Science - Nature
By: - at October 3, 2013

Top 15 Myths about Snakes

High-Yellow Sorong Amethystine Scrub Python
High-Yellow Sorong Amethystine Scrub-Python
By Mike via Wikimedia Commons

Theyíre covered in scales, they can be aggressive and dangerous, and are downright scary to many people. Snakes never had a large fanbase and that shows in the number of negative stories that are spread about them. Every time a negative encounter with a snake is retold, more fear is generated about them. Ophidiophobia, commonly known as a crippling fear of snakes, is one of the most common animal fears. It may seem ridiculous, at least to those unfamiliar with clinically diagnosed phobias, when someone suffering from ophidiophobia runs out of the room after simply seeing an image of a snake. This fear does have a sensible root. Evolution has done its best to keep a healthy fear of snakes a part of human nature, making sure overly curious humans donít start doing something stupid in the presence of a potentially deadly animal. The problem is that a majority of people really do something incredibly stupid due mostly because of the following 15 snake myths.

Myth 15)  When Confronted, Run Like Hell
Thankfully, this myth isnít too widespread since it is simply the wrong thing to do. Letting natural instinct cloud your better judgment almost always ends badly. Itís absolutely natural, if youíre not used to handling snakes regularly, to have a racing heart when you finally have a face-off with a snake. Youíve certainly heard this line before, but the truth is that the snake will be more afraid of you than you are of it. From an animalistic point of view anything that is several times larger than the animal in question is a threat to its survival, simply because of the size advantage. So when youíre facing a snake you donít have to worry about it biting you, as long as you donít give it any reason to feel so threatened that it needs to get a strike in.

Rattlesnake Bite
Rattlesnake Bite
By Bobjgalindo via Wikimedia Commons

The first thing you should do is to not make any sudden movements. Keep the snake in your sight and slowly move backwards until you are far enough away that youíre beyond the normal striking range of the snake. This would be a third of its body length when itís upright. Out of range, you can walk a bit faster until youíre back on safe ground. You neednít worry about the animal possibly giving chase once you start walking away. The snake will be content knowing that it doesnít have to bother fighting you, and that it has avoided putting its own life in danger in the process.

Myth 14)  Snakes Are Slimy and Feel Clammy
This is a classic snake myth. It's very likely that itís the first snake myth youíve ever heard, since itís something children will loudly proclaim when reptiles come up in conversation. Itís quite possible that this myth can be sourced back to the visual similarity between snails and slugs to snakes. Both of these animals do not use limbs to provide forward motion. Snails and slugs glide on self-produced slime to ease their travel and are accordingly, slimy and clammy.

Snake Skin
Snake Skin
By Malcolm Lidbury (aka Pinkpasty), via Wikimedia Commons

Snakes, on the other hand, have completely dry and smooth skin. Besides lacking in the damp and slimy department, the body temperature of snakes is highly dependent on the surroundings they are found in. Snakes are poikilothermic, meaning that they are cold-blooded and need a source of warmth to raise their body temperature.

Myth 13)  The Question of Two-Headed Snakes
This myth sounds a lot like a really bad horror movie: A potentially deadly animal with not one, but two heads to be worried about. In truth, the possibility of you encountering a two-headed snake in the wild is as good as none. A two-headed snake would never survive in the wild, because it would constantly sabotage its own existence. These animals are more like conjoined twins, though in this specific case the twins will be constantly at each otherís throats.

Two-headed Snake in Captivity
Two-headed Snake in Captivity
By Zach Tirrell from Plymouth, USA, via Wikimedia Commons

Two-headed snakes have to deal with two sensory inputs in terms of 'hearing', smelling, and seeing all while sharing one body. Still, they have the same instinctual drive to survive implanted in each head. When faced with prey, each head will aim to hunt it individually. The result is each snake head killing the other in the struggle for survival..

Myth 12)  Snakes Can't Fly
The thought that this could be true is absolutely terrifying. However, to ease your fears a bit, snakes really canít fly in the strict definition of the word. What they really do is glide. It has been observed in Sri Lanka and several Southeast Asian countries, and there are five tree-dwelling snake species that have perfected their adaptation to their surroundings. After dropping from a high branch or swinging into the air, these snakes widen their ribs, flattening their bodies and creating more air resistance. By adding S-shaped movements, the reptiles slow their fall and create a little bit of forward momentum.

Flying Snake - Chrysopelea
Flying Snake - Chrysopelea
Photo by Jake Socha

Besides possibly giving any unsuspecting person on a jungle trek the fright of their lives, the motivation for this behavior is incredibly simple. Birds and monkeys are part of the menu for a tree-dwelling snakeís diet. Since these animals can be incredibly hard to catch, evolution just evened the odds a bit for the flying snake.

Myth 11)  All Snakes Lay Eggs
Reptiles lay eggs and it should be as simple to believe that all snakes lay eggs. However, only 70 percent of the entire worldís snakes lay and breed eggs. The remaining 30 percent are mainly made up of the members of the boa and viper families, and these subspecies give birth to live young. The reason is simply due to biological factors.

Corn Snake Hatching
Corn Snake Hatching

Snakes in warmer regions can afford laying eggs in the ground, since its warm enough thanks to the ambient temperature of their surroundings. Species living in colder regions or regions where temperatures are prone to extreme fluctuations, would risk the death of their hatchlings to the colder temperatures. Live birth is crucial to the survival of these species.

Myth 10)  Recognizing a Poisonous Snake
Another common misconception is how to tell a poisonous snake from a constrictor. According to this myth, poisonous snakes all have triangular heads and are brightly colored. If youíre familiar with the concept of mimicry, youíll recognize the problem. Some animals just pretend to be poisonous to discourage predators, by having bright coloring or imitating the shape or looks of a dangerous animal. So there are constrictor snakes with triangular heads just as there are poisonous snakes that donít have triangular heads. A good example of how color cannot indicate if an animal is capable of giving off any kind of venom would be the milk snake. This breed is loved by keepers and breeders for their red, white or yellow and black stripes. This makes milk snakes easy to handle with no fear of a poisonous bite. Some literature on keeping snakes as pets even indicates that milk snakes can be considered a beginner's pet. In the wonder of mimicry, their poisonous companion that they mimic is the coral snake.

Milk Snake
Milk Snake

Eastern Coral Snake
Eastern Coral Snake
By Norman.benton via Wikimedia Commons

It makes no sense for a poisonous snake to announce to its prey that it is present. Accordingly, to make hunting easier most poisonous snakes like vipers, have earthy colors and patterns. This allows them to blend in with their surroundings in stone deserts and among the undergrowth. Tree-dwelling snakes are often intense green in color, which allow them to blend in the tropical habitats that they usually live in. Unusual colors are commonly only found in snakes that have been bred in captivity. These animals have little to no survival chances in the wild.

Myth 9)  Counting Rattlesnake Years
According to myth you can count the age of a rattlesnake by the number of rattles it has on its tail, with one rattle counting as a year. This myth is an exaggeration of the truth. Rattlesnakes add a rattle with every molting, which is the term for when a snake sheds. Like every other snake, the skin doesnít grow along with the body, so it has to be removed regularly to allow for more space to grow.

Southern Pacific Rattlesnake
Southern Pacific Rattlesnake

Molting is done more than once a year and usually takes place in a timeframe of 14 days. This process is repeated every few days or months, depending on how old and well fed the animal is. During the first nine years of a snake's life, snakes grow quickly until they reach their maturity just like every other animal. After that, they donít stop in their growth, but rather it is slowed down greatly.

Myth 8)  Snakes Drink Milk
Because snakes have and still are often found in barns occupied by other animals, the myth that some snakes enter farms to drink milk from cows, goats, and sheep began to spread. What the reptiles are actually doing in these agricultural structures is far more beneficial to most owners, even if they refuse to acknowledge it at first. Besides the large mammals that these structures were intended for, barns house all kinds of vermin. That means for a snake, a barn is pretty much the Land of Cockaigne. Unless a snake is suffering from extreme dehydration and thereís nothing else to drink but milk, no species of snake will drink it. These animals donít produce milk for their young, so itís unlikely that snakes biologically need the components contained in milk or the metabolic necessities to digest it. What makes this myth even more unlikely is the fact that venomous snakes canít even suck milk without poisoning its target animal. Constrictor snakes have tiny backward curved teeth that can hook into the udder of a mammal, causing it pain.

Yellow Rat Snake
Yellow Rat Snake
By Cary Bass via Wikimedia Commons

No animal will just remain calmly standing, letting any snake try and suck their milk.

Myth 7)  Snakes Only Strike When Coiled
If every threatened snake takes the time to coil first before going in for a strike, the reptile wouldnít be perceived as such an extreme threat. The coiling would be a simple way to recognize the moment before a strike, so backing off in time will be much easier.

Bothrops asper
Bothrops asper
By caspar s via Wikimedia Commons

 Even though a lot of snakes will coil or take on S shape before biting, this action only increases the distance they can reach. Never mind the fact that a snake can sense you coming long before you even reach it, by assessing the vibrations your movements create and send through the ground.

Necrotic Aftermath of a Bothrops asper Bite on a 11-year-old Boy
Aftermath of a Bothrops asper Bite on a 11-year-old Boy
By D.A. Warrell via Wikimedia Commons

Trying to pick up a snake from behind - though why ever you would want to do that if youíre not a researcher, biologist or someone who knows exactly what theyíre doing - in hopes of avoiding a bite is a really bad idea.

Myth 6)  Hoop Snakes
This myth sounds adorably absurd, and it's hard to believe that this myth has managed to survive this long. There are still regularly reported sightings of the so-called hoop snake, rolling away just like a wheel. According to the myth, the hoop snake bites its tail and rolls away when it feels it is in danger. In some other myths, it even does this to hunt down prey faster. There are several potential sources for this myth.

Ouroboros Drawing from Late Medieval Byzantine Greek Manuscript
Ouroboros Drawing from Late Medieval Byzantine Greek Manuscript

One could be the ouroboros, which is an ancient symbol of a dragon or serpent biting its own tail. The ouroboros is found in many cultures around the world (for example ancient Mayan, Roman, and Greek culture). Another would be a related animal that really does bite its own tail to protect itself, and roll away from danger.

Armadillo Girdled Lizard
Armadillo Girdled Lizard
By Frank Wouters via Wikimedia Commons

The armadillo girdled lizard lives in desert-like regions, and its body is made up of several sharp scales that make it an unattractive prey.

Gnostic Gem with Scarab - 1st Century Roman
Gnostic Gem with Scarab - 1st Century Roman

Should a predator still attempt to hunt down this lizard, it will bite its tail to not only create defensive spiky roll, but to roll downhill and escape faster. The most probable source of this myth is the Pecos Bill western short stories, which were first published in 1917. These are known to be exaggerated or sometimes completely false, just like the story of Pecos Bill lassoing a tornado.

Pecos Bill and the Tornado
Pecos Bill and the Tornado
By Maroonbeard via Wikimedia Commons

There are reported cases of snakes in captivity biting their own tails and even trying to eat themselves. This action leaves most snake owners incredibly confused and worried for their pet. Some assume that the reason is a confusing scent in the tank which makes the snake think that its tail is prey. Pet snakes are occasionally known to bite owners' hands if the hands are not washed properly. Especially if the owner starts working in the tank while smelling of snake food. Others assume that this behavior is due to a malfunction in the snakeís brain due to a vitamin deficiency. This theory is supported by the fact that these snakes are typically thrashing around in the tank, turning around on their backs without returning back onto their bellies, and biting their own tails. Snakes that exhibit this kind of behavior usually end up dying. To be clear, hoop snakes do not exist and no snake will roll away from danger by biting its own tail.

Myth 5)  Hognose Snakes Spray Venomous Vapor
The hognose snake is pretty good at mimicry. It will copy the defensive act of a spitting cobra when it's feeling threatened. This means that it raises its body upright, hisses and puffs up its neck to look as intimidating and impressive as possible.

Hognose Snake
Hognose Snake

Often, the hissing sound is mistaken to be venonmous vapor being spread. Hognose snakes donít even have poison and they know it. Thatís why a hognose snake will turn around on its back and play dead, when it runs out of other tricks to threaten you with.

Spitting Cobra
Spitting Cobra

Thereís only one kind of snake that can Ďspití poison in the classical sense, and it is the spitting cobra. Spitting cobras aim for the eyes of potential threats like birds of prey. Some animals will only suffer temporary blindness where as other targets like humans, can become permanently blind. For humans, this means to seek out immediate medical attention after being sprayed by a spitting cobra. Also, the name Ďspittingí cobra is a bit confusing. What the snake does is not spitting in the same sense as humans do it. Spitting cobras actually use a single, powerful contraction of their poison glands that propels venom forward towards their intended target.

Myth 4)  All Snakebites are Poisonous
Itís wrong to believe that every snake can effectively poison you if you are bitten by it. Many snakes do not even have venom glands and use the act of constriction to subdue, and ultimately kill their prey. 

Indian Cobra (Poisonous)
Indian Cobra
By Qz10 via Wikimedia Commons

Telling these two apart is based on your own knowledge of what species of snakes live in your geographical region. Since we already know that the shape of the head will tell you nothing other than that youíre probably standing way too close to a snake. It is true that snakes can carry salmonella as well as poison, if theyíre venomous that is.

Fierce Snake (Poisonous)
Fierce Snake
By XLerate via Wikimedia Commons

Timber Rattlesnake (Non-poisonous)
Timber Rattlesnake (Non-poisonous)

Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Poisonous)
Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake (Poisonous)

But salmonella is mainly transferred through feces & urine, and not through bites. Should you be facing a poisonous snake and are bitten, there is a chance that your life may not be in jeopardy quite yet. They sometimes issue dry bites as warnings, as there is no sense in wasting their deadly venom on something that isnít food.

Myth 3)  Snake Charming
The ability to charm cobras is much less of a myth and more of a very elaborate and well-done performance. Snake Charmers are really well-versed in understanding the nature of cobras. Snakes can raise one third of their body length upright. This is a common defensive position for not only cobras but several other species of snakes. So when a snake is placed in a basked covered with a lid, the sudden removal of the lid will startle the animal. It will become defensive and spread its hood to look even more intimidating.

Hindu Snake Charmer with Indian Cobra
Hindu Snake Charmer with Indian Cobra

The charmer sits far enough away to be outside striking range, which is one third the snake's body length when standing. The only thing close enough is the flute the charmer performs on. The snake will focus completely on this closest threat, while the music played by charmer is not even relevant.

Snake Charmer
Snake Charmer

Snakes cannot hear the same way humans do. They focus on vibrations they can feel, which is also why itís rare to encounter certain species of snake in the wild. They often flee when they Ďfeelí something larger than prey coming their way. Even though the animal might be able to feel vibrations of music, it will be more concerned with the flute itself and follow its movements. Cobras are defensive animals and are immensely reluctant to strike things when theyíre not hunting, as itís a waste of venom. Those that are kept in captivity long enough might have attempted to bite the flute several times, only to learn that itís hard and defiantly not food.

Myth 2)  Sucking Out Poison from a Wound
This myth is one of the hardest ones to crack, and many people strongly believe that this kind of action can actually save another person's life. It is said that in case of a bite, you can prevent or slow the poisoning by sucking the venom out of the wound. What some forget is that the body is able to process chemicals even without direct consumption, especially through the mucous membranes like the nose and throat. Wounds in and around your mouth can allow venom into bloodstream, as well as poison that has been sucked out of a friend's wound. So if you think you are being a friend and sucking out snake venom for your buddy, chances are that both of you will have to go to the hospital or even die, after adhering to this snake myth. Furthermore, the venom is pumped through the body much faster than it is possible to react and remove it. In the case of suffering a poisonous snake bite, place a cold compress on the wound and avoid any medications and alcohol, as these two things can thin your blood.

California Kingsnake
California Kingsnake

If you want to slow your blood flow, apply a constricting band on the poisoned limb but donít use a tourniquet due to the increased chance of contracting necrosis. Most importantly and most difficult to keep together is, donít panic!

Necrosis Resulting From Poisonous Bite
Necrosis Resulting From Poisoness Bite
By Jeffrey Rowland via Wikimedia Commons

Panic speeds up your heart beat and with it your blood flow, which will help the venom even further along. Get to or have medical help come as quickly as possible. To get the right antivenin, photograph the offending animal or if it escaped during the chaos, remember how it looks as best as you can for medical professionals. As soon as you arrive at the hospital the first thing doctors and nurses will ask you is what kind of snake you were bitten by, so they can administer the proper anti-venom. Donít attempt to kill the animal out of revenge, as this will unnecessarily risk yourself or others even further.

Myth 1)  Snakes Eat People
This last myth, even despite all attempts to debunk it, will most likely continue to prevail. Many believe that giant snakes can and will suffocate a grown person in order to eat them. There are some reports that are more or less accurate of large snakes consuming children or babies. There are also reports, videos, and pictures of snakes attempting this feat with an adult.

Southern African Rock Python Constricting a Pregnant Female Goat
Southern African Rock Python Constricting a Pregnant Female Goat
By Materialscientist via Wikimedia Commons  

However, these reports are found to be unauthentic by herpetologists and other biology professionals. Although a snake can unhinge its jaw to consume prey larger than themselves, there is a certain limit to their expansive abilities.

Ball Python Swallowing a Rat
Ball Python Swallowing a Rat

There was a case of a snake trying to eat an alligator that had roughly the size of an adult. The end result was that both animals died, and the snake burst because it couldnít handle the alligator's size.

Final Words
Snakes arenít as inherently scary as they may first seem. Especially after you've learn a little about their nature and start understanding their nature better. After all, they donít merely exist to give you goose bumps. Science has long ago discovered the usefulness of snake venom, and have used it for advances in modern medicine for cancer treatments and for diabetes patients. Since 1998 there have been two drugs that are chemically engineered using snake venom as a chemical foundation, and these pharmacological drugs engineered from snake bites are already on the market. Both of these drugs are used in the treatment of coronary heart disease, and are administered when patients are exhibiting symptoms of heart disease like chest pains and shortness of breath. So give these scaly guys the benefit of doubt before deeming them unforgivably evil. They canít help that they donít have legs!





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