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Friday, October 17, 2014

Seven Snake Myths Debunked

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications


House Slytherin forever! Vine snake checks out the camera. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

Witches, werewolves and snakes? Let’s face it, snakes get a bad rap. Perhaps more than any other creature, snakes are the subject of much fear and misunderstanding. Like bats, spiders and all things deemed crawly, snakes are unfairly categorized as “creepy.” Slip into any Halloween shop and you’ll find snake motifs among the Draculas and the Swamp Things. In truth, snakes are vital to a diverse range of ecosystems on every continent (except Antarctica). While there are some snakes that pose a threat to humans, the majority of the 3,400 species of snake are harmless, only about 15% are venomous.

One reason we fear snakes could, in part, be biological. This article explains how our primate neurons might respond to an image of a snake. I can personally recall my usually very level-headed mother flinging my little brother off a hiking trail in the face of a terrifying, coiled... shoelace (in her defense we were in the heart of rattlesnake territory.)

A fear of the unknown could be to blame here. Add a dash of urban legend and you've got a recipe for total snake misunderstanding. Let’s take a look at seven popular serpent myths…

1. Snakes are evil

It all started with that apple…but snakes are not vengeful or malicious; they aren’t out to get you. While some species of snake are extremely lethal and by all means should be left alone, snakes rarely bite humans unless provoked or startled. The unlucky that are bit are just that. Luckily for us, most North American snakes aren’t venomous.

2. Snakes will hypnotize you

Snakes do not have eyelids, so they cannot blink. While certain snakes rock their head from side to side to help with their depth perception, they are not performing hypnosis. The origin of this myth may have come from observing prey species that freeze in place out of fear or go still to try to blend in when facing a snake.

3. Snakes have poison tongues

Not only is a snake’s tongue not venomous at all, but it’s a snake’s way of learning about its world. Snakes use their forked tongues to sample tiny chemical particles in the air, which tell them what is going on around them.

A corn snake shows off its beautiful pattern. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

4. Snakes are slimy

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. A snake’s dry scales feel very smooth and silky, but are not gooey or slimy in the least.

5. Baby snakes are more venomous than adults

Within venomous snake species, adults are much more likely to have more potent venom than a juvenile snake.  Adults are also more likely to deliver a larger dose of venom to their prey. However, a more experienced snake has full control over its muscular functions and recognizes the need to conserve its venom, so an adult may be less inclined to resort to a defensive strike.

6. Snakes are liars

While the forked tongue symbolism in literature and folklore often represents a conniving creature, the fork in a snake’s tongue is actually a really cool adaptation. The fork allows the snake’s tongue to act sort of like a directional divining rod in that it helps the snake determine where their prey went, potential mates, or what else is in the area. They are just trying to get as much information as they can!

This precious reticulated python is about to curl up for a nap... awwwww. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

7. The only good snake is a dead snake

Snakes are unfairly persecuted as pests, but in fact they play an important role  in keeping disease in check and minimizing actual pests. Did you know that timber rattlers help fight Lyme disease by eating rodents that carry the ticks? Many snakes help keep rodent populations in check. Garter snakes, sometimes referred to as garden snakes, are a gardener’s best friend. This little snake keeps insects from devouring your garden goods! 

Snakes on a plane? If you suffer from ophidiophobia, (AKA: When you see a snake your initial reaction is…NOPE!), we suggest slipping into the Day Exhibit and checking out the vine snakes, these innocuous little darlings are well suited for any beginning herpetologist.

Or you can start with this adorable baby pit viper.

This baby pit viper wants to school you. Lesson? Snakes are not monsters, although they do steal pencils. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.

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