Screech Owls and Blind Snakes, an Unlikely Mutualism

by Andrew Durso

In the 1970s and 80s, a pair of biologists at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, Fred Gehlbach and Robert Baldridge, were studying screech owl nesting ecology. These small owls nest in tree cavities and eat a variety of small animals, from insects to mice. Like most raptorial birds, Eastern Screech Owls usually kill their prey before bringing it home to feed to their nestlings.

Gehlbach and Baldridge observed some of the screech owls in their study carrying live Texas Blindsnakes (Rena [formerly Leptotyphlops] dulcis) to their nests in experimental nest boxes like those used by wood ducks and bluebirds. When they checked the nests the next day, they found, to their surprise, between one and fifteen live blindsnakes living among the owl chicks in fourteen different nests! In some cases, the snakes lived with the baby owls for at least a week! Many of the blindsnakes bore scars from adult owl beaks, but few had been killed.

f you’re not familiar with blindsnakes (aka scolecophidians), don’t worry; few people are. There are about 400 species of these ‘seriously strange serpents’, as Darren Naish calls them over at TetZoo, distributed chiefly in the world’s tropical regions (the Texas Blindsnake is one of the few temperate exceptions). Most have small eyes (or none at all, as their name suggests), smooth round scales, and eat invertebrates. Their jaw architecture is entirely unique: their jaws act like little scoops to effectively shovel ant and termite larvae and pupae into their mouths.

(Check out the video from BBC’s Life in Cold Blood, or visit the homepage of blindsnake biologist Nate Kley at Stony Brook University.)

How does this help baby screech owls? Gehlbach and Baldridge wanted to find out, so they measured the diversity and abundance of invertebrates in the owl nests with and without live blindsnakes, as well as the health and survival of the baby owls (which they were already measuring). They found that nests with blindsnakes had significantly fewer mites, insects, and arachnids, and that baby owls from these nests were 25% more likely to survive and grew as much as 50% faster…

(read more: Life is Short, But Snakes Are Long)

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