Footage shows a terrifying cave where snakes have learned to dangle down from the ceiling to catch bats as they fly out.
The local Mayan community is in charge of protecting this special cave full of bats where snakes hang down from the ceiling every night to catch them in their jaws as they fly out, according to the biologist who discovered the phenomenon.
The “cave of hanging snakes” (“cueva de las serpientes colgantes”) has become increasingly famous since the discovery of the rare phenomenon that had gone undetected because it takes place in complete darkness.
This cave is a natural well located near a Mayan community in the municipality of Jose Maria Morelos, in the southern Mexican state of Quintana Roo.
The entrance into the cave is around 20 metres long (65 feet), and near the ground, every night, thousands of bats from seven different species fly out to find food in the jungle and in the Chichancanab lake, one of the most important ones in the entire Yucatan peninsula.
They take two hours to all fly out and another two to fly back in after they have hunted insects and fed on fruit from the nearby forest. That is when snakes living in the cave do their best to hunt them, using a special technique, which consists of hanging down from the ceiling and swaying to stop their intended prey with their bodies before latching onto them with their jaws.
This fascinating cave is turning into a tourist hotspot, but a well-controlled one, in order to protect the ecosystem inside it, with only five to ten visitors allowed inside at a time. The story of its discovery started some 10 years ago.
Arturo Enrique Bayona Miramontes, 66, is the biologist who discovered this amazing cave. He said: “The local community came to the technological institute where I was working in search of alternative ways to approach the jungle in a sustainable way. I was told to conduct a survey of the local cultural, historical, and water resources in the area to evaluate its resources.”
The villagers showed him a cave that nobody ever went into due to the local legends of bad spirits living there.
Bayona Miramontes remembered that once he obtained permission to go into the cave, “nobody wanted to accompany me and I went alone, finding a lot of bats and remains of antique pots which were believed to be of Mayan origin and I saw that it had a huge potential for tourism.”
But the biologist and his team only visited the cave during the day, so at first they did not see any snakes. Four months later, he was riding his bike, the most common form of transport to get to the cave, along with his assistant, when they saw a huge number of bats flying out of the cave.
The biologist said: “We decided to go in and it was a great surprise when, once inside, I looked up to the ceiling of the cave, and I saw snakes hanging down, some of them moving rhythmically, others with a bat in their mouth, and others with nothing, but it was clear that they were hunting, in total darkness.”
He said that his assistant was scared but he said to himself that they were seeing “what is going to be the discovery of my life” and a good opportunity for the community.
The biologist and his assistant visited the cave for three months at night and he even slept inside it, confirming that the same phenomenon happened again when the bats would return from hunting in the jungle too.
After making detailed recordings of and notes about the phenomenon, the biologist revealed his discovery to the locals. They were afraid, he said, as they believed that the bats could hurt their children, but the biologist reassured them, saying that a unique project was going to be set up because “this is the only place in the world where this happens” and the snakes and the bats were actually a real “treasure”.
Over the next few years, the community came to realise that he was correct and according to Bayona Miramontes: “They even want to erect a statue of the snakes, as it has opened up the small community, that does not even appear on any maps, to world tourism.”
To benefit the local community, an ecotourism project was set up, including bird sightings, visits to the lake and visits to the cave, but with a controlled number of visitors in order to keep the right balance inside.
This means that only five to ten visitors are allowed to go in at any one time. The project also involves training guides, all of them from the community, to provide information to visitors.
The biologist said that deals with tourism agencies fell through despite the site’s potential, because the latter were only interested in making a quick buck, but their own vision was much more long term.
The team managed to raise funds to build a visitors’ centre and to train guides, and the biologist published his discovery in science magazines.
Today there are around 180 yellow-red rat snakes (Pseudelaphe flavirufa) living in the cave. They are thought to have lived in the cave for about 200 years, adapting perfectly to the darkness and living in a perfect balance with the other animals.
The biologist said they might have decided to live there for three, potentially overlapping reasons: “They have a constant temperature all year round, they can find food every day without difficulty as they only have to hang and wait for the bats and they are the queens of the ecosystem, as they do not have any natural predators.”
The snakes have their own holes in the cave ceiling where they live and where they take their prey once they have caught it.
Their technique is very precise, according to the biologist, who said: “These snakes do not see or hear, but they can feel the vibrations of the bats flying, and they use that opportunity to hunt them with their body, suffocating their victims before gobbling them down.”
The snakes then take their victims to the hole they live in, but sometimes, they first need to break the bat’s wings in order to make them small enough to fit into it.
The snakes and the bats are not the only animals found in the cave, a natural well, there are other animals that have evolved and adapted to the darkness, including the Mexican blind brotula (Typhliasina pearsei), among others, which are transparent. The cavefish is endemic to Mexico and the only known species in its genus. They have evolved to lose their eyesight but have developed alternative ways of breeding and feeding to survive in that environment.
This perfectly balanced ecosystem could be threatened by even the smallest of changes in the chemical composition of the water in the natural well, but according to the biologist: “As long as the underground water currents keep on going, there is no repercussion.”
This is why the local community controls access to the cave, with only five to ten visitors at a time, who are not allowed to take pictures or bring any plastic with them.
While the cave is currently closed due to the global coronavirus pandemic, they plan to open again, as soon as the health department allows tourism to resume.