EDITOR’S NOTE: This post was originally published to the WonderLab ALIVE Blog on Friday, March 9, 2018. After speaking with colleagues and friends I realized that the message portrayed message in the original posting had missed the mark. This version has been revised and edited. I hope you enjoy the final results as much as I enjoy snakes. – SC
The image of a snake incites fear in the hearts of many often because they have had a bad experience with one. People who have had a bad experience with snakes learn their fear as a response to their experience. Even my own grandfather is terrified of snakes because of a bad experience he had with a fake, rubber snake.
It makes sense that a person fears snakes if they have had bad interactions with one, but there are people who are terrified of snakes, yet they have never actually seen one. How can you fear something you’ve never experienced?
We are finding out that humans can be born with something called ancestral memory (this can be called genetic or racial memory as well but in this article I will refer to it as ancestral memory). This is innate information we seem to be born with, so people who have never seen a snake but are afraid of them, could be exhibiting an ancestral memory of fear of this animal. This may have developed because humans have evolved with snakes for a very long time and through those years our two species have had gazillions of interactions, many of which humans have been bitten or killed by these creatures With enough bad interactions, fear of snakes almost becomes instinctual (or becomes an ancestral memory) because way back in time, the humans that feared snakes were less likely to get bitten and possibly die. Those that survived passed their genes on to future generations and those that died from snakes were no longer able to pass on genes, thus almost to some extent selecting for instinctual fear. So, if you have never met a snake but are afraid of them, you are not being silly but may in fact be displaying some ancestral memories passed on through the evolution of your predecessors!.
While there is nothing irrational about fearing something that could hurt you, most of the snakes that the general population will come in contact with are not dangerous, cannot really hurt you and some in fact are even hugely important for our ecosystems. Let’s talk about some examples!
“I am more afraid of you than you are of me.”
Snow, WonderLab Cornsnake: 9 years old, male, Snow Morph
Snow is right. More often than not, snakes are more afraid of humans than humans are of them . Imagine you are a tiny garter snake on the forest floor and you cross paths with a warm, furry giant that stand 5-6 feet taller than you and is big enough to kill you simply by stepping on your head. You would be afraid as well. While snakes have been known to strike in these circumstances, they tend to only stand their guard if they have no escape route or if you are too close to their nests. Most of the time they flee and this is because striking you exposes them and in order to bite you, they have to get close to you. They sense danger just like you and I and they know the closer they get to you, the closer they get to danger and the higher the chances are of they themselves getting hurt.
If the low probability of a snake biting you still makes you feel uneasy, there are several signs you can pay attention to to predict if a snake is about to strike thus avoiding a bite. One sign that they are about to strike is their head and neck retracts into an “S” shape. This allows the snake to position itself in such a way that it can extend and strike their target giving them a much farther striking zone. When not in this position, the snake cannot strike as far (Image I).
Image I: These three photos exemplify what a striking position may look like. Notice the “s” formation of the neck area and how tight the muscles appear to be.
Snakes often also tense up right before a strike and will move their tails in such away that they can get leverage and push off the ground. If the tail has moved behind the snake and appears to be stiffening, it may be about to strike. They also like to rattle their tail, even if they are not a rattlesnake. Snakes will often rattle their tail against something as an auditory warning. Snakes would rather flee than stick around and risk possibly getting hurt. That is precisely why they have these elaborate displays. They size the opponent up with this display. If the opponent is bigger, flashier and if they think they will lose they will flee so that they do not get hurt themselves. Think of it as if humans did a dance off to avoid from actually hurting themselves in a fight. In the name of true science and to be completely honest, there is one snake you may have to be worried about. The only snake in the world known to actively chase down humans is Lachesis muta muta, the Central American bushmaster found in South America. It is the largest venomous snake in the Americas and the second largest venomous snake in the world Animal Diversity Web!
Knowledge is power and knowing the different signs of an aggressive snake and a snake just passing through may make you a bit more comfortable around snakes because you can read them better. These are the same signs we look for here at WonderLab when we handle our snakes.
“I am an important part of many ecosystems.”
— Medusa, WonderLab Cornsnake, 13 years old, female, Wild type Morph
Snakes are known as middle-order predators. This means that, they eat other animals, but there are also animals out there that eat them. They are the middle link between the bottom of the food chain and apex predators. If this middle link were not in the food webs, not only would populations of the animals that snakes eat skyrocket because nothing was there to eat them, the numbers of snake predators would decline because they have lost a food source. Snakes are a big reason that rodents do not invade our homes or eat our crops.
In fact, all of the snakes at WonderLab are corn snakes. Corn snakes got their name because they hang out in cornfields. Why do they hang out in corn fields do you ask? Because mice hang out in corn fields eating all of our human crops and mice are one of their very favorite meals. They keep rodent populations down and because of that our homes and food is more safe from the nibbling of these furry fiends. Rodents carry diseases that are transmittable to humans. With less mice and rats around, there is less chance of zoonosis, or the transfer of disease from other animals to humans. The job that snakes do for us is vital and we don’t even notice it is happening. Much like spiders, snakes may be scary to some people and may look frightening, but they do us a favor by being pest control so we don’t have to call the exterminator!
“I am too teeny to eat you.”
— Teeny, WonderLab Cornsnake; 4 years old, male, Anerythristic
Snakes will not eat just anything; they eat their food whole and because of this, what they can eat is limited to the size they can open their jaws. This means that if a snake wanted to eat you, it would have to be large enough that it can open its mouth and fit you down its throat in one piece. For perspective, here at WonderLab we have cornsnakes that eat white mice. The largest food item that the largest cornsnake could eat would be a rat or small bird and even this may be a formidable prey item. You are a lot bigger than a mouse though so there is no possible way the snake could eat you even if it tried. It would die in the process. You see, snakes are aware that if they eat food too big, they could choke and suffocate, so they are particular about what they eat because, quite frankly, eating you is just not worth dying to them; they won’t even try. While there are some giant snakes in the world, you won’t likely come across a snake with a jaw span large enough to fit you in whole. If you do, definitely run and contact local authorities!
If what you have read so far hasn’t at least made a little piece of your heart softer for snakes, maybe this personal anecdote will help. It is from a person who used to have a snake phobia but with a little guidance and perseverance is now able to feed snakes on her own without help. Also check out Even Snakes Get Sick: William Snakespeare Goes to the Vet, a story about our snake William and her story of when she was in need of human help.
Breaking Snake Stigmas
By: Leigha Stephney, Former WonderLab Animal Exhibits Intern and fearer of snakes
Those that know me laugh when I tell them I used to work in animal care at the WonderLab. I know pretty much nothing about animals, and I have a huge snake phobia. Last year, when I was deciding what internship I wanted to do, I knew two things: I wanted a challenge, and I wanted to learn something new. I had volunteered at the WonderLab in the past, so I figured I would try to be an intern. I was looking at all of the internships, and to me, this one seemed the most challenging, and the one I would learn from the most.
The first time I held a snake, I cried. It was the smallest snake we have at the Wonderlab, and I balled like a baby. My first reaction was, “this was a mistake. What am I doing here?” I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into. I thought, “well they have so many animals, maybe I’ll get lucky and not have to work with a snake.” Such opportunity presented itself when the snake I was assigned to, William, got sick. My first reaction was honestly, “poor snake, but at least I don’t have to work with a snake.” Over the course of the semester, William had her surgery, and she was healing. Seeing her so upset made me warm up to her, and have empathy for her. Seeing any person or animal in pain really puts perspective on things.
To begin the process of getting rid of my phobia, Sam and I started working with William one step at a time to get me comfortable with her. We started by me just holding my hand in her tank for a while. Then we moved on to me petting her, and we gradually worked our way through the steps. Soon I was able to have my hand in her tank, and pet her without Sam there. I am now able to feed snakes, demo them, and be in the same room with them out of their tanks without completely balling. I would say that the stigma I had against snakes has definitely been challenged. I am not going to go up to any random snake and start holding it or anything, but William is a sweetheart, and I now know that there are snakes out there who aren’t going to hurt you as long as you don’t do anything to harm it.
This internship had definitely taught me a lot of things, and I am forever thankful that I can put my phobia behind me.
About the Author: Sam Couch writing to you. I love snakes! They can feed themselves, some dig caves and some can climb trees and guess what? They do it all without opposable thumbs! They don’t even have arms or legs but yet they can strike fear in the hearts of many. These are amazing creatures that have adapted to the world in such an interested, weird way. They explore their world and live their lives just like you and me, just a little differently. I hope you enjoyed the post. Wanna know more? Drop a question in the comments!