapitated head of one of the snakes he had chopped up for this unusual stew was reported last week, in the U.K. Daily Mirror.

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While this story might sound too weird to be true, scientific evidence suggests it is entirely plausible.

"Snakes in general are well known for retaining reflexes after death," said Steven Beaupré, a biology professor at the University of Arkansas. Many ectothermic, or cold-blooded, vertebrae— including species of reptiles and amphibians— share this quality, he said. [7 Shocking Snake Stories]

In fact, there have been previous reports, including in the U.S., of people being bitten by the severed heads of snakes.

For venomous snakes, such as cobras and rattlesnakes, biting is one of the reflexes that can be activated in the brain even hours after the animal dies, Beaupré told Live Science.

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The bite reflex is stronger in venomous snakes than it is in some other carnivores because these snakes use their bite differently than other meat-eaters, Beaupré said. Unlike a tiger, for instance, which kills prey by sinking its teeth into an animal's flesh and holding on, snakes aim to deliver just one, extremely quick bite and then move away from their prey before getting trampled.

The rapid-fire attack can occur in less than a second, Beaupré said. In fact, rattlesnakes have been known to envenomate (inject venom into) prey in less than two-tenths of a second, he said.

It's likely that the cobra-chopping chef who reportedly died last week in China was a victim of the snake's quick reflexes, Beaupré said.

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