Snakes And Their Bad Reputation

Dancing Adders / Photograph by  Matt Binstead

Dancing Adders / Photograph by Matt Binstead

When people find out that one of my pets is a snake, their first reaction tends to be a fearful 'yuck' followed by 'Does it bite? Is it poisonous?'. There are a few things wrong with these questions but let's first address the fearful 'yuck' reaction.

Most people's initial reaction to reptiles is usually not good. However, unlike any other type of reptile, snakes seem to instill an immediate strong fear reaction. There are a number of reason as to why that is the case. Some studies suggest that the fear of certain creatures are rooted in evolution. However, as we grow, this fear tends to be exacerbated by unrealistic society trends as well as lack of knowledge. Therefore, I am a strong believer that education is the best way to tackle this issue and prevent the unnecessary killing of snakes based on fear and misconceptions. 

This brings me to my second point. Let's now tackle the 'Does it bite?' question. In short, yes, it can bite. However, so can dogs, and in fact, so can you. A good question to ask yourself would be, why would it bite? It could be a number of reasons. A snake might be trying to protect its territory. Or it may feel threatened and scared. By analysing a situation and the environment in which the snake is found you could have a better idea of the reason why it would try and strike. It is worth noting that snakes are ectothermic and so cannot regulate their own temperature. Therefore, they rely on external heat sources to warm themselves up and ensure that their metabolism works as it should. This means that they tend not to waste any energy unless they feel it is absolutely necessary.

As to the question 'Is it poisonous?', we will first need to correct the use of the word 'poisonous'. Although in day-to-day life they seem to be used interchangeably, the terms 'poisonous' and 'venomous' actually mean different things. It is true that once in the body the chemicals do similar damage. However, venomous creatures need to introduce the venom by either biting or stinging. Therefore, a more accurate question would be 'Is it venomous?'. 

Poisonous creatures have a more passive approach. In this instance, the harmful substance could line the surface of their skin or be stored within the creature's body. Therefore, the chemicals would need to be passed through touch, such as with the poison dart frog, or acquired by diet. In a way, one could argue that poisonous creatures evolved mainly from a defense mechanism perspective whereas venomous creatures evolved mainly for offense - though as it is often the case in nature, there are almost always exceptions. 

Now, moving on to answering the 'Is it venomous?' question. Most snakes in captivity will not be venomous. To handle venomous species one would be required to have special permits and licences. However, as we all know, wildlife trafficking is nothing new so, I am sure that some unfortunate venomous snakes are in fact being held in captivity by heartless humans across the globe. It is worth noting, however, that the only venomous species in the UK is the adder. Adders are particularly shy and often avoid humans, movement and other creatures altogether. There are more cases of dogs being bitten on the nose because they were sniffing around and adder's hiding place than humans. When humans are bitten, it is usually a pretty unlucky accidental encounter and fatal casualties are EXTREMELY rare. 

It is easy for humans to let fear cloud their judgement and not see the important role that snakes play in the ecosystem and to scientific research. If you are afraid of snakes, I hope this post helps you to understand these mysterious creatures better and encourages you to learn even more about them.

Illustration by  Liz Climo

Illustration by Liz Climo