A Serbian herpetologist was out snake-tagging in Macedonia when she came across a bizarre find: A young viper, with a centipede’s head poking out of its abdomen.
It took Ljiljana Tomovic 10 seconds to figure out what it was: The snake had swallowed the centipede, which had then tried to cut a path to freedom … by eating its way out.
Some time during its violent dash, the centipede died. Perhaps the snake’s venom kicked in — that's Tomovic's best guess.
The island of Golem Grad in Macedonia's Lake Prespa, where the pair were found, is also known as “Snake Island” and for good reason: it’s crawling with snakes, lizards and tortoises. Adult vipers chow down on small rodents, leaving the younger crowd to snack on centipedes.
It seems this time “the young snake gravely underestimated the size and strength of the centipede,” Tomovic, biology professor at the University of Belgrade, and her colleagues write in a brief report.
After dissolving (or digesting) the snake’s bones and gut the centipede was wearing its skin like a cloak. “We found that only the snake’s body wall remained — the entire volume of its body was occupied by the centipede,” Tomovic and co. write in Ecologica Montenegrina.
Together, centipede and viper can face-off like gladiators in Rome.
As this crocodile-wresting snake from Queensland recently demonstrated, many snake species aren’t shy about gulping down prey as large or larger than themselves.
Some centipede species are equally cavalier and ferocious. They’ll lunge into battle with animals many times their size like mice and snakes. The foot-long Amazonian giant centipede hunts and eats bats.
Tomovic doesn’t know of any other centipede that has eaten its way out. “It’s possible that this situation is not so uncommon, just we did not have opportunity to see it until now,” she told NBC News via Skype.
But this isn’t the first snake found with a bellyful of centipede. In May 1965, on the Greek island of Eubioa, a group bagged a viper that “appeared fat.” The snake died, and was cut open to reveal a partially digested centipede with a broken neck. It was unlikely this invertebrate fought back: it got eaten, and stayed eaten.