Study of man-eating snakes: Snakes are predators on, prey of, and competitors with primates
More than a quarter of the men in a modern Filipino hunter-gatherer group have been attacked by giant pythons, reports a study that also concludes that humans and snakes not only eat and are eaten by each other, but have long been competitors for the same prey.
Human aversion to snakes may be a result of a shared evolutionary history, researchers have often speculated, but since snakes swallow their prey whole, little fossil evidence remains to help define the relationship between snakes and primates.
The new study, published online Dec. 12 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, provides rare documentation of complex ecological and evolutionary relationships between primates -- including humans -- and snakes. It is one of the first to document 20th-century human hunter-gatherers as prey of, predators on and competitors with a wild predator. The research also uses natural history data to show that every major lineage of living primates is both eaten by and eats snakes.
"People have speculated for a long time that serpents have had a significant relationship with primates throughout their shared evolutionary history," said Cornell herpetologist Harry Greene, who conducted the study with Thomas Headland, an anthropologist at the SIL International in Dallas. "Our paper provides the strongest evidence yet for that relationship."
In the 1960s, Headland recorded ethnographic observations of the Agta Negritos, a modern hunter-gatherer group of small, dark-skinned people in the Philippines. An average adult male weighs about 90 pounds, small enough to be eaten by the huge reticulated pythons (Python reticulatus) that can grow to 28 feet.