• Carrie Gardner

The Myths and Mysteries of Snakes (part three)

Updated: Mar 29, 2020

A ball python warming up for her aria.

All snakes are poisonous, and all snakes have fangs.

There are a few poisonous snakes, but not in the way most people think. These snakes eat other animals that are toxic. In the process of digesting, the snakes absorb the toxins and they become poisonous, like a lot of amphibians. The kind that people usually think of as "poisonous" are actually venomous. It is the bane of the reptile industry to hear snakes called poisonous. There is a difference between venomous and poisonous. Venomous means that it is injected through biting or stinging. It involves direct contact with the animal and for the animal to knowingly envenomate you. To be poisoned means you have ingested something, or was absorbed through the mucous membranes and eyes.. Amphibians are known for this. They have venom glands and when disturbed, will excrete a toxic substance until it’s all over their bodies to make themselves distasteful. Some can be deadly, too. Cane or Marine toads were brought up from South America to Florida (and Australia) to eat the cane beetle. Because they’re not native here, they don’t have any predators that can survive their slime. That includes dogs and cats, too. Insects can also display this behavior. Millipedes cover themselves with something related to cyanide. But they can be handled - just be careful not to touch your eyes, nose, and mouth and your hands should be washed pronto. Poison also doesn't have to come from animals. Most everyday cleaners like bleach, pesticides, fertilizer and byproducts released from industrial plants.

No, not all snakes are venomous. In fact, considering the sheer numbers of snakes, there are relatively few that are venomous (278, according to the World Health Organization.) There are three different kinds of fangs. And I won’t use the scientific names for them here. The first group are pit vipers and true vipers. They have hinged fangs that can fold up in their mouth when it is closed. The second group are elapids (cobras, mambas, sea snakes, and coral snakes) have fixed fangs in the front of their mouth, much shorter than the vipers. The third group are in the colubrid family. They have rear fangs, making it a complex issue to bite. Most of them are not harmful, except for the boomslang.

You can see the recurved teeth clearly here.

Non-venomous snakes don't have fangs, but they have sharp teeth that are recurved (relative to the size of the snake.) - an evolutionary adaption to keep prey from escaping. When grabbed, most animals (and humans) are going to jerk back. If you’re in a snake’s mouth, that means that you are actually digging the teeth further in. It makes it easier for them to hold on to their prey. And here’s a cliffhanger...snakes have six rows of chompers. The reason is a part of another answer.

Snakes Go Blind in the Summer

My snake Earnie demonstrates pre-shed opaqueness

I have no idea where this came from - unless it’s because people are seeing more snakes in the summer and those snakes are getting ready to shed. Before shedding, snakes excrete a lymphous fluid full of special enzymes that help separate the old skin from the new skin. Snakes have a special brille or spectacle over their eyes for protection. Since those are the only scales that are transparent, the eyes turn opaque, commonly known as “blue phase.” Once the separation is complete, the fluid gets reabsorbed and a day or two later, the snake rubs their snout against a rough surface and begins wiggling out of their old skin, inside out.

“Are you my mama?” Snake moms.

An oviparous reticulated python incubating her eggs.

Reptiles are not known for being that maternal and snakes are no exception. However, there are a few cases. But first, the blessed event. Around 70% of snakes lay eggs. Most look for dark, damp places, burrows and lay their eggs. And leave. The process of being gravid and producing hard shells to protect her young as they incubate depletes most of her calcium. For the most part, their job is done, and mom goes off to find her first meal since becoming gravid. This method is called “oviparous”. The other two forms of birth both involve live birth.

An ovoviviparous rattlesnake and her neonates.

The next method is called ovoviviparous (yes, there will be a test at the end of this). Rather than laying eggs, the females keep them within her body. The snakelets hatch inside her and after about 24 hours (at least in one thing I read), she gives birth. There are no shells on them, however. The snakelets are born in their yolk sacs, with the sacs ripping open during birth.. Some species of ovoviviparous snakes are most all New World vipers except for the Bushmaster. That includes all the pit vipers in the United States. And all garter snake species. Can you imagine having a bunch of baby snakes wiggling inside you for a day?

A viviparous boa species giving birth.

The final method of birth is called viviparous.This is how most mammals do it. Definitely all humans. You can’t blame those platypi and echidna for wanting to be different, though. Female snakes that are viviparous develop their babies within their bodies, like ovoviviparous snakes, except they are not in an egg or a shell membrane. Instead, the embryos are nourished with egg yolk and with a placental attachment to exchange water and carbon dioxide waste. Species of snakes who carry their young around like this include all boa constrictors, anacondas, and in the states, there would be the northern water snake, brown water snake, and plain bodied water snakes. When the blessed event ends, along with the little hatchlings, unfertilized eggs are also expelled, as well as some that didn’t survive. The females usually eats them, probably for the first time in months, I should note that both viviparous and ovoviviparous have wombs where their young remain. (It is hard to tell between viviparous and ovoviviparous, so I apologize if I get any species wrong.)

A king cobra female protecting her nest.

Are snakes maternal at all? No, not really. Snakelets come out as perfect copies of their parents, ready to take on the world. There are some exceptions though. Pythons encircle their eggs and incubate them by shivering until they hatch out. Momma rattlesnakes sometimes hang around to keep an eye on her little neonates. However, king cobras are the only snakes to actually build a two chamber nest. The female twists her body into a noose to gather leaf litter, constantly moving through it to compress and tighten. When it is 30 cm high and three feet wide, she takes a break to lay between 20-40 eggs. She then continues to build until the nest is four feet high and double chambered. The eggs are below and mom has a place to stay while she does guard duty. Sometimes the male helps out. When they are near to hatching, the parents leave. King cobras eat primarily other snakes, and Mother Nature has built in a feature to protect the babies. They seem to emerge with the hoods fully flattened.

See? This is how amazing this world is. Can you ever imagine that an animal with no limbs can build a strong nest three-feet wide and four-feet high that can withstand hard rain during the Monsoon and high humidity for the time that the eggs are incubating? But a king cobra can!

My other maternal snake has only recently been discovered. As mentioned above, pythons wrap around their eggs and shiver to incubate them. But one goes beyond that. The southern African rock python spends the first four months with her cute little rabble. Predators aren’t likely to try and kill a snakelet when their big momma is right there. And big mommas they are, being one of the giant pythons. When it’s time for their big sleep, they nestle into her coils to stay warm.

Most snakes won’t have anything to do with their offspring and are rotten mothers. With such an influence, is it any wonder that there aren’t more juvenile delinquents and hardened criminals in the snake world?

My final myth on snake parentage is that babies actually go into their mother’s mouth for protection. Another similar one is that they are born and come out through mom’s oral cavity. Neither is true, of course. What is being seen could be one of two things. The first is that she is ovoviviparous or viviparous and she is eating babies that didn’t survive birth. The second is that they came across a snake eating another snake. There are many species of king snakes in the United States and any species with the name “king” in it primarily eats snakes.

Snakes like to attack boats from above.

A wonderful day on the water for a snake is to climb a tree to find a good basking spot and just lay in the sun. Fisherman and boaters also think it’s a wonderful day. Fred the fisherman is out on the lake, puttering around in his boat to see where the fish are biting. He passes under the welcome shade of a tree and BAM! A snake is in the boat. It’s freaking out. Fred is freaking out. Somehow the snake manages to get out of the boat. What happened? Did the snake really dislike the color of the boat that much? Was he aiming for Fred and missed? Actually, none of the above. The snake is guilty of having just really rotten timing. He may have felt the vibrations first or saw him, but when the snake became aware of Fred, his first inclination was to get away in the easiest way dropping into the water. Unfortunately, his timing sucked and he landed in the boat instead. Fred, after his heart starts beating again, realizes the situation, grabs an oar and gently lifts the snake with the paddle and out of the boat. That’s the best way to handle the situation. Killing the snake by decapitating it gets the boat all bloody and creates an animated zombie. (That one is next.) (This video if of bloopers from a fisherman named Bill Dance. The whole video is amusing but you only need to watch the first two seconds.)

Animated Zombies (“Rattlesnakes die at sundown”)

In 2018, a man in Texas decapitated a four-foot rattlesnake and was bit by the snake when he went to dispose of the body. It seems as if every website covered it. The man is alive, but he needed 26 vials of antivenin (two to six are the average), had to put be put in a medically induced coma and went on dialysis.

Jeremy Sutcliffe survived a bite from a dead snake.

This is a normal reaction. Snakes are ectothermic (cold-blooded). They maintain their body temperature by thermoregulation and most of the energy produced is oxygen. When a snake dies (or killed, like decapitation), their low blood pressure and low oxygen mean that their head will just “mostly” die. If a snake is dead, they bite if anything approaches them, and, if venomous, drain the venom glands, even if the snake is decapitated. While they’re alive, they control the amount of venom they inject. This would explain why the man who was bitten in Texas needed 26 vials of antivenin. Decapitated snakes have been observed to dilate and contract their pupils, flick their tongue, lunge at something to bite, and writhe in agony (it’s believed they feel their decapitation). This usually lasts a couple of hours. The only way to prevent this is to destroy the brain by smashing the head.

If there is a venomous snake in your yard, get away from the snake and wait a few minutes. If he’s still there, call 911. They have numbers for trappers, some of them may be on the role call simply because they want to rescue and relocate them and/or do it for free or ask for a donation to a reptile conservation group.

Snakes unhinge their jaws when they swallow prey.

Snake skulls have four parts. The braincase is fairly stationary. The other three can move independently of each other. That is the snout, upper jaws, and lower jaws. It's a skull designed to be "hands" for a snake in order for it to catch. This includes the six rows of teeth. There are the two usual rows on the upper and lower jaws. But in the middle of the roof of their mouth, most have two rows centered that look like "()." All of the bones are attached with elasticized ligaments that stretch a great deal. The mandible lacks the cartilage that holds our chin together. When they start to swallow prey, the inner rows of teeth hold on to the animal while they "walk" over the prey, They move the upper right side while they move their lower left side and then the opposite until they get the animal to the back of their mouth where strong muscles grip it and fore it down into their stomach. The mandibles stretch out really wide to accommodate larger prey. In fact, they have little folds of skin on their chins that stretch our and their tube-like esophagus (called a glottis) extends out of the mouth so they can breathe. But at no time do their jaws become unhinged or dislocated. After eating, since there are three separate parts of the skull that can move independently, they do need to make sure that their jaws and such are realigned. Usually by yawning or rubbing their head against something.

WARNING: This video shows a boa eating a large prey item.

One last photo before the end here that demonstrates how much the lower jaw can stretch to accommodate prey while the braincase remains the same size. This is a African rock python swallowing an animal similar to a deer. Possibly a gazelle or some other African species.

The braincase and snout remain normal sized, however the lower jaw phenomenally stretches all the way around to accommodate large prey. If you really stop and think about it, it is truly amazing that they can do this.

Part Four is next and last one, I promise. There are lizards clamoring to be be heard.

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