Are Snakes Shifty or Maligned?

Are Snakes Shifty or Maligned?
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By all account’s snakes are shy, nervous and fast. There are more than 3,500 species and twenty percent of the snakes of the world are dangerous to humans. And the thought of snakes scares Americans the most too, beating out public speaking, fear of heights, thunder and lighting, and the dark.   Ophidiophobia (pronounced: AW-fi-dee-a-foe-bee-a from the Greek) is a specific phobia, an abnormal fear of snakes (also referred to as, “herpetophobia”)–or the fear of reptiles. And researchers at the Max Planck Institute in Germany and Uppsala University in Sweden showed six-month-old babies’ photos of snakes and they involuntarily reacted with larger pupil size—an activity completed in the noradrenergic system in the brain that is associated with mental and emotional stress such that it stimulates nerves to release either adrenaline or noradrenaline, a type of stress hormone that increases heart and blood pressure rate.  Researchers believe snake fear is an innate fear because many people have never even seen a snake! And this little known idea: anthropologists have suggested the need to notice snakes in the wild may have led early primates to develop better vision and larger brains. 

Losing Game

Writer Richard Shine once said, “Being interested in snakes is like supporting a football team that loses almost every game.  You are part of a small but enthusiastic minority, while everyone else thinks you’re crazy.” So, is this anecdotal information?  Because today, pet snakes are popular and prized according to the American Federation of Herpetoculturists.  Some hobbyists even collect dangerous species in defiance of state laws.  Specialists Carl Ernst and George Zug have warned that “Keeping a venomous snake in your home is like keeping a loaded and cocked handgun in your china cabinet.”


A snake’s skin is dry, despite its iridescence or appearance.  There is skin between the scales called interstitial, and the scales are overlapping, somewhat-like roofing shingles.  This protects the snake from physical injury, water loss, and it also blocks ultraviolet rays. Their skin has to be tough enough to account for the constant wear and friction.  And, as the snake grows, some scales are worn and dead, so a process called ecdysis allows them to shed the old skin and get this: its eyes turn a milky white to boot. Snake colors, some quite stunning, “ …a brilliant deadly harlequin” as English writer W. H. Hudson once wrote, are produced by chromatophores or pigments present in the skin.  And, of course, it is all stretched over a backbone of sometimes as many as 585 vertebrae and 24 ribs.  We have 33 vertebrae and 24 ribs. There are no ears on a snake so they detect vibrations from the ground and can also flick out their tongues to smell the world around them.  A green tree python has heat-sensitive pits on each side of its head that can detect the presence of birds or other animals, a foot-and-a-half away.  Some snakes have pointy fixed fangs that would scare the bejeesus out of us, and some have front fangs that fold back into their mouths until needed.  The venomous ones that have fangs will use them to inject a deadly venom that either kills or paralyzes their prey.  Venoms have a cocktail of neurotoxins, hemorahagins, anticoagulants, antibacterial agents, ferments for digesting, and substances that destroy red and white cells.  And snakes can’t really hypnotize anything with their eyes—they just don’t have movable eyelids—because their eyes are protected by a spectacle or brille, a transparent scale.


The adaptations that snakes have taken on during their evolution allows them to skirt hot sands, burrow in the earth, swim waters, glide along the ground, climb trees and even fly in the forest canopy.  Right, there are snakes in southern Asia that can flatten their bodies and launch themselves into a controlled fall to either escape enemies or reach the ground—a hinge design on their ventral scales allow them to simulate “parachute flight.” People who have studied snakes believe they don’t have the cerebral capacity for emotions, such as happiness, anger, and affection but do have the more primitive, reptilian feelings like aggression, fear, and pleasure. The goal in their world so-to-speak is survivalistic, and they have great instincts that help them to be perceptive in and of the environment.  In captivity, for example in your home as a pet, you may have to handle them when they are young because any particular species may just not want to be handled.  In other words, they are not going to be domesticated and most everyone that owns one gets bit at some time.  So, if you are planning in your mind that you will teach them things—it is just not relevant to a snake; it’s not a realistic plan.


In the Southwest United States, you can buy a rattle from a snake’s tail, and numerous snake products such as, wallets, boots, hatbands, jewelry, rattlesnake meat and even snake-oil liniment. Did God condemn the snake for enticing Eve to take the forbidden fruit and share it with Adam in the Garden of Eden?  The story goes that God in anger then cursed the snake saying it would forever move upon its belly to eat dust all the days of its life. History does in fact, have a complicated relationship with the snake and various tribes throughout the ages have used the snake for symbolism, biblical stories, mythology and even the cult of ophiolatry—snake worship or attributing a divine nature to the snake. Their small reptilian brain lends itself well to a secretive world; and because of that there is no body of data to know if they are diminishing in number.  Destruction of habitat, pollution, pesticides, climate change and natural catastrophes all claim a heavy toll on the world’s herpetofauna, that is no doubt. Reference Badger, David. Snakes. Stillwater. MN: Voyageur Press, 1999. Book. Bishop, Nic. Snakes. New York: Scholastic, 2012. Book. Buckley, James, Jr. Snakes! New York: Liberty Street, Time Inc. Books: 2017. Book. Firth, Rachel & Jonthan Sheikh-Miller. Snakes. London: Usborne Publishing Ltd., 2001. Book. Shine, Richard. Australian Snakes American Federation of Herpetoculturists Gallup: “Snakes Top List of Americans’ Fears”  Live Science: “Why We fear Snakes” Live Science: “Fear of Snakes Drove Pre-Human Evolution” Noradrenergic Pronounce Ophidiophobia Quote about loaded and cocked gun King Snake photo courtesy of