A New Species of Snake? In Alaska? Well, Not Quite...

Jan 25, 2024

The long, slender, legless creature slinking across Margaret Billington’s lawn in 2007 surely seemed like a snake. But, when Billington, a docent at the University of Alaska Museum of the North, got closer, she noticed that it wasn’t a single creature at all. It was thousands of them.

Billington was gobsmacked by the line of tiny, slimy larvae. She scooped up a sample. She brought it to insect expert Derek Sikes.

“(She) brought me specimens and photos and described the bizarre phenomenon," Sikes told Newsweek. "It's a rare day when someone brings me an insect in Alaska that leaves me totally dumbfounded! I knew they were fly larvae of some kind but I had never heard of this 'snakeworm' behavior. I was baffled — a total X-Files case!"  

Sikes spent the next decade and a half studying the strange little larvae. He focused on the way they form writhing, wriggling columns to get from A to B. Sikes found that the fly larvae were in fact an unrecorded species.

The insect expert named the tiny bugs Sciara serpens for the way they get around. Sikes published his findings this month in the journal Integrative Systematics. His team found that the larvae move by crawling over each other in meter-long, rippling lines. It's akin to the way some European Sciara species do.

But why do they gather in creepy-crawly columns before morphing into tiny black fungus-eating flies? Sikes’ team hypothesizes that the trait helps keep the larvae moist (all that slime oozing its way along). His team also guesses it wards off predators. Such threats may mistake their tiny march for a venomous serpent.

Photo courtesy Margaret Billington at University of Alaska Fairbanks Geophysical Institute.

Reflect: Think of some unique and interesting behaviors that different insect species exhibit.  How might these behaviors help them survive in their environments?

The phrase “creepy-crawly columns” is an example of _______. (Common Core RI.5.4; RI.6.4)
a. a first-person point of view
b. a topic sentence
c. figurative language
d. a primary source
For more formative assessments, visit thejuicelearning.com to start a free trial.

News brought to you by The Juice

Start a free trial today