Snake Myths And Facts

African rock python mothers are known to protect their offspring up to about four months of age.

Photo Credit: Hannes Steyn/Wikimedia

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As I walked between the table rows of my local bimonthly reptile and amphibian show in Birmingham, Ala., I spotted something I found particularly enjoyable. No, it was neither a tank of Fly River turtles marked “two for $10” nor a three-headed rat snake. In fact, what I saw was not any species of cold-blooded creature. A father had brought his two sons to their first reptile show, or at least that seemed to be the case. The wide-eyed boys’ stares and constant stream of phrases were more than enough to suggest they had never been to a herp expo before: “Wow!” “Look at that.” “What is that?”

I knew the herp industry always would be alive and well as long as newcomers showed as much enthusiasm for the hobby as I had at their age, so with a warm heart and a smile on my face, I turned my attention to the deli cups and terrariums around me. Then I heard the boys’ father say something like the following: “Oh, you wouldn’t want one of those, boys. Those are baby copperheads; each one is far more lethal than an adult.”

I stopped dead in my tracks, turned and watched in sheer terror as the father fell into a long-winded sermon about the well-known “fact” that baby venomous snakes are always much more dangerous than their adult forebearers. I wanted to rush forward and scream, “Don’t believe it!” But I simply turned my back once more and walked away with the quiet reservation that a new generation of potential herp enthusiasts would develop within the hobby believing and undoubtedly teaching misinformation about venomous snakes.

This issue, dear readers, is why I write today. Even some advanced and educated herp enthusiasts invariably subscribe to one falsehood or another about snakes, so I’ve decided to bust a few of these myths. Included are eight of the most common ones about our legless allies, as well as the truth behind them.

1) Angry Snakes Chase People Who Get Too Close

This myth is actually a half-truth exacerbated by frightened folk who had the misfortune of startling a sleeping or otherwise unaware snake while out for an afternoon walk through the woods. Typically, when someone happens upon a snake in the wild, both the person and the snake are caught off-guard, so both slip into a state of panic at the same time. Fearing the snake to be life-threatening (it is insignificant to the myth whether the snake actually is), this person might experience weak knees and a faster pulse. Often the quickest escape route is instantly chosen.

Like the frightened person, the snake also has a sudden and powerful drive to flee, and it picks the quickest escape route. Sometimes that avenue of escape is the same for both the human and the reptile. Each zigs or zags in unison, which gives the illusion that the snake slithers or darts in pursuit of the person. A similar phenomenon occurs daily in tight office corridors around the world. People going opposing directions are not trying to block another’s passage down the hallway. Each just goes for the same path at the same time.

As I said, however, this myth is partly true. Some species of snakes will actively “chase” human beings, such as the Central American bushmaster (Lachesis muta muta). An enormous and lethally venomous serpent, the bushmaster is well-known for this behavior. Panama’s tourism department actually warns tourists of the aggressive nature of these rarely encountered yet highly dangerous serpents.

Within the United States, two genera of serpents also will chase humans, but “chase” isn’t exactly the correct word for what actually happens. Some members of the genera Pituophis and Agkistrodon seem so aggressive to people whom unexpectedly encounter them in the wild that they appear to chase the interloper away.

Although some snakes vehemently defend themselves when approached, members of these genera take self-defense one step further. They may strike, lunge, hiss or rasp their bodies against themselves even after the intruder has retreated several paces. A frightened hiker or outdoorsman might mistake this sustained display of anger and self-defense as being chased by the snake.

2) Snakes Go Blind During the Heat of Summer

It still surprises me how many people believe this myth. Snakes do not simply go blind based on temperature or time of year. However, snakes close to shedding their skins do experience a temporary loss or inhibition of vision as their old ocular scales, protective scales covering the eyes, begin to separate from new ones developing underneath.

During this time, the eyes appear a milky gray-blue, and the snake’s ability to see is minimal. In captivity, this period of temporary blindness may happen anytime before a shed, but snakes in the wild typically do not always eat as much as their captive counterparts, so they often shed old skins less frequently. In nature, especially in the southern United States, a great many snakes slip into a shed cycle in late summer, so perhaps the myth that all snakes “go blind” was born during this time of year.

3) There’s No Such Thing as a Mother Snake

I think the world subscribed to this myth until recently. All snake species that lay eggs simply slither off after depositing their broods underground or amid rotting forest debris. They might never again encounter any of their offspring. Even live-bearing species typically give birth to their young only to watch the brood slither away one by one. Baby snakes are born perfectly fit for survival, so parental care is not really necessary.

But a recent discovery in central Africa has blown the lid off this myth — at least so far as one snake species is concerned. To date, the African rock python (Python sebae) is the only snake in the world that actually “cares” for its young. Typically depositing a clutch of 20 to 90 eggs, female rock pythons have long been known to encircle and vigorously defend their egg clutches until they hatch. This is a tactic many boid snake species perform (Mehrtens 64).

Before the early 21st century, it was thought rock python’s parental care ended there. But new discoveries suggest females of the species keep their young near them for more than four months after hatching. These young snakes enjoy their mother’s protection from potential predators. Few birds of prey or monitor lizards will move upon a 20-inch-long hatchling rock python lying close within the coils of its 17-foot-long mother. Field research herpetologists speculate the warmth absorbed by the mother python during the day helps to sustain the young snakes’ high body temperatures as she coils about them at night. Mother snakes might be a rare occurrence, but they exist.

4) Female Snakes Protect Broods Inside Their Mouths

I have argued this myth with my father and great-grandfather. Country folk living within the Appalachian Mountains or south of them have long held the belief that when a live-bearing snake and her brood come under attack, the female opens her mouth wide and the young instinctively rush inside for protection. My great-grandfather on my mother’s side of the family insisted he saw this occur on more than one occasion in western Georgia’s creek-infested bottomlands. Likewise, my father tells tales of seeing eastern cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorous) perform this motherly duty. To this day, if I bring up the topic, he defends his position.

I couldn’t disagree with this myth more. I believe its root cause lies in the fact that the act has only been reported with live-bearing snake species, and many employ a unique self-preservation tactic. Giving birth to young is physically taxing on both the mother and the emerging young. Perhaps 5 percent of young are stillborn as a result, or they die soon after birth because they are too weak to break free of their placental sacs, and subsequently these babies suffocate.

The mother does not overlook these dead babies as a potential food source. In her weakened state, she needs all the nourishment she can get — even if it means cannibalizing her young. North American water snakes (Nerodia ssp.), cottonmouths, copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) and especially the South American anacondas (Eunectes murinus and E. notaeus) are known to eat stillborn young or those otherwise unable to survive soon after birth.

I suspect someone walking through the woods or fishing at the edge of a reedy pond one August afternoon happened upon a female water snake just finishing birth. As young snakes slithered everywhere, the mother may have had one or more tails of dead young hanging from her mouth. The human approached, and the living babies scattered, but the weakened mother resorted to a mouth-gaping and hissing defense display, revealing the tails of the dead baby snakes. This chain of events, or something similar to it, could have led the person to conclude the mother was standing her ground while her young “fled” into her mouth for protection.

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