The RoVing Naturalist
By Dennis Prichard
SNAKES! Our worst fear? Not necessarily.
Snakes rank right up there at the top of the list for people’s biggest fear – right behind public speaking. I would venture to guess this goes all the way back to Adam and Eve, having been ingrained into our culture, our psyche, our instinct, and even our souls(!) for all these millennia. Yes, snakes, at least the venomous ones, should be respected for the powerful weapons they have, but let’s examine their other qualities that make them survivors, and even our “friends.”
The best story illustrating our fear of snakes I have heard was one told around the campfire. A group of hunters were out in the deep woods telling their own stories around the campfire one night, and naturally there were intoxicating beverages to enhance the mood. The subject came around to snakes, and each man had to out-do the last liar. The stories got so preposterous that one fellow decided to turn in and slipped into his sleeping bag. Immediately he felt something at his feet and thought about all the tales rumbling through his mind. He froze. Having his trusty shotgun beside him on the ground, he reached it and aimed at his feet. Slowly, ever-so-slowly, he started to spread his feet apart. It seemed like an eternity passed, but his stealth paid off, and as his feet were now far enough apart, he took careful aim and, BLAM, he blew away his flashlight!
You can do a lot of harm to yourself fleeing a snake, even if it is harmless. I’ve known of people running away so fast from what they considered a snake that they ran into a solid object hard enough to knock themselves unconscious. My college biology professor was always teased about his encounter with a “cable snake” that reared up and struck him on his leg. It turned out to be a metal cable lying in the tall grass that he had stepped on, but his vault into the sky amused us all. “Snake, snake!” was all that he could mutter, until the real culprit was discovered. What was more humorous was that he was searching for snakes at the time!
Don’t misunderstand me, please, as venomous snakes are not to be toyed with. They have evolved some mighty potent and efficient means to procuring their food. Most of these snakes are heavy-bodied because they are “slugs.” They lie in wait, usually in a runway frequented by prey, and then wait … and wait … and wait. When the unsuspecting victim wanders too close, the lightning-fast strike releases the venom and the snake instantly releases the prey. The mouse or rat runs off to soon die, but the snake waits and waits again until it knows the prey has fully succumbed to the bite. It does not want a small mouse to rear up and defend itself, possibly injuring the snake. No, it wants its food served cold.
Rattlesnakes are in a group called pit-vipers because they have two special holes in the front of their face that are heat receptors. The poor victim that has been bitten runs off to die leaving an invisible heat-trail for the snake to follow. The pits detect this trail, even in complete darkness, leading the snake to its prize. This fascinating adaptation allows the snake to leisurely advance on the prey rather than expend all that energy chasing it down.
Thus, most non-poisonous snakes are slender-bodied, and fast. They have nothing to demobilize the prey, so they have to slither after it, grab it, and finally dispatch the animal. Try doing that without arms or legs and you will soon realize how these handicaps are debilitating to us, but no problem for snakes.
In my next article, I will relay how these much-maligned animals are actually doing us a great service by controlling the rodent population. They are the best mouse traps ever invented!
Dennis Prichard is a retired park ranger. He’s worked and studied wildlife at many National Parks and Wildlife Refuges including Carlsbad Caverns, Mammoth Caves, the Everglades, Sequoyah NWR in Oklahoma, Sevilleta NWR in New Mexico, and Isle Royale National Park, to name a few. He travels in a fifth wheel with his wife and dog, a Labrador named Cricket.
Read previous RoVing Naturalist articles here.