Our Maligned Snakes

By Elaine Farragher

It is hard to know why in our enlightened age, people continue to be horrified by snakes. I can well understand the dislike in some other parts of the world where a venomous snake bite can mean severe illness or even death. But Southern Ontario only has the poor dwindling rattler, which although venomous, is confined only to certain areas around Georgian Bay, parts of shores of Lake Huron and Lake Erie and the Wainfleet Marsh.

But the repugnance towards snakes is more of an unreasoned, mindless phobia, passed down through the generations and from parent to child along with the myths and misconceptions that feed it. Snakes are always described as slimy, when actually their skin is smooth and dry. Many people are repulsed by the flickering tongue, which seems to evoke some memory of evil and disgrace. Indeed, the story of Adam and Eve hasn’t done a lot for the reputation of snakes. The tongue, however, is soft and fleshy, totally harmless, and used for smelling and tasting. The snake’s main sensory organ is located in the roof of its mouth and the tongue is used to carry molecules to this spot. When it flicks its tongue in and out it is “sensing” its environment, the dangers and opportunities therein. So naturally, it would tend to flick its tongue more when something is threatening it, such as us humans.

Someone who is frightened by a snake and starts yelling at it to scare it away is wasting his or her breath. Since snakes have no openings for their ears, their hearing is rather minimal. Far better to stamp your feet, since ground vibrations are much more easily detected by the snake.

All snakes are carnivores and watching a small snake swallow a large prey is one of the more unbelievable sights in nature. The fact that many species also swallow their food live makes for a rather gruesome, albeit fascinating spectacle. This is possible because various parts of the skull and the lower jaw can move independently. Also, the skin is very elastic, allowing the snake’s body to balloon out to accommodate its prey, and a windpipe opening in the mouth is also supposed to help the snake breathe while this is going on. Swallowing large victims is sometimes a lengthy affair.

A large prey that is still alive can be somewhat hazardous to the snake, so a few of the larger species, such as the black rat snake, the eastern fox snake and the eastern milk snake, are constrictors that squeeze their prey to death in their coils before swallowing them. Of course, this is another aspect of snakes that does not endear them to people. Fortunately, we do not have boa constrictors in Ontario.

How this legless animal moves itself across the ground has always seemed to be one of the mysterious aspects of snakes. Legs seem so necessary in order to get from point A to point B that it’s hard to imagine how a land dwelling creature can get by without them. But obviously snakes do rather well, in fact they can move quite quickly. The snakes’ “slithering” motion is actually an efficient method in which the snake forms into a series of S’s. The bottom of each S presses into the ground and thrusts forward, moving the snake along. Bigger, thicker snakes can slide along keeping their body straight by moving the loose skin forward, pressing it to the ground, then pulling the body inside along after it. Of course, these slithering motions always seem a little creepy to people, but they are quite logical, after all.

Snakes have acquired a somewhat more aggressive reputation than they actually deserve. But they will defend themselves as any threatened creature has a right to do. Even the Massassauga rattler, the most feared of our snakes, wants only to be left alone and will only rattle if it feels threatened. It only bites if the rattle fails to scare off the threat. Other snakes will bite if provoked, some inflicting more damage than others. The northern water snake has in-curved teeth numbering 30-40, arranged in four rows. When it has finished biting you, it doesn’t just open up again, but keeps its jaws clamped shut and tears its way out, inflicting quite a lot of damage in the process. Other snakes though, like the garter, will barely leave a mark. Many of these however, including the garter, will release a foul-smelling liquid from its scent glands while trying to escape from your grasp.

Snakes are such wonderful pest controllers, consuming large numbers of mice, that there should be some attempt to modify their rotten image. Next time a snake crosses your path, don’t kill it, just walk the other way.

Elaine Farragher, July 1988

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