Snake facts and fallacies

Snake facts and fallacies

By Robert A. Hedeen, Naturalist

It is unfortunate that so many people have a fear of all snakes, either real or affected, because in many ways these are some of the most interesting creatures in the animal kingdom. Human fear and distrust of these reptiles apparently goes back to the story of the evil serpent in the Garden of Eden tempting Eve.

This uneasiness and actual phobia where snakes are concerned has fostered a myriad of myths and folk stories concerning them. Some of these stories and misconceptions about snakes have an element of truth in them, but others are completely fallacious. A very few of these tales that have come to my attention from time to time, along with the facts of the matter, are as follows:

Fallacy: Snakes are slimy creatures.

Fact: The scale-covered skin of snakes is very dry (except for water snakes). The scales may shine when light is reflected off of them, and it is the reflected light that makes the body appear to be slimy.

Fallacy: Snakes swallow their young to protect them.

Fact: This is a widespread erroneous belief. Any biologist or herpetologist (snake expert) who says “it isn’t so” is almost sure to be bombarded with uncomplimentary mail stating the writer has visual proof of this and knows it to be true. I will risk the consequences and tell the truth. The fallacy may have originated when someone witnessed one snake eating another, a common practice of several species. Or, a snake that gives birth to living young may have been chopped up during her pregnancy, and the unborn brood was liberated from her belly.

Fallacy: Snakes milk cows.

Fact: Many farmers who own cattle seriously believe that there are snakes that milk their cows, and they blame a decrease in milk production on the thirsty serpents. The name “milk snake” is given to a common type of king snake that is frequently seen around barns. They are not there to milk the cows, but to hunt for rats and mice and are doing the farmer a service. Milk snakes, however, have been known to take milk set out for pets, which is probably how the milking story originated. These snakes have many sharp teeth lining their mouths, and its difficult to imagine a cow stupid enough to stand still while a delicate portion of its anatomy is being chewed upon. And, no milk snake would be able to reach a cow’s udder unless it brought along its own milking stool.

Fallacy: Snakes bite with their forked tongues.

Fact: A snake’s tongue is quite soft and is incapable of inflicting a wound. The tongue is a highly developed sense organ that is used primarily to detect heat, vibrations, and odors.

Fallacy: Snakes “charm” their prey as well as humans.

Fact: The word “charm” usually means to hypnotize, and snakes cannot perform this feat. If they did, herpetologists would become extinct. It is true that some individuals are so frightened of snakes that when they encounter one they are frozen immovable with fear, but this is not the same as being hypnotized or “charmed.” The same is true of many prey animals. They likewise may become so frightened when confronted by a predator they cannot move and become easy victims.

Fallacy: Snakes are among the fastest animals.

Fact: This is a mental delusion, probably due to fear. Actual calculations have shown that one of the swiftest snakes, the blue racer or black snake, never travels more that two and a half miles per hour. The same is true of the speed of the coachwhip who will not lash you if encountered.

Fallacy: All snakes are venomous.

Fact: Only a small number of snakes are poisonous. In the United States, only the rattlesnake, copperhead, water moccasin, and coral snakes are venomous. If you live in the Rock River Valley, you are more apt to be struck by a bolt of lightning than you are to be bitten by a poisonous snake.

Fallacy: A water moccasin cannot bite you underwater.

Fact: Don’t count on it. The main food of the poisonous moccasin and non-venomous water snakes is fish, and it would take an extraordinary effort on the part of the snake to bite a fish out of water. Incidentally, the water moccasin, or cottonmouth, is found only in southern Illinois as is the copperhead. The only rattler we have in The Rock River Valley is the massasauga or pygmy rattlesnake, and it is quite rare.

As a boy, my grandmother told me many tales concerning snake folklore she learned in the hills of eastern Tennessee where she was raised. She instilled in me a fear of these interesting and little known animals that took me years to overcome.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960-1971. He is a retired professor emeritus of biological sciences in the University of Maryland system. He has published more than 30 scientific papers, has written numerous magazine articles, and is the author of two books on the natural history of the Chesapeake Bay.

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