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Rattlesnakes Grow While Starving

Rattlesnakes Grow While Starving

Even when they are starving rattlesnakes grow, eating themselves from within to gain length while reducing girth.

This finding goes against previous reports that reptiles shrunk during lean times, as would be expected.

The western diamondback rattlesnake can go two years without food. Marshall McCue of the University of Arkansas studied 16 of the venomous creatures for 168 days, or more than five months.

Snakes starved for the entire period fed on their own stores, converting protein to carbohydrates. Calcium amounts doubled.

"Because it takes more energy to grow than to eat yourself, the snake changes shape by reducing its girth and putting its resources into skeletal muscles and bone," McCue said this week at a meeting of the American Physiological Society. "It isn't panicking."

The study supports a longstanding hypothesis that a snake's length correlates with physiological fitness, McCue said.

Fatty acids also increased as the snakes fasted. Over time, however, hydrogen was drawn from the fatty acids as an energy source.

McCue's work could point toward ways to manipulate human diets.

"We might be able to engineer diet so animals, and say humans in space, can tolerate food-deprivation better," he said.

Robert Roy Britt
Rob was a writer and editor at Space.com starting in 1999. He served as managing editor of Live Science at its launch in 2004. He is now Chief Content Officer overseeing media properties for the sites’ parent company, Purch. Prior to joining the company, Rob was an editor at The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and in 1998 he was founder and editor of the science news website ExploreZone. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.