Pelagic sea snakes dehydrate at sea

Harvey B. Lillywhite, Coleman M. Sheehy, François Brischoux, Alana Grech

Abstract

Secondarily marine vertebrates are thought to live independently of fresh water. Here, we demonstrate a paradigm shift for the widely distributed pelagic sea snake, Hydrophis (Pelamis) platurus, which dehydrates at sea and spends a significant part of its life in a dehydrated state corresponding to seasonal drought. Snakes that are captured following prolonged periods without rainfall have lower body water content, lower body condition and increased tendencies to drink fresh water than do snakes that are captured following seasonal periods of high rainfall. These animals do not drink seawater and must rehydrate by drinking from a freshwater lens that forms on the ocean surface during heavy precipitation. The new data based on field studies indicate unequivocally that this marine vertebrate dehydrates at sea where individuals may live in a dehydrated state for possibly six to seven months at a time. This information provides new insights for understanding water requirements of sea snakes, reasons for recent declines and extinctions of sea snakes and more accurate prediction for how changing patterns of precipitation might affect these and other secondarily marine vertebrates living in tropical oceans.

  • Received January 17, 2014.
  • Accepted February 24, 2014.
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