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SNAKES – BELIEFS and FACTS

B Stett



MYTH AND TRUTH

The Roman writer Pliny the Elder wrote some fascinating stories:

Crates [a poet] of Pergamum states that there was a race of men…on the Hellespont, whom he calls Ophiogenes; they used to cure snake-bites by touch and extract the venom from the body by placing their hands on its surface. Varro writes that even now there are a few people in that region whose saliva is an antidote to snake-bites.
 
 
That's interesting Pliny; tell us another one:
  There is a similar tribe in Africa… They produce in their bodies a poison deadly to snakes, and its odour puts snakes to sleep. Their custom was to expose children at birth to extremely fierce snakes and to use these snakes to test the faithfulness of their wives since snakes do not flee people born of adulterous blood… (Healy 1991, pp 76-77)
 
 
Outside of textbooks a lot of myth is associated with snakes:
Less mythical is global warming. Priede (1990) asked: "Will global warming bring the world's most poisonous snakes to Britain's shores?" He explained:
 
Sea snakes are the most abundant reptiles on Earth. More venomous than cobras and capable of spending three hours under water at a stretch, they are superbly adapted to life in the warm seas. With the onset of global warming, they could find their habitat expanding.
 
 
 
CLASSIFICATION

Snakes are reptiles of which there are five groups:

  1. Testudines Tortoises and turtles;
  2. Crocodylia Crocodiles, caymans and alligators;
  3. Rhynchocephalia Tuataras;
  4. Saurians Lizards;
  5. Serpentes Snakes.


There are about 3,000 species of snake (in 390 genera) of which 200 species are dangerous.
 
 

FEAR

Is fear of snakes learned or instinctive? Mathewson (1960) writes:

Babies and young children who have never been shown or told that they should fear reptiles rarely have a "natural" fear of them. When a small colorful snake or lizard, or even a turtle or alligator, is offered to a child who has never been taught to fear these animals, the child almost always reaches out for the reptile…

Many adults claim that they were never warned against reptiles, but that they have an instinctive terror of them. It is indeed probable that if we could see back into their early youth, we would find that something or someone gave these people the fear they now have. (p6)
 
 

Adult monkeys show fear of snakes but baby monkeys don't:
 
…baby monkeys that had never been near a snake showed no fear when offered one. Later the same babies were put in a cage with adult monkeys. The adults became excited when a reptile was brought near the cage, and from then on the baby monkeys showed fear. (p7)
 
 
 
POISONOUS

The most dangerous snake country is Sri Lanka where 800 people die from snakebite annually.

The way to tell a poisonous snake is by its fangs.

You won't detect a copperhead (or other poisonous snake) by its cucumber-like odour as used to be believed. Cucumbers are not very odiferous – when's the last time anyone said to you "I smell cucumbers?"

The snake's color does not indicate safety or danger. Green snakes are supposed to be venomous. Yes, some are but others aren't.

Harmless snakes supposedly have round pupils and poisonous snakes elliptical pupils (like a cat). However, this too is false. All the cobras of India and Africa have round pupils – but if one bites you and injects its poison you might as well say your prayers.

Nor can you tell a poisonous snake by its triangular-shaped head. The coral snake of the USA, the king cobra of Malaya, and the black mamba of Africa have blunt heads but are very dangerous.

A common myth was that the snake's tongue is poisonous. However, the snake's tongue is a taste organ and tastes the air.

Snakes inject poison by a pair of hollow fangs connected by ducts to poison glands at the sides of the head. The snake has to bite and stick its fangs into your flesh to inject its poison.

Rattlesnakes, copperheads and many vipers have a poison called a haemotoxin, which affects the victim's blood. Other snakes, such as cobras, Australian tiger snakes and coral snakes have neurotoxins which affect the nervous system.

The African spitting cobra spits venom and aims for the victim's eyes. If the eyes are rubbed blindness may follow. It can also inject venom by biting.

In Africa the most dangerous viper is the puff adder, Bitis arientans, said to kill about 4,000 people per year. Clark (1969) says:

A number of its African victims die of fright or shock even in cases where the dose of venom was insufficient to kill them. Panic stricken African victims have been found trying to drink milk from a cow's teats because they believe it helps neutralize the venom while others have been found running until they drop because again they think that that helps. (p129)
 
 
HOW BIG?

Perhaps you've seen the movie Anaconda (1997) where Jon Voight got swallowed and later coughed up!

Pliny the Elder writes:

…in India snakes grow to such a size as to be able to swallow whole stags and bulls…
 
 
That's a good one Pliny; what else do you know?
 
There is a well-known story of the snake 120-feet long that was killed in the River Bagradas during the Punic Wars by the Roman general Regulus: he used catapults and ballistae as if he were storming a town. Its skin and jaw-bones remained in a temple in Rome right down to the Numantine War. (pp 113-114)
 
 
Many non-venomous snakes kill prey by grasping it with their teeth, coil around it, and constrict it to death. Malay pythons, which grow to 30 feet, do this – so do boas (12 feet) and anacondas (25 feet) of South America, and pythons (15 feet) of India. The python can tackle a medium-size pig and take several hours to swallow it. Smaller prey is swallowed without first constricting it. Many small snake species constrict prey too – they just tackle smaller prey.

The Guinness Book of Records says: "The reticulated python (Python Reticulatus)…regularly exceeds 6.24 metres (20 ft 6 in) in length."

Clark (1969) cites evidence that the four largest specimens observed, of the four largest species are:

Clark says:
 
There are men who emerged from the South American jungles with stories of anacondas 40 feet long. Some even claimed 100 feet… Then a few years ago the New York Zoological Society offered $5,000 for the first 30 foot specimen. The prize has yet to be claimed and the stories of giant anacondas have died down. The fact remains that the biggest anaconda, Eunectes murinus, ever collected was 19 feet in length, 3 feet in girth and weighed 236 lbs. There is one reliable record of a 25 foot specimen but that, for the time being is the biggest… (p118)
 
 
It's doubtful that a python, even a large 20-footer, could swallow an adult human, but there are reports of children being swallowed.

Pythons and boa constrictors kill large prey by suffocation through constriction – the snake tightens its coils each time the victim breathes out. Again there are few reliable reports of this happening to adult humans, although a 15-foot snake or bigger might succeed if it pins both of the person's arms to his sides. If the human has one arm free he can uncoil the python starting from the tail.
 
 

MYTH and RELIGION

Many cultures considered snakes immortal – perhaps because they regularly grow a new skin and shed the old skin.

The Hopi people of North America had an annual snake dance during which they handled live snakes, which were then released, to ensure rain and good crops.

In India the creator, Brahma, slept on the coils of a giant snake which caused earthquakes whenever it opened its jaws. In an ancient Greek myth the snake Ophion incubated the egg from which all created life emerged. Solomon Islanders have a number of snake-shaped creator-gods. In Mexico the snake-god Quetzalcoatl was the creator of life

In some myths snakes guard the Underworld. In India human-headed snakes called nagas and naginis inhabit underground paradises. Legends of North American Indians tell of human-snake marriages whose offspring could venture between the two worlds.

Does Pliny have a comment to add? Yes:

The basilisk [a snake] is found in Cyrenaica and is not more than a foot in length… It destroys bushes not only by its touch but also by its breath, and it burns grass and splits rocks. (p117)
 
 
TREE SNAKES

The talking snake that deceived Eve in the Bible (Genesis 3) is usually depicted on a tree.

Harvey Lillywhite (1988) wondered why snakes positioned vertically in trees don't faint since in other animals blood tends to follow gravity:

As blood pools in the lower body, central blood pressure falls and circulation to critical organs, such as the brain, eventually fails.
 
 
Mammals have valves in their veins to prevent backward flow of blood – but snakes don't have such valves. Therefore snakes on land ought to be restricted to horizontal habits – which, however, is not the case.

Lillywhite experimented by placing various snakes in vertical and horizontal orientations and measured their arterial blood pressure.

He found that tree-climbing snakes have a different cardiovascular system than ground and sea snakes. Their heart is closer to the head, the body is more slender, muscle tone firmer, the tail-end narrower, and the skin tighter. These features resist stretching from blood pooling.
 

Arboreal snakes that have been climbing for a while often pause momentarily to wiggle their bodies, causing undulating waves of muscle contraction that advance from the lower torso to the head. The advancing contractions compress the veins, forcing blood forward and increasing central venous pressure near the heart. The behavior improves venous blood flow to the heart so that it can maintain arterial pressure.
 
 
When the snake moves head-down, blood pooling in the head is reduced because:
The Genesis 3 snake was condemned to go on its belly and eat dust.

Snakes, however, do not eat dust but "taste" the air and may in the process ingest some dust particles. Prey in sandy areas may have dust on its body, which is swallowed along with the animal. But if that's what's meant then many predators besides snakes eat dust.
 
 

SNAKE HANDLING

Worshippers at the Church of the Lord Jesus in Jolo, West Virginia, speak in tongues, handle deadly snakes, drink strychnine and hold their hands in fire.
 

Oliver (2000) describes events three hours into the service:

Millissa Evans…climbs on to the stage, where she whirls like a dervish…grabs a jar of clear liquid and takes a gulp. It is strychnine. She falls to the floor moaning for a moment.

Then she springs to her feet and sets fire to a rag stuffed in a bottle of spirit. When it is well ablaze she plunges her right hand into the heart of the flame. She marches the length of the stage, screeching and gibbering. (Oliver 2000)
 

Worshippers handle rattlesnakes and copperheads, wrap them around their necks, and even throw them to each other. Pastor Bob Elkins' daughter died of snakebite at age 22, but other members have been bitten up to 86 times and survived.

Snake handling in church began in 1908 in Tennessee when George Went Hensley held a rattlesnake.

Describing a snake handling service in North Carolina Dr William Sargant writes, "At this point many of the spectators took fright and left the hall as quickly as they could."

Perhaps, however, it's the snakes that should be afraid. Tell us why, Pliny:

…all men have a poison that is effective against snakes; snakes flee from saliva as though from boiling water, and if it gets into their throats they die – this is especially the case if the person is fasting. (p77)
 

REFERENCES:

Clark, J 1969 Man is the Prey, Panther Science

Lillywhite, H B Snakes, Blood Circulation and Gravity, Scientific American 1988, December, pp 66-72

McLeish, K 1996 Myths And Legends Of The World, Blitz

Mathewson, R 1960 The How And Why Wonder Book of Reptiles And Amphibians, Wonder Books

Oliver, S Praise the Lord, pass the serpent, Sunday Herald 2000, January 23, p50

Pliny The Elder, Translated by Healy, J F, 1991, Penguin

Priede, M The sea snakes are coming, New Scientist 1990, November 10, pp 21-25

Sargant, W 1976 The Mind Possessed, Pan, p222

Tanara, M U 1975 The World of Amphibians and Reptiles, Abbeville



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