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While studying sea snakes in Taiwan, Liu noticed that the numbers of sea snakes they observed among tidal pools and shallow waters declined sharply in the day or so prior to Typhoon Morakot in August 2009 (Fig.2); only one individual snake was spotted on the evening prior to the onset of the typhoon, compared to 20 or more per site on other dates.Once the storm had passed, numbers of snakes returned almost immediately to their pre-typhoon levels, making mass mortality of snakes during storm conditions seem an unlikely explanation for the decline. For example, if conditions were worsening prior to the storm proper, this might have made it more difficult for the researchers to spot snakes in the field – which would mean that the observed decline was simply a sampling artefact.
But these are relatively trivial objections to what is an otherwise outstanding work of popular science.Yes, it always sits between quotation marks, and I realise that it is a commonly used phrase that people may find evocative, but I have to admit that I do not care for it, and I am not alone.At one point Dawkins’ even goes as far as to suggest: Well, I suppose he’s hedging a bit with the ‘might almost’ there, but I’m confident that no, even with the assistance of a time machine, interbreeding between individuals and their remote ancestors would not be possible.As well as directly damaging habitats such as coral reefs, the strong winds, high waves, and storm surges could threaten mobile organisms with injury or stranding.In environments that are regularly subject to such perturbations, animals might be expected to seek shelter in rough weather, and sheltering behaviour would be most effective if it began prior to the onset of dangerously rough conditions., for those who are not aware, is Dawkins’ attempt to lay out in one book the current evidence for evolution.
His previous books have been more focused on explaining what evolution is and how it works, and while this inevitably involved much discussion of the evidence, he admits that nowhere has he set down an explicit catalogue of the evidence that evolution is real.
The study authors speculate that the snakes make use of cavernous spaces in the local volcanic rock, which would allow them to find safe places to breath while sheltered from the worst of the weather, but the danger inherent in undertaking coastal fieldwork during a cyclone means that it will be difficult to test any such hypotheses.
In any case, further observational work will be required to confirm that sea snakes really do anticipate stormy conditions and seek shelter, and to see if this is a general response of sea snakes to extreme weather, or simply an adaptation displayed by a local population.
Ideally, a manipulative experimental study would allow a better understanding of the responses of these creatures to changes in surface pressure, and at the very least more data are needed on snake abundances at lower pressures to understand the relationship between pressure and snake activity in the field (the left hand chart in Fig. has only two data points at pressures lower than about 1004 h Pa).
Another question, of course, is where do the snakes go?
It seems unlikely that they move into deeper water to avoid the worst of the storm, because they might be vulnerable to large predators in open water, and breathing at the surface in cyclone conditions might be difficult even some way offshore.