Illustration: Meadhbh Sheridan
From epic battle between baby iguanas to myths and legends, snakes have captured our imagination. Danielle Crowley looks at some of their unique talents.
A few weeks ago, a reticulated python made international headlines when it swallowed a man whole. While this is not the first story of its kind, this was one of the first to be verified when the snake was cut open to reveal its last meal. Such stories have often been treated to scepticism, as human shoulders were considered too broad and awkward for most snakes to manage.
Reticulated pythons are the longest snakes in the world, reaching up to 10 metres in length with appetites to match. These snakes belong to the group known as constrictors, which don’t use venom to subdue their prey, preferring to wrap their coils around it and suffocate it by tightening every time the unfortunate animal exhales. Not exactly the best cuddle buddy. The metabolism of these snakes is quite remarkable, and increases 40 times to deal with their binges.
A snake’s physiology is also amazingly flexible. To handle large prey, snakes can unhinge their jaws, and then “walk” their lower jaw across the body of their prey. This enables them to tackle enormous prey such as sheep, antelopes, and even other predators like crocodilians and even jaguars.
“Banded sea kraits were discovered to have a hunting partnership with predatory fish such as trevally”
Snakes smell with their tongues, and they have a special organ called the Jacobson’s organ in their upper jaw to allow them to do that. Their fantastic sense of smell allows them to follow a scent trail left by the animals they feed on. Some snakes (like boas) can detect the heat given off by living creatures using special labial pits in their snouts. They can detect differences in temperature between an animal and its surroundings by a 1000th of a degree. Both these abilities allow snakes to hunt even in pitch darkness.
Once a snake has caught up with its prey, it will either subdue it using constriction or with venom. A snake’s venom glands are really just modified salivary glands, and venom is injected into the prey through hollow teeth called fangs. At up to five centimetres long, the Gaboon viper has the longest fangs of any snake. How a snake’s venom works depends on what the snake needs the venom to do. Some terrestrial snakes can afford to wait, and after biting their prey will follow until the venom overcomes it. In this way they can avoid injury.
Sea snakes have incredibly potent venom, which makes sense when their habitat and diet is considered. Since they hunt for fish in coral reefs, they need their fishy meals to die instantly, because if it gets away they have lost their meal. A remarkable discovery was made when banded sea kraits were discovered to have a hunting partnership with predatory fish such as trevally. These fish scare smaller fish into crevices on the reef where it is easier for the kraits to catch them. Any fish that escape swim right into the jaws of the waiting trevally.
Snake venom is being used to help hundreds of people. As well as being used to make antivenom to treat snake bites, medical researchers are currently looking into using the compounds in snake venom to treat disorders of the nervous system, lowering blood pressure and even treating cancer. Crotoxin in rattlesnake venom is very specific, so it is being used to target and destroy cancer cells.
The Mozambique spitting cobra delivers its venom in an unusual way, by, well, spitting. Its spitting distance is up to eight feet, and it will try to aim for the eyes of its attackers. Venom landing anywhere else will not cause any harm, but venom to the eyes can result in blindness. If the attacker continues to approach, the snake will bite.
“Crotoxin in rattlesnake venom is very specific, so it is being used to target and destroy cancer cells”
“Cobra” means hooded, and this hood is their most distinguishing feature. The hood is formed from their ribs, which can be extended out in display. “True cobras” belong to the genus Naja, which brings to mind the Naga of Indian mythology, which were usually benevolent god-like beings who were very dangerous if not treated with respect. In fact, many depictions of them show them with cobra-like hoods.
Cobras were also significant in Egyptian mythology, and adorned the crowns of the Pharaohs. Buto or Wadjet was the cobra goddess, and it was she who protected Egypt and the Pharaoh.
At 5.5 meters, the king cobra is the longest venomous snake in the world. As cobras can raise a third of their body length of the ground, a snake this long could look a person in the eye. As it does not belong to the genus Naja it is not a true cobra, and in fact has its own genus, Ophiophagus, which means “snake eating”. The king cobra is a snake eating specialist, which is why it needs such toxic venom. One bite is enough to kill an elephant.
Although it has a fearsome reputation, it is a shy snake, which is not aggressive unless pushed to be. Some reports state that even if it is forced to strike, it often strikes with its mouth closed. It was the star of a recent viral video where it drank from a bottle of water offered to it by a member of the village it had wandered into.
The king cobra is also considered to be one of the most intelligent snakes, with its mental capabilities compared to that of an eight-year-old child. The female is the only snake to build a nest for her eggs and will guard them fiercely until they hatch.
“The king cobra is also considered to be one of the most intelligent snakes, with its mental capabilities compared to that of an eight-year-old child”
The king cobra is not the only dedicated snake mother. The female African rock python will incubate her eggs for three months. They require a temperature of above 30 degrees Celsius. To obtain this, their mother will bask in the sun until her body temperature reaches 40 degrees, then she will wrap her body around her eggs. Doing this everyday puts enormous stress on her body, and if it doesn’t kill her it will take her three years to recover.
Snakes have been around for millions of years, and one notable example is Titanoboa, a behemoth that reached 13 metres long. It is believed to have lived like modern anacondas, in that it had a semi aquatic lifestyle.
Snakes are awesome, and really just deserve our respect instead of fear, or as the Facebook page Snakes With Hats shows, our love.