Whether playing the resident trickster in the Garden of Eden, curling around the head of Medusa, or taking the blame for the death of Cleopatra, snakes have a history of slithering in and staking their spot in our myths — and in our minds.
One of the carnivorous reptile's most eminent roles is as one of the 12 celebrated creatures of the Chinese Zodiac. This year, Feb. 10 marks the transition from the Year of the Dragon to the Year of the Snake in the Chinese calendar. Snake years are sixth in the cycle, and according to Chinese tradition, those born in the Year of the Snake are said to have a penchant for material wealth. They are also reputed to be vibrant, creative, enchanting, introspective, refined and kind; not exactly the traits most commonly attributed to their counterparts in the animal world.
In fact, snakes of the reptilian sort get a pretty bad rap. Right up there with spiders and heights, the fear of snakes, known as ophidiophobia, is one of the most common phobias known to man. It is thought to affect about one-third of all adults. (So there’s a reason why the scaly creatures play the villain in so many effective horror flicks.)
All things slippery, sliding, sinuous and slithering may incite shivers and screams in many of us, but snakes rarely harm humans unless the snake is threatened or injured — and they have some truly fascinating traits as well. Here's a species that could really use a public relation's makeover. With that in mind and in honor of the Year of the Snake, here are eight awesome facts about the slithering serpent.
1. They’re everywhere (almost)
Our little globe plays home to more than 2,900 species of snakes, ranging as far north as the Arctic Circle in Scandinavia and as far south as Australia. Snakes are found on every continent except Antarctica (Ireland, Greenland, Iceland and New Zealand have also managed to also remain snake-free) and in places as deep as the sea and as high as the Himalayas.
2. Snakes have peculiar infrastructures
Have you ever considered how the internal organs of a snake might be arranged? Okay, probably not, but it is kind of a wonder because there’s not as much "torso" to accommodate the major systems. Snakes’ paired organs, like kidneys, are front-and-back rather than side-by-side; and they have only one functional lung. The heart is adjustable, possessing the ability to move around in the absence of a diaphragm, which protects it from getting squished when large one-piece meals are ingested and squeezed tightly through the esophagus.
3. They sniff with their tongues
Few things say “snake” like a hiss and the flicker of a forked tongue darting about the maw. Why all the drama? Because snakes smell by using their split tongues to collect airborne particles and then pass them to olfactory organs in the mouth. The two parts of the tongue gives the creatures a somewhat directional sense of smell and taste. By keeping their tongues constantly flicking about, they are able to sample chemicals in the air, ground and water and use them to determine the presence of prey or predators nearby.
4. Snakes are sensitive
Not sensitive as in touchy-feely/cry at sad movies, but in a different way: snakes have acute vibration sensitivity. The slithering part of the belly can detect even the faintest vibrations in the air and on the ground, allowing the reptile to sense the approach of other animals. Meanwhile, pit vipers, pythons and some boas have infrared-sensitive receptors in grooves along their snouts, which enable them to sense the radiated heat of any nearby warm-blooded animals.
5. They eat what they can fit
Snakes are exclusively carnivorous, eating everything from small lizards, other snakes, small mammals, birds, eggs, fish, snails or insects all the way up to larger mammals like jaguars and deer. Because snakes eat their prey in one big gulp, the size of the snake determines the size of the animal it can consume. For instance, a younger python may start with lizards or mice, moving up to small deer and antelopes as the snake increases in age and size.
6. They range from 4 inches to 30 feet
Most snakes are relatively small creatures, about 3 feet in length. Although extinct Titanoboa cerrejonensis snakes were almost 40 to 50 feet in length; the longest snake now, the reticulated python, measures in at 30 feet. At the other end of the ruler, the smallest snake is cutie-pie Leptotyphlops carlae, a wee 4 inches long.
7. The heaviest snakes can reach 550 pounds
South America’s green anaconda can grow to more than 29 feet in length and reach a weight of more than 550 pounds. Cumbersome on land, they live near languid rivers and swamps and spend much of their time in the water where they can slink about much more quickly. With eyes and nostrils on top of their heads like alligators, they stalk their prey while keeping their body hidden beneath the surface.
And what does the heaviest snake in the world prey on to maintain its impressive mass? Wild pigs, deer, birds, turtles, capybara, caimans, and even jaguars, which the snake strangles by constriction. Its jaws are connected by elastic ligaments, which allow them to swallow dinner whole, sometimes lasting them for weeks or even months before they require another meal.
8. Some snakes can fly!
What’s more startling than a snake slithering through the grass? How about a snake zipping through the air? Yep, there are five species of venomous, tree-dwelling snakes that can fly. Found in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia, they’re technically more gliders than fliers since they use the speed of free fall and the contortions of their bodies to catch air and create lift. And glide they do; experts note that flying snakes soar with even more agility than their mammalian counterparts, flying squirrels.
How in the world does a snake fly? It gets its snaky self to the end of a branch and hangs in the shape of a J, before propelling itself from the branch with the lower half of its body. It then contorts into an S form and flattens its body to twice its normal width, creating a concavity that traps air. By undulating back and forth, the snake can actually make turns. (Hello, nightmares.)
So … this may have done little to soothe the nerves of ophidiophobes out there; but to say the least, the remarkable serpent deserves some respect.
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MNN tease illustration of Year of the Snake: Shutterstock