Phonetic syllable mentioned in the title is so familiar to us all that it needs no other explanation as to what it represents. Most of these slithering creatures bore slick or scaly shining smooth skin with striking patterns, hypnotizing stare with either marble-like black eyes or with sharp colored iris, split tongue frequently jutting out as if challenging the opponent, sometimes unusually long body jet black, brown or flashing striking colors, seriously sharp needle like fangs, fierce hissing sound and last but not the least, bite that has two puncture dots that might have injected life-threatening venom. How could not this creature strike the emotion other than fear ? 16th July is world snake day. And let’s shed age-old myths about this less mysterious, more fascinating, reptile to understand its very important role in ecosystem. To celebrate the occasion, Brown county state park in Nashville, IN, held nice little presentation, called snakefest 2022, of various reptiles to raise awareness about snakes of Indiana and awareness in general to put this misunderstood creature in proper light. More than I enjoyed the event, it inspired me to coil around the idea and get the good knowledgeable squeeze out of it.
Cold blooded but not killer
There are more than 3000 species of snake. Out of that only 600 (Around 20%) are venomous. Or more positively, 80% are non-venomous. Out of 600, only 200 are actually lethal to humans. These most important predators are so misunderstood that, more than humans, they feared more for their lives when come in contact with most lethal animal of all, humans. These enemies of rats are more friendlier to farmers as effective pesticide. I have iterated the fact before in one of the other “creature feature” on owls that mice population can easily get out of control if not restricted by such natural predators. Snakes are one of them.
Myth buster: Snakes don't have ears. They sniff well though through its split tongue. Also, snakes are well attuned to vibrations. As ears are out of the picture, all these mockery of snake charmers' to make snake dance on the tune of "bin" is all hogwash. Mostly, snake try to align its head with moving "bin" and not actually dancing.
Coming back to the Snake fest, all kinds of non-venomous snake, commonly found in Indiana, were squirming in various sized glass boxes. You can find various non-venomous snake species such as Water snake, Garter snake, Milk snake, Ribbon snake, Ring-necked snake, Hognose snake, Black Rat snake and others as native to Indiana. There are very few (four to be exact) native Indiana snakes that are venomous; Copperhead, Timber Rattlesnake, Massasauga Rattlesnake and Water Moccasin or cottonmouth. Green iguana and blue Argentinian Tague were welcome addition to the show. Two large boxes in the middle of the small shade occupied the yellow spotted Burmese pythons lazily dozing. It was good opportunity to get up close with reptiles and I had Boa restrictor wrapped around my neck for some photo-op. Though skin looks sleek, it was light sandpapery on touch every time Boa constrictor tried to slid off me or wrapped its thick body more snugly following predatory instinct.
Most of the reptiles are cold-blooded. What it mean is that, unlike us mammals, body temperature vary with outside temperature. They mostly set inactive while outside temperature goes too high or low. In winter, reptiles choose to hibernate so as to stop their body freezing out. Similarly, too much heat is also not good for them. That’s why most of the desert snakes hunkered down under the rocks or shadow of the bushes to cool off. They are killers for small preys and hence do not actively seek out humans. Until, someone invade their territory.
Main attraction of the event was to touch the Timber Rattlesnake, but due to jittery mood of the snake, they had to cancel “touch” part. By the way, Timber Rattlesnake are endangered in Indiana so even after we were sad to miss the opportunity to meet this venomous snake, I was happy to see the snake was not on display and garnered the care it deserved.
In popular media and mythology
Since ages, movies all around the word has depicted snakes as villains. Snakes on the plane, Anaconda are few of them. Even Bollywood had fascination of snake getting their revenge now and then with blockbusters such as Nagin, Nagina, Hisss and many other soap opera with most cringeworthy “snake-plots”. Harry potter’s magical universe also associated snake with vile branch of magic, Slytherins. And even portrayed its main antagonist, the one who could not be named, having features of snake. In games, everyone who owns the Nokia black & white models at the start of mobile phone revolution must have spent hours into primitive but addictive snake game. Efforts were made to modernize the game with latest 3D version and all but still did not surpass the nostalgic B&W version.
Myth buster: When I was a kid travelling southern part of India with my parents, I still remember that one early morning, tour operator took us to one of the temple to queue up for 3-4 hours to see, hold your breath, "Nagmani" i.e. precious stone of snake that could hold immense power. I failed to find logical background to this myth. May be some of the large cobras in India have very specific pattern on the head that could have been mistaken for something else and then carried on for ages, converting it into "Nagmani". Anyway, I don't see snakes are charmed by precious stones then any other stones on their way to slither upon. To hold such stone to head !!. That's too much. And queueing up for such "fools errand". That's way too much. I wish it could hold the power to bestow the truth to its visitors !!
In mythology: In Greek mythology, Medusa, very famous and game designer’s and movie makers favorite Gorgon, who can turned person into stone by her gaze, have head full of snakes. This “Medusa feature” might be derived from the fact that small prey sometimes gets frozen due to fear on snakes approach. Indian mythology tried to attribute importance to snake by depicting it as accomplice of Lord Shiva. Always perched at Lord Shiva’s throats, snake that always accompany him called “Vasuki” and must have been Indian king cobra, one of the most venomous and true apex predator. It’s venom is not lethal but amount it injects with single bite is enormous. Vasuki helped angels and demons to churn sea of milk. Another famous snake, Sheshnag with its multi heads, acts as recliner for Lord Vishnu in cosmic ocean. Greek god of medicine used to have snake entwined staff that had cemented its place as symbol of modern doctor’s guild. Norse mythology, getting popular due to Thor, various Viking series and God of War, also have famous serpent called Jörmungandr. In short, most of all civilization and mythologies had snake playing key role in one or the other form.
- Inland Taipan is most venomous snake in the world. Though most deadliest to humans is Saw-scaled Viper.
- Longest snake in the word is, without an argument, is Green Anaconda; 30 feet long. While the smallest is Barbados Thread snake, almost entirely can coiled up on quarter coin.
- Sometimes non-venomous snake mimic the color and pattern of venomous snake to piggyback on evolutionary advantages. Best example in snake is King snake (non-venomous) mimicking Coral snake (venomous).
- It’s difficult to imagine that snake had to employ “play dead” technique to save themselves from other scary predators. But hognose snake do this so effectively with lolling tongue out of the mouth and accompanying scent of decay and death.
As closing note, I have to play the sad record that I must do in respect to nature and wild-life. Sadly, the knowledge of old mythology was losing in interpretation to modern world. By the time most developed brain owner Homo Sapiens Sapiens got simple sense that its not the only species on earth to reign and destroy everything else, it is getting too late. Ecological balance in the nature is very sensitive. To explain the sensitivity, once meteorologist Edward Lorenz explained it as “butterfly effect”, one small flutter of the butterfly somewhere in the world could cause tornedo at another. While this balance needs utmost care, humanity has plundered the earth haphazardly with no care in the world. Unexpected raging jungle fires of California and floods in Australia, constantly raising mercury each summer in India and other Asian countries, melting icebergs of Polar, freezing storms in Texas and unseasonal downpours in India were just sample of the runaway effect. We have to raise each and every consciousness to preserve nature in its wild sense, whether its snake or whales or beetles or bees. Coexisting with snake, and in turn nature, is new “cool” thing to promote and #hastag.
PS: While hiking though yellowwood forest near Brown county state park one summer weekend, we found below crossing our hiking path. No natural. So wonderful.