Courtesy photo Snakes, such as this yellow rat snake, don't have eyelids and they don't blink. Their eyes are covered with clear scales called a spectacle.
published: Sunday, October 07, 2012
Snakes are a vital part of the natural world
Ophidiophobia is defined as an irrational fear of snakes. It is a relatively common phobia, which can be traced back to early childhood experiences in many cases. Since the days of Adam and Eve, the serpent or snake, has been viewed as a vile and evil creature to many humans. In reality, these animals are simply part of the natural world and serve extremely important functions as predators as well as being important links in the food chain.
If one would take the time to study snakes, they may find out what fascinating creatures they are, and certainly would discover that they are not as scary as first imagined. Worldwide, there are about 2,700 species of snakes, with only 375 varieties being poisonous. Chances of getting bitten by a poisonous snake are much less than being struck by lightning.
Snakes are unusual and hardy creatures. They can move over searing hot surfaces as well as rough and rugged terrain. They are literally covered with plates and scales which serve as suits of armor. On the underside, snakes have rough scales which allow them to keep their grip on branches, bark and rocks, enabling them to keep moving. Their scales are mostly waterproof as well, and most snakes are able to survive in wet environments.
Snakes don't have eyelids and they don't blink. Their eyes are covered with clear scales called a spectacle. When the snake is ready to shed, which it does a few times a year, its eyes will usually turn cloudy and it will rub against a rough surface to help rip the old, dead skin off. Underneath the dead scales, are bright, shiny new ones.
Many folks say snakes don't have bones, but they do. They are vertebrates with a backbone made up of many vertebrae attached to ribs. In fact, snakes have between 100-400 vertebrae compared to a human's 33. That is why they are flexible enough to get into small places and slither around. In addition to multiple bones, snakes are equipped with strong muscles. These bones and muscles protect their more fragile internal organs.
Since snakes don't have legs, they have to use different techniques to move. Some varieties of snakes bunch themselves up and then leap forward. Others push off of surfaces and move in a wavy motion. When confronted with a slippery surface, many snakes will throw their head forward and the rest of the body follows appearing as a side winding motion. Some snakes practice slow, creeping, straight movement using the scales on their bellies to move forward.
Snakes have some good senses and others not good at all. They have poor eyesight, but an excellent sense of smell. Unlike other animals, snakes smell with their tongues. Most folks have seen the "forked tongue" shoot out of the mouth of snakes. The purpose is for the moist tongue to collect different scents from whatever it comes in contact with including the air. Once the tongue returns to the mouth, it touches special sensory organs on the roof of the mouth, which identify to the snake what it just came in contact with. Snakes also have the ability to feel and absorb vibrations so that they can judge how large something is such as prey or a predator.
Did you ever wonder how snakes can swallow such large prey? The reason is quite simple. Their jaws are not fused together, which enables them to enlarge their mouths enough to swallow big animals. They also have a small tube located at the bottom of their mouths which allows them to breathe when their mouth is full.
All snakes are carnivores. They swallow their food whole with no chewing involved. With powerful muscles within their throats, they can literally move the prey down the long throat into to the stomach. Both the throat and stomach can stretch to accommodate the food. Once swallowed, the prey may take anywhere from a few days to two months to digest.
Large birds, pigs, raccoons, coyotes, foxes and other snakes will all make a meal of a snake. Humans are also a cause for fear and concern to any snake. Many folks kill every snake they see simply because they don't like or fear them. Other snakes are sold off as pets or captured for their skin. But as with most wildlife, habitat destruction is the biggest threat to snakes.
In an effort to protect themselves, snakes have a variety of defensive mechanisms. Some camouflage into the scenery, while others burrow under the ground or leaf litter. Some make loud noises and mimic rattle snakes by moving their tails in nearby leaves. Some even play opossum and flop themselves upside down, open their mouths and hang their tongues out! Most simply try to escape when they can.
Like all things natural, snakes play a vital role in the environment. One of the main benefits humans derive from these slippery serpents is their keen taste for rodents. If not for snakes, mice, rats and other pests would be far more numerous and disease would spread much more rapidly.
Snake fun facts
- Most snakes are terrified of you. Their first instinct is usually to hide.
- Snake's scales are composed of Keratin - the same substance as our fingernails.
- The thread snake is the smallest snake and measures only four inches long.
- The largest snake is the reticulated python which can grow to be 33 feet long.
- The thickest snake is the Anaconda, which can measure over 40 inches around.
- Studies have shown that cobras are faster learners than other snakes and can tell the difference in people.
Corine Burgess is and Environmental Specialist for the Highlands County Parks and Natural Resources Department. Guest columns are the opinion of the writer, not necessarily those of the News-Sun.
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