The snakes’ poor vision is believed to be behind the confusion.
A scuba diver off Australia noticed some odd behavior whenever he came into contact with male sea snakes: The venomous reptiles would coil around his fins, licking the water around him and even sometimes chasing him underwater. Now, he knows why: It was mating season, and the males thought he was a potential mate.
In a new study, the diver and another researcher analyzed 158 of these interactions with olive sea snakes (Aipysurus laevis) over several years in the Great Barrier Reef and found that interactions were more common during the reptiles’ mating season. The sexually frustrated snakes also displayed elaborate behaviors that are often used during courtship between the sea serpents.
“Males are very aroused and active while looking for ‘girlfriends,'” lead author Rick Shine, an evolutionary biologist and reptile expert at Macquarie University in Australia, told Live Science. But because the males can’t tell the difference between female snakes and scuba divers, it can lead to some comical interactions, he added.
Although olive sea snakes are venomous, and potentially lethal, to humans, the researchers do not think believe that people are at an increased risk from swimming with the reptiles during their mating season.
Tim Lynch — now a senior research scientist at CSIRO, Australia’s national science agency — collected the data while working on his doctorate at James Cook University in Australia in the mid-1990s. He recorded the encounters around the Keppel Islands in the southern Great Barrier Reef and was the first to notice a link between their unusual behavior and mating.
“It was exciting; they are the most graceful of animals and also have no evolutionary relationship with people,” Lynch said. “They are not actually trying to attack you; they are just curious.”