Most hikers would hightail it upon spotting two snakes fighting on a path. Arkansas hiker Dawn Kelly decided to record the snakes on her smartphone instead, creating the kind of video most of us would rather watch from a safe distance.
The unusual thing about this snake battle royale, however, isn’t that Kelly managed to record it unscathed, but that the two snakes, a copperhead and a cottonmouth, shouldn’t have been fighting at all.
According to Alabama Auburn University herpetologist David Steen, male snakes often fight in something called a “combat dance” over female snakes. But until now, no one has recorded evidence of two different species of male snakes fighting, according to the BBC.
When snakes wrestle, it’s not to the death but to overpower the weaker snake and eventually mate with the female snake waiting for the winner nearby. But if the female snake is of a different species, this sort of a sparring match seems like a wasted effort since snakes can only mate with their own kind.
The video shows the two male snakes battling, and there’s no female snake or snakes captured in the footage. So it’s ultimately unclear whether the male snakes were indeed fighting to impress female snakes off camera.
Another herpetologist, Professor Phil Senter of Fayetteville State University in North Carolina, told the BBC the tangle could have been about territory and not a mating ritual at all. “It could have just been a border dispute,” Senter said.
One thing both herpetologists can agree on: two different snake species fighting is extremely rare. “I’ve never seen that before, two different species fighting each other as if they’re the same species,” Senter said.
One possible explanation is that thanks to reptile breeders who have been known to artificially hybridize these two snake species into “cottonheads” or “coppermouths,” this might also happen without human intervention in the wild.
It could also be a case of mistaken identity, especially since copperheads and cottonmouths are members of the same animal genus, Agkistrodon. “Snakes are dumb,” Senter said. “Their brains are very, very small. At least, the thinking part of it is.”
Either way, the video is an interesting view of male snake combat dance maneuvers.