Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SciFri: A look back on World Snake Day

For those of you that don’t happen to have a passion for herpetology or to be working with snakes, you may not have realised it but yesterday was World Snake Day. Now some readers may ask, “What’s the point of celebrating snakes?”. Well I’m glad you asked! I intend to run through why snakes are important and why World Snake Day matters.

First of all, snakes play an important part in many ecosystems. There is a reason why there is such a huge diversity of them – they’ve evolved to thrive in a number of niches from underground, in the sea and high in tree canopies. Snakes are an extremely resilient group of animals with more than 3,500 species currently recognised. However many people associate all of them with one of their coolest adaptations – venom. Not all snakes are venomous, only around 600 possess this skill. Of these only 200 species are known to be medically significant. That’s 6%, yet most people paint all snake species with the same brush claiming that the only good snake is a dead snake.

Let’s take a step back and think why this is. Most people don’t encounter snakes on a daily basis (at least in Europe) and in countries or regions that are blessed with a high diversity, not everyone is educated enough to differentiate a dangerous snake from a non-dangerous one. This can also be complicated by the fact that some harmless snakes mimic those that are venomous or look extremely similar, which sometimes even fools the experts. Thankfully in the UK we only have three native snake species, only one of which is venomous – the adder (Vipera berus). Despite the fact the adder is declining rapidly and undergoing persecution, the general public still can’t differentiate them from the harmless barred grass snake (Natrix helvetica) which you may recognise as my study species. The reasons this may be is that people’s perceptions of a venomous snake is one with a large body, something adders do no possess but grass snakes do.

This perception can be seen throughout the world, with people actively hunting down large snakes because they are perceived as a threat. The disparity between the actual threat and the real threat in terms of snakes is huge, similarly with spiders and sharks. It’s true that they have an image problem but this is partly to blame on the media, society, religion and a lack of exposure to these long scaly beasts. Let’s think back a couple of millenia to Ancient Egypt, a civilisation know for it’s animalistic deities. The Uraeus is a symbol associated with the headdresses of the pharohs (just think of Tutankhamen). It is in fact the symbol for the serpent goddess Wadjet, who was often depicted as a cobra. This association highlights a peaceful co-existence with people and snakes, as other religions and civilisations around the world also demonstrates when snakes are respected.

When you ask someone to think of a snake, they often think of a rattlesnake poised ready to strike whilst furiously shaking it’s rattle. That’s great but it’s important to see things from the snake’s side of things. Most snake venoms have evolved for defence rather than attack, this makes sense when you consider that snakes are mouth attached to a long string of vertebrae and ribs. They’ve got no limbs, no spines and no claws to defend themselves. The rattlesnake poised in the ‘S’-shape everyone pictures, is frightened and attempting to defend itself. It’s not going to attack you unless you overstep your mark, venomous snakes and all snakes in general are not out there to get you. They just want to be left alone, to do their snakey thing. Imagine how scary and intimidating we must be to the majority of them, especially in light of the wonderful way we like to treat our planet and it’s ecosystems.

Snakes aren’t just found in developed nations, but also in those that are still in the process of going through their own industrial revolutions. Here traditional farming practices are still common place and can often lead to conflict with snakes. Snakebite is one of the most neglected tropical diseases in the world, with the World Health Organisation pumping money into research and mitigation to prevent mortality and morbidity throughout the world. If you’d like to know more about this, check out the great work that Save The Snakes is doing in terms of education, conflict mitigation and coexistence. Whilst you’re there, check out some of the amazing projects they’re funding across the globe.

Coming back to venom quickly, yes it may be a killer but it may also be a cure. Novel drugs, therapeutics and anti-biotics are all being found in snake venoms. This means that a drug that one day cures a cancer, Alzheimer’s or prevent the outbreak of the next superbug may have it’s origins in snake venom. Now I don’t know about you, even without my passion and knowledge of snakes and on a selfish level – surely this alone is a pretty good reason for saving snakes. Beside the fact that they help to control pests such as rats which reduced the incidence of tick-bourne diseases, eat other snake species and are an indicator of a healthy ecosystem.

If all of this speaks to you then please go and check #WorldSnakeDay on Twitter and check out all of the amazing content various scientists, researchers and organisations have shared in order to engage as many people as possible in the wonderful world of snakes. They deserve to live as much as any other creature on this blue marble hurtling through space. If you’re scared of snakes, that’s cool but there is no need to kill them just for existing. I would happily bet you a nice cold pint that if you’d never been exposed to birds before and you suddenly came across one on a walk, you’d be pretty frightened. If you’d like to get involved with snake conservation in your home country, please get in touch and I’ll do my best to put you in touch with the right people. Together we can create a global positive attitude towards snakes and help protect them for future generations to enjoy!

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