A writhing, twisting, snake scurrying on over 30 legs might not sound like your idea of fun, but this strange beast has millions of eyes glued to it this week. In a video that was posted to Twitter on Monday and has since gone viral, a mysterious mass resembling a furry snake races across a brick floor, occasionally stopping to look around before continuing on its hurried way. Scary as it looks, it isn’t what Twitter suggests it is. The truth is, oddly, kind of sweet.
On closer inspection, the furry snake in the video looks more like a chain of individual furry animals, which is less freaky but still pretty weird. Since Monday, the video has been viewed over 4.75 million times. The caption, written by Twitter user cainebraswell, who reposted the video from sonofselassie, describes the phenomenon as “Rats pretending to be a snake to avoid predators.”
Such a mimicking behavior would be impressive, but it’s probably not what’s going on, animal behavior researchers say. What’s happening in the video may actually be a whole lot more interesting than that.
Dr. Louise Gentle, a lecturer in wildlife conservation at Nottingham Trent University, says the animals in the video are most likely not mimicking a snake.
“I doubt very much whether this is indeed ‘Rats pretending to be a snake to avoid predators,’” Gentle tells Inverse.
Dr. Jacqueline Boyd, also an animal scientist, agrees with Gentle’s assessment.
“It’s unlikely they are pretending to be a snake…. that’s human interpretation,” Boyd tells Inverse.
So What Are They Doing?
First off, contrary to the tweet’s caption, this chain of small mammals is almost certainly a mother shrew with her offspring. Even though the low-quality video makes it difficult to discern the details of the individual animals, the fact that they’re traveling in a chain tells the tale. These animals are engaging in a family behavior called a “caravan,” which scientists have extensively observed in shrews. In a caravan, each juvenile shrew bites the sturdy base of the tail of the shrew in front of them, with the mother at the front.
“The young are all following the adult (presumably the mother) in a line, and if they are in contact with each other they will be safer and not get lost,” says Gentle.
As a part of this fuzzy chain, the shrews can venture outside the nest.
But Why Do Shrews Caravan?
There’s a couple of reasons that scientists suspect shrews form caravans. In a 1984 paper published in the journal Behaviour, researchers observed shrews both in next boxes and in a field, and they found that shrews seem to caravan the most when their young are between one and three weeks old.
“Developmental changes in caravaning seem to reflect the maturation process of sensory functions,” they write. In other words, as the babies get better at navigating the world around them, the less they need to run around as part of a caravan.
In addition to allowing young offspring to safely explore the world while their senses are still coming online, caravaning can also be an emergency procedure.
Emergency Escape Plan
UK-based nonprofit The Mammal Society explains that shrews often caravan when their nest has been disturbed and the mother needs to scout out a new one with babies in tow. So in the Twitter video, it’s possible that the shrews have lost their home and are on their way to find a new one. Let’s hope they found it.