Snakes alive

StoryImage( ‘/Images/Story//img-omN7htj5Qk.jpg’, ‘Photo by Dr. Robert Hedeen’, ‘Snakes are the most misunderstood members of the Animal Kingdom.’);

Snakes are probably the most misunderstood creatures in the animal kingdom. Most people have an inborn fear and loathing of these particular vertebrates mainly because of the account of the infamous serpent in the bible, their secretive habits, and by the fact that a few species are venomous.

Snakes are highly specialized reptiles that, through the long process of evolution, have lost their legs and most of the bones and muscles inside the body to which the legs are attached. The number of vertebrae in their backbones has been increased to about 300, and there are a corresponding large number of ribs. Snakes literally move on their ribs.

The tongue, which frequently darts in and out, is a sensory organ and is not poisonous but serves to detect odors and vibrations in the air. The dentition of snakes can be described as polyphyodont, which means when a tooth is lost it is quickly replaced any number of times. This is true of the hollow fangs of venomous types; hence a rattler whose fangs have been removed quickly becomes dangerous again.

Snakes shed their skin from time to time. This process begins at the lips and turns the skin backward and inside out. The eyes of a snake that has recently shed will have a milky-white appearance for a time and this condition is partially responsible for the story that snakes suckle milk from a cow’s udder. There is no way any self respecting cow will permit the many sharp teeth of a snake to latch onto a portion of her udder and suckle there. These myths about milk snakes are carried to the extreme in rural Brazil, where some believe snakes may steal into a dwelling and obtain milk from a nursing mother.

It is generally believed that snakes move rapidly. This is a mental delusion, probably due to fear. The blue racer or blacksnake, as it is sometimes called, is one of the fastest snakes, yet tests have shown that it never travels more than 2 1/2 miles per hour. All snakes can swim, and several have adopted water as their primary habitat. There is a commonly held belief that a water moccasin will not bite under water, but this is not true. The main diet of aquatic snakes consists of fish and frogs, most of which are captured beneath the surface.

Snakes feed on other animals and do not chew their food but swallow it whole. They can swallow prey many times as thick as their bodies because of elastic ligaments that loosely connect the bones of the jaws. Frank Buck, the late explorer and big game hunter, described a situation in Borneo where he witnessed a dead child being removed from the abdomen of a large reticulated python. Snakes do not need to feed very often, as they are cold blooded. The extreme example of this was an anaconda in the Paris Zoological Garden that was fed only 36 times in seven years.

There is no snake that takes its tail in its mouth to form a hoop to roll after you. The mud snake, however, may be seen lying in the shape of a hoop in a puddle of mud. It has a small horn-like process attached to its rear end, and some believe that the projection is used to inject venom into a prey animal. My grandmother believed the mud, or hoop snake, had the nasty habit of injecting its poison into fruit trees, and anyone eating the fruit of that tree would become seriously ill or die.

A common erroneous belief is that a mother snake will swallow her young if she believes they are endangered. Most snakes lay eggs, but some give birth to living young, and a pregnant snake cut in two by the farmer’s hoe may liberate the young inside and abet this folk tale. The common, non-poisonous hog-nosed snake is greatly feared by many. If molested, it will puff up and make a hissing sound that can be heard for several feet. This is merely a bluffing tactic, but it is believed that with the hissing comes an aerosol laden with particles of venom that will surely blind you if it reaches the eyes.

Of the some 2,000 or more species worldwide, only about 150 live in North America. Some individuals believe all snakes are poisonous, but that is not true. Only the rattlesnake, water moccasin, copperhead, and coral snake in North America are venomous. Very few deaths from snakebites are recorded in the United States each year, but in India upwards of 20,000 people a year lose their lives from bites, mainly from the king cobra.

Fortunately for us in the Rock River Valley, we have only one poisonous species the pygmy rattler or massasauga. The venom of this small species is not very potent, and whereas 100 years ago it was quite common in this region, it is rarely encountered today.

One of the tragedies of man’s lack of knowledge of natural history is the inherent instinct that all snakes are to be killed on sight.

Dr. Robert Hedeen is a former resident of Maryland’s eastern shore and resided in the Chicago area from 1960 to 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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