There are many animals that strike fear in humans but little cause more than snakes. Interestingly kids seem to like them, it is when we become an adult that we do not; why is that? There are several explanations and all have merit.
One are stories and legends. As we get older we read and hear stories of people who have encountered snakes and have been bitten; some are lethal bites from venomous snakes.
Another is experience. Many of us have encountered snakes and a few may have been bitten. Snakes are very cryptic and stealthy hunters preferring the mode of hide-ambush. We encounter them along a trail only to be surprised and the “surprise” scares us to death! Many people do not like surprises and never want to experience that feeling again; so snakes become enemies.
A third is their appearance. They always seem to be in the mood to attack. They lie low to the ground and do not have the “cute and cuddly” appearance of rabbits or kolas. Instead they have “beady” eyes that never blink, a forked tongue, and sharp teeth… not something you want to cuddle up with.
A fourth explanation is they are venomous; actually very few snakes in North America are but the majority of us do not know how to tell a venomous snake from a non-venomous one so we treat ALL of them as venomous.
To better understand why people are bitten you should really collect and analyze data. These data suggest that 95% of humans bitten by snakes are either trying to catch it, or kill it. So the lesson is clear… if you do not want a bite you should leave it alone.
Whatever the reasons may be the fear of snakes is very real and very common; this has not posed well for the animal in our state. The ole saying “the only good snake is a dead snake” is very true to many people. Snakes in fact do very good things for us. They are one of the best “rodenticides” you will find. It is hard to understand but it is actually better to find a snake in your barn than a rat. Like spiders and bats, which consume thousands of unwanted insects, snakes should be appreciated for what they do for us and left to do it.
Ray Ashton lists 66 species and subspecies of snakes in the state of Florida. Only 6 of these are venomous. 60 (91%) of Florida snakes belong to the Family Colubridae. All colubrid snakes in Florida are non-venomous. They can be distinguished from the others by their round pupils, narrow heads, and solid (non-hollow) teeth. There are five species of Florida snakes in the Family Viperidae. The “pit-vipers” have hollow hinged fangs through which they can inject venom. They possess elliptical pupils and have a “pit” between the eye and nostril that can detect infra-red heat. One species, the coral snake, is found in the Family Elapidae. Elapids are some of the most venomous snakes in the world and include such animals as the cobras and sea snakes. They differ from pit-vipers in that they have round pupils and small heads (not “diamond” shaped) and differ from colubrids in that they have straight hollow fangs for injecting venom.
All snakes are predators and obtain their prey by one of three methods. One is using small backward slanting teeth to seize the prey and swallow it whole. Second, is using similar teeth to hold the prey while they “constrict” the prey. And third is using venom; the venom not only kills the prey but actually possess digestive enzymes to begin the process BEFORE the snake swallows it. All snakes can dislocate their lower jaw allowing them to swallow prey larger than the diameter of their mouths. The frequency of feeding depends on the size of the meal and the temperature of the environment; the warmer, the more often they eat.
Snakes are famous for their forked-tongues. This tongue actually collects molecules in the air each time it is exposed and inserts the tip of the “forks” into slots in the roof of their mouth leading to what is called the Jacobsen’s Organ. This is a chemoreceptive organ and is used by snakes to identify what is going on in their environment. They have a very good sense of smell, touch, and sight, but actually lack external ears and do not hear as we do. However they are not deaf in that they can detect vibrations from sound waves as well as vibrations from the ground.
Snakes do not chase people down; they are actually afraid of us and only bite in defense. All snakes warn before they bite. Some snakes will musk hoping you smell it and move away. Most snakes will shake their tails; often against dead leaves to make a rattling sound. Many will make themselves look larger by opening their mouth wide or by flattening out their head and/or body. They do not want to bite; they bite as a last resort.
Text used in this series:
Ashton, R.E., P.S. Ashton. (1981). Handbook of Reptiles and Amphibians of Florida, Part One; the snakes.
Windward Publishing. Miami FL. pp. 176.
Gibbons, W., M. Dorcas (2005). Snakes of the Southeast. University of Georgia Press. Athens GA. pp. 253.