Snakes have gotten a bad rep since the beginning of time. Across religions and cultures, the serpent has been used as a symbol of evil, medicine, fertility and much more. Many people have an almost debilitating fear of them, while others just assume they are out to get you. We are here to debunk some of the common myths and misconceptions about snakes, and hopefully give some more understanding and a change of perspective on these important legless creatures.
There are over 3,000 species of snakes populating the Earth, yet only ⅛ of the known species are venomous. They are found on every continent except for Antarctica. One of the world’s smallest snakes are the Brahminy blind snake which can be as short as 4 inches long. In comparison, the longest snake is the reticulated python which can reach over 6.25 meters and the heaviest is the green anaconda with the heaviest coming weighing in at 500 pounds.
Like all reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded or ectothermic. This means that they use the environment to regulate their body temperatures. Ectotherms require less food, and are able to inhabit places that would be off-limits to species that are endothermic. However, it comes at a cost as their activity level is limited by the surrounding conditions. If it gets too cold, they aren’t able to digest their food or even move.
If you have seen any snake in your life, or even in a movie, at some point you have seen them sticking their tongue out. If you were close enough you might have also noticed that their tongues are forked. This tongue-flicking is actually the manner by which the snake "smells" its surroundings. Snakes are equipped with a Jacobson’s organ inside their mouth that helps to detect odor particles. When their tongue is outside their mouth, odor particles stick to it. The tongue is then withdrawn into the mouth and inserted into the Jacobson's organ, where the odor is sensed. The forked tongue also helps them to determine which way the smell is coming from.
Snakes are Naturally Aggressive - In fact, more people are killed a year by bees than by snakes. In the wild, snakes are both predator and prey, so they tend to be quite wary. We are much larger than them and it doesn’t always pay off to chase something several times larger than you are. While they will attack if they are being messed with and threatened, most of the time they prefer to flee, and will often slither away instead of striking.
Snakes Go Blind In Summer - While it is not likely you will see one in the wild, if you have been to a zoo or had a friend with a pet snake, you might have seen then during a period where their eyes are an opaque or milky color. This happens when a snake is about to shed their skin. They actually have scales that cover their eyes that also shed as they get bigger. During this time they can’t see as well, but they don’t go fully blind. Since many wild snakes shed in summer, it’s easy to see where this misconception started.
Snakes Are Slimy - This is the one that we probably hear most often. Many people who have never touched a snake assume they are slimy to the touch. Snakes do tend to have a shiny, reflective quality to them, but snakeskin is actually quite dry, and often feels smooth. Their scales are made out of keratin, which is the same thing as our hair and fingernails. If you aren’t able to feel this for yourself, instead rub the top of your own fingernail and you will get an idea of what snakes actually feel like.
Snakes are deaf - While they don’t have the physical ears like many mammals including you and I have, snakes do possess inner ears. If you look up a picture or see a snake in person, you may notice a small hole on the side of their head. This helps them pick up not only ground-borne vibrations but low frequency airborne sounds. However, they do have difficulty with sounds at a higher pitch.
Snakes are poisonous - For those in the animal field this is probably one of the biggest misconceptions, or even a pet peeve that you hear by the general public. Snakes are venomous, not poisonous. Poisons must be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin, whilst venom must be injected into the bloodstream. But again this is only about 700 of the 3,000 species that exist.
Snakes dislocate their jaws while feeding. - Snake jaw bones aren’t fused as ours are. Instead they have adapted a highly flexible ligament that joins the bones of the lower jaw. Snakes can open their mouths up to 150 degrees. So the mechanism is not dislocation, just great flexibility. They do this so they are able to swallow their prey whole.
The Good Snakes Do
Snakes maintain a balanced ecosystem. - Where snakes are found they play an important role in maintaining the natural balance in the food web. In the majority of ecosystems, snakes act as both predator and prey. They are an important food source for many other animals including birds, mammals, and even other snakes. Species like king snakes and king cobras have specially adapted to eat other venomous snakes.
Snakes are a natural pest control. - While some people may feel uncomfortable having snakes around their home or backyard, having homes infested with rodents can create a lot more damage. The University of Nebraska estimates that mice cause $20 million in damage annually in Nebraska. Instead of using chemicals as pest control which can harm the environment, snakes provide a natural, environmentally friendly, and free pest control service. Timber rattlesnakes in the eastern U.S. eat rodents who are hosts to ticks which can be vectors for Lyme disease, a dangerous bacterial infection that can be transmitted to humans.
If you are set on keeping snakes out of your area, here are a few simple and friendly ways to help make your areas less likely to attract snakes.
- Remove shelters, such as sheets of tin on the ground and piles of rocks or firewood.
- Keep a clear area around your house. Make sure grass is cut low, remove fallen branches, and prune overgrown bushes. Most snakes prefer not to move across long stretches of open ground.
- Remove open water sources. Snakes do find water attractive, and need to drink water regularly to survive.
- Patch up holes in buildings. Snakes will live under houses or outbuildings where the conditions are warm and dry, and can get through any gap larger than your thumb. Place wire mesh with holes no larger than 1cm square overall potential entry points.
Even if you aren’t the biggest fan of snakes, it can’t be denied that they are seriously under threat. Habitat destruction, urban development, disease, persecution, unsustainable trade and the introduction of invasive species are causing populations to decline all over the world. Many snake species are endangered and some species are on the brink of extinction. As a society, we do not have to love snakes, but we can at least respect their right to exist without harm and appreciate their vital role in maintaining Earth’s biodiversity.