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News and Resources

Snakes: Friend or Foe? - October 22, 2017

Snakes have an air of mysticism all to themselves. In some myths they are portrayed as the cunning, dangerous villains and in others they are considered sacred symbols of healing and immortality. Reactions to a snake sighting are many and varied. For those of us who enjoy searching for them, finding a black racer or a milksnake during a hike is a wonderful treat; for others, finding one while you are pulling weeds may be a terrifying experience.

Snakes around the world vary greatly in size, from the tiny Barbados threadsnake at only 4 inches, to the imposing green anaconda, which can reach 29 feet and weigh more than 500 pounds. All snakes are carnivores. Their diverse diet includes insects and their larvae, birds, eggs, amphibians, fish, other reptiles including snakes and alligators, and mammals from small rodents to larger mammals like deer. It is widely believed that snakes are able to swallow their prey whole by dislocating their jaws, but, in fact, it is because of their unique, flexible jaw anatomy. Snake jaws are joined to their skull by the quadrate bone, which is an elongated bone that allows the mandible to move freely. Their lower mandibles, instead of being rigidly connected, are joined by an elastic ligament that permits them to move independently from one another. This stretchy ligament allows the snake to open its mouth wide enough to swallow large prey.

Snakes are often identified by their distinctly colored pattern of scales. Like all reptiles, these scales do not grow along with the snake and instead are replaced by other scales in a process called shedding. For several days to a week, snakes undergo the shedding process where they find a stable object to rub against. The old skin then loosens and turns inside out like pulling off a sock. During this process, the scales that covers the eyes will go milky-white or blue, and the snake will have impaired vision. Because of this, snakes are often more easily agitated during the shedding period.

Snakes are highly specialized when it comes to tracking their prey. All snakes can feel vibrations through their jaws, and can retrieve chemical particles from the air, “smelling” through their tongues. Pit vipers, like rattlesnakes and copperheads, as well as boas and pythons have an extra ability: specialized organs can detect thermal signatures, essentially giving these snakes heat vision. 

Snakes are ectothermic creatures, which means that they require external sources of energy to regulate their temperature. By basking in the sun, they can raise their body temperature; if they get too hot, they find shade or burrow underground. In the winter, snakes go into hibernation and their metabolism slows down to the point where they can go weeks without food.

There are about 2600 species of snakes in the world, and most live in hot, tropical regions around the Equator. Thanks to our cool winters, only twenty-seven species are found in Maryland. Although people may worry about venomous snakes, there are only 2 here in the state. They are the timber rattlesnake, which occurs in western Maryland from Frederick to Garret County, and the northern copperhead which occurs statewide. The timber rattlesnake prefers rocky and heavily forested terrain whereas the northern copperhead is found in fields, forests, and swamps. Snakes typically prefer to retreat when they are encountered, and will only bite when directly threatened. The venom of the northern copperhead, the only venomous snake found in Worcester county, is the least toxic of the North American pit vipers. While the bites are painful, they are almost never fatal.

Snakes help control the populations of animals that we consider pests, like mice and rats. Since these rodents are carriers of ticks with Lyme disease, recent research suggests that a healthy population of rodent-eating snakes can reduce your likelihood of catching the disease. Some snakes, like the Eastern garter snake, help out in your garden by eating pesky garden slugs. Snakes are also prey to birds like hawks and eagles. Some mammals like foxes and weasels may also predate on them.

Besides the ecological niche they cover, snakes provide more direct services to humans. A number of prescription drugs derived from snake venom are used to treat coronary and thrombotic diseases. Caprotil, one of the most common, is a high blood pressure treatment derived from the venom of the Brazilian jaracara viper. Current research on black mamba venom may lead to painkillers that are more powerful and less addictive than opioids.

Snakes play a huge part in our environment, and are important to human health and medicine. Whether your gut reaction to a snake is more of a Steve Erwin or an Indiana Jones, everyone can appreciate the incredible services these animals provide. Instead of being seen as a scary monster, snakes should be seen as fascinating creatures that are crucial to our diverse ecosystem.

Holloway is an AmeriCorps member with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 



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