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.
Related Resources
The Nature Conservancy
  • Views 228
  • Favorites

Seeing the Wood for the Trees: Introduction to Sustainable Forestry

In these two 45-minute lessons, students will compare different sustainable and unsustainable forestry methods and distinguish between them, analyze satellite images, collect and organize field data about the variety of tree species in their own area, and draw conclusions about the importance and complexity of maintaining healthy and biologically diverse forests.

Subjects: Biology, Geography, Mathematics, Science, Social Studies
Grades: 6th, 7th, 8th
Types: Activity - Classroom, Activity - Outdoors, Interactive Media, Lesson Plans, Videos
The Nature Conservancy
  • Views 275
  • Favorites

Urban Trees

This resource is comprised of of five 45-minute lessons where students will learn about the benefits of trees, predict and analyze the temperature difference of soil in the shade and direct sun, draw a map of all trees on their school grounds, and identify trees using a dichotomous key, tree identification guide, or app.

Subjects: Biology, Earth and Space Sciences, Health, Science
Grades: 6th, 7th, 8th
Types: Activity - Outdoors, Videos
  • Views 749
  • Favorites

What Happens If We Cut Down All of a City’s Trees?

This animated video begins by comparing two ancient civilizations and explains why trees are crucial to humans in urban settings.

Subjects: Biology, Health, History, Science, Social Studies
Grades: 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th
Types: Articles/Websites, Interactive Media, Videos

News brought to you by The Juice

Start a free trial today