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Snakes might not be out there penning beautiful odes or solving quadratic equations (although they have the intelligence necessary to hunt clever birds and mammals) however the reptiles are distinguished by their amazing sensory abilities. Like the extraordinary siluriformes (the catfish, which are living tongues that apprehend the world in astonishing ways), certain snakes have abilities to perceive things which other animals simply cannot detect.
Snakes double the primary senses of hearing, smelling, and sight—which means that some snakes effectively have eight or more senses. Let’s go through these senses individually.
Hearing: Although the reptiles lack external ears, they have sensitive inner ears which allow them to hear airborne vibrations. This however is only one mechanism of hearing for snakes: the animals have jaws linked to their inner ears which allow them to hear extremely faint vibrations. Since most serpents have lower jawbones which are separated into two distinct bones, the animals are extremely adept at locating the source of a sound from the different time/frequency that vibrations strike the different bones. This means they can hear the source of sound with pinpoint accuracy. These hearing abilities give some snakes 9especially desert snakes) the ability to hunt by sound in absolute darkness.
Smell/taste: Snakes breathe through two nostrils, but unlike mammals their “noses” have little to do with their sense of smell. To quote an article involving snake senses from reptilis.net:
…snakes have gone a different route, one taken by their lepidosaurian relatives a long time ago. Instead of using only their nose, snakes have adapted their tongue and sense of taste to capturing scent particles in the air and transforming it into olfactory information.
Better yet, because snakes “smell” by “tasting” the air with their tongues, and because those tongues are typically forked, they also have incredible directional smelling. Snakes effectively smell in stereo.
So snakes are capable of amazing abilities to taste/smell their environment and they have directional smell which almost acts like hearing or sight in locating prey or mates.
Sight: Most snakes have conventional binocular optical abilities on par with other vertebrates (although tree snakes are known to have particularly fine vision) however many groups of snakes (particularly the python and viper families) possess astonishing heat-sensing pit organs that can detect infrared light. For their size, the sense organs are more heat sensitive than anything humans have created with technology.
Touch: Snakes have an amazingly sophisticated sense of touch (as one would might imagine for an animal which lives on its belly). Thanks to their sense of touch they can respond immediately to stimuli from their environment and they can feel the slightest changes in their habitat. Additionally touch is important for snakes socially and is a primary means of communication between snakes of the same species.
As with sharks, cats, and owls, snakes have used their astonishing senses to become formidable predators. Snakes are widespread in all of the continents other than Antarctica and they dwell in all habitats other than permanently cold ones and deep ocean (well, plus a couple of weird islands). This success is a result of their sharp and numerous senses.
Because of the incongruity between lunar and solar calendars (and thanks to the whims of the 12 year Chinese horoscope cycle) Valentine’s Day has ended up in the middle of Ferrebeekeeper’s Snake Week. At first I thought that this was a problem–since there were no snake theme valentines anywhere to be found online. I did not want to break out the magic markers and glitter to create my own valentine to serpents because it has been a busy week (and what would I do with a bunch of snake valentines? What if someone saw a grown-up making such things?). Fortunately I found that there is a medium where snakes and hearts frequently intermingle. Even better many of the designs are extremely gothic and spiky and scary.
Like evil leprechaun tattoos, snake/heart body art is very common. In fact I had some trouble finding catfish tattoos and the internet even ran short of evil leprechaun ink but I had no trouble finding snake/heart tattoos! Apparently an immense number of people have snake tattoos of all sorts. I wonder why serpents are so universally appealing as permanent body art? Do people choose snakes for tattoos because the legless reptiles are ancient symbols of knowledge, wisdom, and fertility, or is wearing a snake an announcement of edginess, moral ambiguity, and toughness? The snake inside the heart seems like it has a double meaning: not only is it an obvious metaphor for corrupted or dangerous love but it provides an outright fertility image (especially since the traditional cardioid-shaped valentine heart look less like an actual heart and more like a shapely asp).
Whatever the meaning these snake/heart tattoos are extremely impressive. Thanks to the brave souls who wear them. Also a very happy valentine’s day to all my readers: I could hiss you all…er kiss you all!
Snake week continues with a dramatic return to my native Appalachia. Up in the mountains, devout Christianity has taken on a great many colorful forms, but arguably none are quite as exciting as the rites celebrated by the Pentecostal Snake-handlers. Snake-handling in Appalachia is said to have a long history rooted in 19th century revivals and tent-show evangelism, but its documented history starts with an illiterate but charismatic Pentecostal minister named George Went Hensley. Around 1910 Hensley had a religious revelation based on two specific New Testament Bible verses. Couched in the flinty vaguely apocalyptic language of the Gospels, the two verses which obsessed Hensley read as follows:
And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues;They shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. Mark 16: 17-18
And he said unto them, I beheld Satan as lightning fall from heaven. Behold, I give unto you power to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy: and nothing shall by any means hurt you. (Luke 10: 18-19)
While many believers might chose to understand these lines as a general affirmation of Christ’s devotion to his flock, Hensley was very much a literalist (and a showman). Believing that the New Testament commanded the faithful to handle venomous snakes, he set about obtaining a number of poisonous snakes and incorporating them into his ministry. The practice quickly spread along the spine of the mountains and beyond. Even today the Church of God with Signs Following (aka the snake handlers) numbers believers in the thousands.
A service at the Church of God with Signs Following includes standard Pentecostal practices such as faith healing, testimony of miracles, and speaking in tongues (along with much boisterous jumping and testifying), however what sets the ceremony apart are the live poisonous snakes which are located in a special area behind the alter located at the front of the church. Throughout the service, worshipers can come forward and pick up the serpents and even let the snakes crawl over their bodies. Native pit vipers such as copperheads, timber rattlers, and water moccasins are most commonly used in the ceremonies but exotic poisonous snakes like cobras are sometimes included. The snakes act as a proxy for devils and demons. Handling the reptiles is believed to demonstrate power over these underworld forces. If a congregant is bitten (which has happened often), it is usually regarded as an individual or group failure of faith. Upon being bitten devout snake-handlers generally refuse treatment, regarding this as part of their sacrament.
Not only do snake handlers handle snakes they also sometimes drink strychnine to prove their devotion. Additionally (although less alarmingly) they adhere to a conservative dress code of ankle-length dresses, long hair, and no make-up for women, and short hair and oxford shirts for men. Tobacco and alcohol are regarded as sinful.
Snake handling has a long and twisty relationship with state laws. In Georgia, in 1941, state legislators passed a bill which made Pentecostal snake handling into a felony and mandated the death penalty for participants, however the law was so extreme that juries refused to enforce it and it was eventually repealed. A number of states still have old laws clearly designed to curtail the practice of the faith (often these were instituted after particularly controversial deaths, particularly those of children).
The founder of snake handling, George Went Hensley, also had a twisty serpentine course through life. After founding and popularizing the church during the World War I era, he strayed somewhat from the life of a minister. During the 20’s he had substantial problems in his home life caused by drinking and moonshining. After being arrested for the latter, Hensley was sentenced to work on a chain gang but he beguiled the guards into other duties with his likability and, on an errand to fetch water, he escaped and fled from Tennessee. He worked various occupations including miner, moonshiner, and faith healer and married various women before returning to his ministry in the mid-thirties. During the next decades, Hensley led a vivid life involving a multi-state ministry (which was the subject of a miniature media circus), various drunken fits and conflicts, multiple marriages, and lots of poisonous snakes. The odds caught up to him in Altha, Florida in 1955 when he was bitten on the wrist by a venomous snake which he had removed from a lard can and rubbed on his face. After becoming visibly ill from the bite, he refused treatment (and is said to have rebuked his congregation for their lack of faith) before dying of snakebite. When he died he had been married 4 times and fathered 13 known children. He also had claimed to have been bitten over 400 times by various snakes.
Hensley always asserted that he was not the father of snake-handling, however he certainly popularized the movement. Even today, Christians of a certain mindset can prove their faith by harassing toxic reptiles (although the religion’s legality is disputed in many states where it is practiced).
The rod of Asclepius—a serpent coiled around a staff–is a symbol from ancient Greek mythology which represents the physician’s art. Asclepius was a demigod who surpassed all other gods and mortals at the practice of medicine. Because his skills blurred the distinction between mortality and godhood, Asclepius was destroyed by Zeus (an exciting & troubling story which you can find here).
There are several proposed reasons that a staff wrapped by a snake is the symbol of the god of medicine. In some myths, Asclepius received his medical skills from the whispering of serpents (who knew the secrets of healing and revitalization because of their ability to shed their skin and emerge bigger and healthier). Some classicists believe the snake represents the duality of medicine—which can heal or harm depending on the dosage and the circumstance. Yet others see the serpent as an auger from the gods. Whatever the case, the rod of Asclepius is a lovely and distinctive symbol of medicine and has been since ancient times. Temples to Asclepius were constructed across the Greco-Roman world and served as hospitals of a sort. The serpent-twined rod of the great doctor was displayed at these institutions and became a symbol for western doctors who followed.
However there is a painfully apt misunderstanding between the rod of Asclepius and a similar symbol.
Greek mythology featured a separate and entirely distinct symbolic rod wrapped with snakes, the caduceus—which has two snakes and is winged. The caduceus was carried by Hermes/Mercury, the god of merchants, thieves, messengers, and tricksters. Hermes used the rod to beguile mortals or to touch the eyes of the dead and lead them to the underworld.
In the United States the two rods have become confused because of a military mix-up in the early twentieth century (when a stubborn medical officer refused to listen to his subordinates and ordered the caduceus to be adopted as the symbol of the U.S. Medical Corps). Since then the caduceus has been extensively used by healthcare organizations in the United States and has come to replace the staff of Asclepius in the majority of uses. Commercial and for-profit medical organizations are particularly inclined to use the caduceus instead of the rod of Asclepius as the former is more visually arresting (although academic and professional medical organizations tend to use the staff of Asclepius).
To recap: the caduceus, which symbolizes profit-seeking, theft, and death, has replaced the staff of Asclepius, an ancient symbol of healing, throughout the United States. Of course it is up to the reader to decide whether this is a painful misunderstanding, or a wholly appropriate representation of the actual nature of the broken American healthcare system. HMOs, insurance companies, and hospitals, however have started to take note and are moving towards crosses and random computer generated bric-brac for their logos, leaving both ancient symbols behind.
Many reptiles and amphibians are beautifully colored, particularly the poisonous ones. When I was growing up, I had a set of field guides of the creatures of North America. Of all the land animals of North America, the animals which I thought were most beautifully colored were the coral snakes. Coral snakes constitute four genera of snakes within the family of elapid snakes (cobras, mambas, sea snakes, kraits, and other poisonous snakes from warm climates). Many coral snakes live in South America and the old world (where some coral snake species are evolving into sea snakes), but I’m going to stick to writing about the gorgeous red, yellow, and black coral snakes of North America. These snakes are brightly colored to warn potential predators that they are extremely venomous. This strategy has failed somewhat when it comes to intimidating humans, who have a collective fascination with pretty colors.
There are three coral snakes which live in the United States. The eastern coral snake (Micrurus fulvius) ranges from North Carolina to Texas (including Florida and the Gulf Coast swamps). The Texas coral Snake (Micrurus tener) ranges from northeast Mexico up through Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas. The Arizona coral snake (Micruroides euryxanthus) lives in the Sonoran desert through Southern New Mexico, Arizona, and Sinaloa. All species of coral snakes in the United States can be identified by the fact that their red bands touch the yellow bands (which is in marked opposition to mimics like king snakes and milk snakes). Coral snakes from Central/South America and from Asia do not always follow this rule: the black bands can sometimes touch the red bands, or the bands can be colors other than red, yellow, and black–or there might be no bands at all!
Coral Snakes are fossorial predators which spend most of their life just beneath the leaf litter or loose topsoil where they hunt lizards, frogs, insects, and smaller snakes. Baby snakes are 18 centimeters (7 inches long) when they hatch from their eggs. Adult snakes can grow to 0.6 meters (2 feet) in length. Coral snakes can live up to seven years in captivity.
Coral Snakes are extremely poisonous, but they are also shy and retiring. Instead of hanging around biting, they would prefer to escape as quickly as possible. This makes sense from the snake’s perspective, since their fangs are very tiny and they have to chew directly on their prey in order to inject a fatal dose. Since they have tiny mouths, it is not necessarily easy for them to score a direct bite on humans. Additionally their venom acts slowly—at first there is only a mild tingling associated with the bite. Lethargy, disorientation, and nausea set in hours later. In extreme cases, coral snake bites can cause respiratory arrest. Fatal bites are extremely rare: most sources state that nobody has been killed by a coral snake in the US since antivenin was released in 1967 (although I also found allusions to a 2009 case where a man laughed off a bite only to die hours later).
Coral Snake antivenin was solely manufactured by one US drug company, Wyeth Pharmaceuticals (now a wholly owned subsidy of Pfizer Inc.). In 2003 Wyeth ceased manufacturing coral snake antivenin since too few people were bitten to make the product profitable. There is still a small supply left on hand (although the expiration date has been extended twice), but Pfizer does not seem to have any intention of pursuing a microscopic niche market when it has more profitable businesses to pursue. Foreign pharmaceutical companies continue to produce coral snake antivenin, but they do not sell it in the United States because of prohibitive licensing and regulatory costs (hooray! the United States health care system is unsolving problems which were figured out 40 years ago!).
*Don’t be this guy.
More than usual the future seems uncertain. The most cunning augurs and oracles can not see whether economic turmoil in Europe and turmoil in the Middle East will capsize the world economy. The Pax Americana still holds but China’s rise promises a less stable, less happy balance of world power. The world’s climate is changing. Technology is evolving in unknown directions.
To mark this uncertainty, I am dedicating today’s post to the quintessential symbol of all things shifting and mercurial–the weathervane (a choice which seems even more appropriate in the year when Mitt Romney is running for president). A weathervane is an instrument dedicated to determining the direction the wind is blowing from. As the wind changes, an arrow attached to a metal sail shifts to point in the direction the breeze originates. These devices had a very practical function in the days before up-to-the-minute worldwide meteorological observations and projections were available: they continue to be popular as architectural flourishes.
Sometimes I fantasize about what sort of weathervane I would put on the cupola of my imaginary mansion or at the apex of the folly tower of my non-existent formal garden. A quick search of the internet reveals that many of my favorite topics are favorite subjects of weathervanes. Catfish, turkeys, snakes, crowns, and mollusks are favorite subjects for metal sculptors to work in iron or copper. So are mammals (represented here by whales and deer), farm creatures (goats and turkeys), and trees. Even gods of the underworld make an appearance–in the form of the devil who points to the wind with his pitchfork
For the sake of space I left out all sorts of beautiful marlins, swordfish, dolphins, capricorns, poseidons, sea horses, sharks, and clipper ships, however I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t end with a few buxom mermaids and sirens (and with the reminder to all fellow New Yorkers that the 30th annual mermaid parade is happening tomorrow at Coney Island. Why not take a break from the vagaries of watching the weather and worrying about the uncertain future by participating in a festival in honor of Poseidon and the world’s oceans!
Just kidding—aside from zoos and the pet trade, Ireland actually famously has no snakes. It is one the few snake-free large islands on Earth joined only by New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, and Antarctica (well—everywhere far enough north or south is snake-free: the reptiles don’t really thrive in places where there is permafrost or truly cold winters). Legend has it that it was Saint Patrick who drove the snakes out of Ireland. Standing on a great hill he lifted up his crosier and focused divine energy upon the unlucky reptiles which then writhed en masse into the sea and never returned to the emerald island.
It has always been a bit unclear to me why Saint Patrick would do such a thing. Ecoystems which undergo such catastrophic changes tend to go haywire with great alacrity! Fortunately the story is entirely a myth. If snakes ever lived in Ireland (and it doesn’t seem like they did), they were long gone by the time the first Christians showed up. The real reason is even more interesting than the dramatic Moses-like power of Saint Patrick, but as with most actual answers it is also more complex.
Evidence suggests that snakes evolved 130 million years ago during the Cretaceous. At the time Ireland was, um, underwater at the bottom of a warm chalky sea. Early snakes slithered their way across landbridges, rafted to islands on washed away logs, and swam (like the sea snakes) from island to island but, during the Mesozoic, there was no Ireland for them to go to.
When the Mesozoic era ended in the great ball of fire, the continents again shifted. Snakes went through a substantial evolutionary period during the Miocene and the original python-like snakes evolved into many different forms. These new varieties of snakes slithered into grasslands, deserts, forests, and oceans around the world, but they still could not get to Ireland (now above the waves) because a cold ocean was in their way. Then the end of the Miocene brought an ice age. To quote the National Zoo’s essay on “Why Ireland Has No Snakes”:
The most recent ice age began about three million years ago and continues into the present. Between warm periods like the current climate, glaciers have advanced and retreated more than 20 times, often completely blanketing Ireland with ice. Snakes, being cold-blooded animals, simply aren’t able to survive in areas where the ground is frozen year round. Ireland thawed out for the last time only 15,000 years ago.
So Ireland remains snake-free because of the world’s temperamental geology. The island was underwater or covered by ice during certain eras when the snakes might have arrived–geography has conspired against serpents coming to Eire and setting up shop. The age of humans however has been marked by numerous introduced species cropping up everywhere. I wonder how long Ireland will be snake free when a pet shop accident or crazy hobbyist could unleash a plague of serpents on the green island. The fact that such a thing has yet to happen seems almost as miraculous as the original myth.
As discussed on the 4th of July post, the national animal/symbol of the United States was nearly a rattlesnake. Perhaps it is well that the eagle prevailed: to the Judeo-Christian mindset snakes are taboo creatures identified with wickedness and the devil (or perhaps I should say that the other way around–since the tempter in Genesis is identified as a serpent and the devil does not appear until much later). However not everyone reviles serpents and certain bold organizations (from the medical profession, to racecar makers, to flute-rest manufacturers) have used the limbless animals to represent their organizations. Here is a gallery of symbols, logos, mascots, and crests which make use of snakes. I have thrown in some fictional archvillain organizations for fun–it will be up to you to separate them from the real institutions.
I particularly like the old fashioned crests (including Alfa Romeo’s corporate logo which looks like it once belonged to an evil viscount), however I would like to issue demerits to the Arizona Diamondbacks for not actually having a snake for their logo. Even more egregious, the diamondbacks employ a bobcat themed furry as their mascot when they could easily choose a mascot outfit like one of these unconventional snake suits.
My posts about animals are based on personal favorites but I have also tried to choose categories of animals in a manner which reveals something larger about zoology and taxonomy. You have probably noticed that my featured creatures are not arbitrary but are arranged taxonomically according to Linnaean hierarchy in the manner which follows:
- Phlylum: Mollusca
- Class: Mammalia (mammals)
- Order: Siluriformes (catfish)
- Suborder: Serpentes (serpents)
- Genus: Meleagris (turkeys)
I have not written about a family yet because I was leaving myself some room for the future (feel free to make suggestions). Additionally, I have only written glancingly of kingdoms or domains because those overarching categories are far too large and baffling for me to deal with meaningfully (although I would probably choose the domain “bacteria” if I had limitless time, resources and a great deal more knowledge and intelligence). The missing bottom category of species is always applicable to whatever the featured species of the day is (or, in a pinch, to Homo sapiens, the dark meddlesome, magnificent species behind history, art, politics and other non-animal, non-plant topics over there in the category cloud).
Not only have I have chased the representative members of my chosen taxonomic categories through art, mythology, and anecdote, I have also tried to write as cogently as I am able about their behavior, biology, and morphology (biologists and morphologists are no doubt laughing into their hands right now, but, hey, you guys are not always the most compelling or comprehensible writers, so give me a break). Also, I understand that traditional hierarchy is coming to be re-assessed in light of new genetic evidence and the innovative ideas of cladistics: maybe my categories were already hidebound to start.
I mention all of this because I am beginning to feel pinched by some of my categories. I could write about a different obscure catfish, or dig up a new catfish recipe but is that really what people want? I still have a few more turkey stories to write and no doubt more information will come to me (probably around Thanksgiving), but I am running out of things to say about my favorite bird. Should I disloyally choose a new genus to pursue. Do you want to hear more about tiny obscure catfish? I could drop it all and move to entirely new topics, but I don’t feel right about that yet. Maybe some reorganization is needed when I launch the redesigned version of Ferrebeekeeper in the near future.
Any insight or feedback would be appreciated. I’m sorry for the informal first person tone of this post but I am traveling today and don’t have time to research an appropriate column. Also catfish and turkey fans should not give up yet, I still have a handful of ideas left about those magnificent creatures (not to mention a stirring Siluriforme overview).