Snake Myths and Facts
By Phil Purser
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?”
Eastern coral snake. Photo Thinkstock
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).
Photo by Tigerpython/Wikipedia
The African rock python (Python sebae) is the only snake in the world that actually “cares” for its young.
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.
5) Rattlesnakes Always Rattle a Warning Before They Strike
Never believe this myth. It’s simply not true. Rattlesnakes evolved rattles to announce their presence in a landscape filled with large, hoofed herbivores during the Pliocene period in North America (Ernst 4). Made of old skin links retained after each shed, this rattle, especially one from an older rattlesnake, can produce a surprisingly loud, crisp buzz that can be heard many yards away. A bison or other large mammal moving through thick vegetation quickly learned to heed the loud buzzing warning of the rattlesnake’s rattle. This survival tactic benefited both the rattlesnake and the bison. The rattlesnake was not stepped on or crushed, and the bison did not sustain a painful, if not crippling, snakebite.
But wait. If the rattle on a rattlesnake’s tail is designed specifically to warn nearby animals of the snake’s presence, then why won’t one rattle before striking a human? The answer is simply one of mathematics. All snakes “hear” approaching animals by detecting vibrations through the ground and substrate, so a rattlesnake rattles when it hears an approaching animal. They can easily detect and warn approaching bison, which weigh 1,000 to 2,000 pounds. They are less likely to feel the approaching footfalls of a 170-pound person and even less likely to detect the sneaker-dampened approach of a 75-pound child. Thus, humans have greater chances of surprising rattlesnakes and being bitten. If a rattler detects an intruder too late, and this intruder is threateningly close, a surprised snake is more likely to strike in self-defense than buzz its tail.
6) Snakes Cannot Strike Underwater
Anyone even remotely familiar with the feeding habits of aquatic and semiaquatic snake species found throughout the world can immediately detect the falsity of this myth. How could a snake, such as a red-bellied water snake (Nerodia erythrogaster erythrogaster), which eats a diet consisting of fish, tadpoles and aquatic frogs, possibly subdue its prey without the ability to strike underwater? Some, if not all, members of other genera, including Agkistrodon, Thamnophis, Bitis and Rhabdophis, eagerly capture fish and fully submerged reptiles and amphibians.
To anyone still not convinced of the bogus nature of this myth, I submit the sea snakes of the genera Laticauda, Aipysurus, Astrotia, Emydocephalus, Hydrophis, Lapemis, Acalyptophis and Pelamis. Members of these genera spend most of their lives under the ocean’s waves and dine on fish, freshly molted crabs and other marine fare. Pardon the puns, but if someone breaks the surface of this myth and dives deeper, it is pretty easy to blow it out of the water.
7) Some Snakes Can Sting With Their Tails
This myth is a particular favorite of mine, and it originates from two snake species found throughout the southern United States. One is the copperhead. When born, young copperheads are tan and copper over most of their bodies, but their tail tips are vibrant yellow to chartreuse-green. Although some rural people say this highly visible coloration is a key sign of the tail’s venomous “sting,” the tail’s actual purpose is to attract prey. As the baby copperhead lies motionless and superbly camouflaged among leaf litter near the edge of a forest stream, it raises the tip of its tail out of the leaves and wriggles and twitches it about. This lure closely resembles a struggling worm or caterpillar. When a hungry frog or toad duped by the wriggling tail moves in for the kill, the young copperhead strikes, making a meal of the unfortunate amphibian.
The second species deeply contributing to the stinging snake myth is the eastern mud snake (Farancia abacura abacura). Found throughout the swamps and wetlands of the southeast coast, this snake has a sharply pointed tail. In the natural history tome Living Snakes of the World in Color, John M. Mehrtens describes the mud snake this way: “The tip of the tail terminates in a sharp, conical scale ... (that) aids the snake in manipulating its slippery prey of salamanders and fish into an alignment allowing for ease of swallowing. ... It is also used as a somewhat feeble deterrent against ... predators in being repeatedly pressed against the skin of the aggressor” (Mehrtens 186).
Besides pressing its sharp tail against the skin of its attackers, this snake adopts a unique defensive posture when flight into water or soft mud is not an option. It holds its tail aloft from its body and curls the rigid tip into an aggressive spearlike implement. This tail-coiling posture is particularly prevalent in the western subspecies F. a. reinwardti, which is found in eastern Texas north to southern Illinois. The mud snake’s posturing and skin-poking has earned the species the local monikers “horn snake,” “stinging snake” and even “scorpion snake.” At the end of the day, however, it seems the stinging snake myth is all bark and no bite.
8) Baby Venomous Snakes Are More Dangerous Than Adults
This myth is roughly two-thirds nonsense and one-third truth. I believe this myth was born out of the human fascination with irony. For some reason we like to think it’s the one we don’t see coming that always gets us. We like to root for the underdog, and we simply like the notion of the tiny one being the deadly one.
But the fact of the matter is that baby venomous snakes are not more venomous than their parents. In fact, quite the opposite is true in a great many snake species; adults have far more virulent venom than the young snakes. For example, both adult and juvenile timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) have venom that is “strongly hemolytic,” which means it causes the breakdown of red blood cells, in prey (Ernst 116). Yet venom studies in older adults demonstrate that the “activity level of some venom enzymes tends to increase with the size and age of the snake” (Ernst 116). So an older timber rattlesnake has venom more virulent than a younger one.
Similarly, an adult snake is capable of delivering a much larger venom dose than a smaller snake. Consider the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus). Juveniles of the species typically deliver less than 70 milligrams of venom, whereas a healthy adult specimen may deliver 492 to 666 milligrams of venom (Ernst 90). The known maximum is 848 milligrams in a single bite (Ernst 90). Roughly 100 milligrams of venom is considered a lethal dose for an adult human.
So if the venom toxicity of a young snake is not as potent as an adult, and the total venom yield of a juvenile is not nearly as great as an adult’s, what part of this myth is one-third true? The answer lies in the venomous snake’s experience level. Adults are veterans of life. They have successfully avoided or driven back predators and attackers, and they have full control over all muscular functions. Adults recognize the need to conserve their precious venom. It takes time to produce it, and a snake that empties its venom reserves in an attacker has nothing left to subdue prey. They have learned that a venomous snake without venom doesn’t eat.
It’s a different story for neonate venomous snakes. They generally are not as in control of their muscular functions as are adult snakes, and they are at their most vulnerable point in life. Defensive strikes are fast and thorough. When these snakes bite, they typically bite hard, pumping the attacker full of every last bit of venom. If a young venomous snake’s bite were to be more dangerous than an adult’s, this would be the only way.
I suppose there are far more myths about snakes than I can dispel in one article. Education is the key. Snakes are interesting and unusual animals, so it only seems natural that people have attributed to them unique or even supernatural properties and powers.
Sadly, too many of these untruths are passed down from one generation of reptile lovers to the next. I can only hope those kids I saw at that Alabama reptile expo so long ago come to figure out that juvenile copperheads are not more virulent than their adult counterparts. Because for every snake myth we bust, we get closer to allowing the truth behind these intriguing animals to prevail.
Ernst, Carl H. 1992. Venomous Reptiles of North America. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.
Mehrtens, John M. 1987. Living Snakes of the World in Color. Sterling Press, New York, New York.