There are over 3,000 known species of snakes, and they are found in every country apart from Antartica, Iceland, Ireland, Greenland, and New Zealand. About 600 species of snakes are venomous, and of those only 200 are able to kill or significantly hurt a human being.
Snakes either kill their prey with venom, by swallowing them alive, or by constricting them to death. Most of them will swallow their food whole, and often their prey can be bigger than them. In fact, snakes can swallow prey up to three times bigger than the width of their head, as they can unhinge their lower jaw.
Snakes use their forked tongues to smell the air. They flick their tongues in different directions to detect danger and food. They can also detect prey through openings in front of their eyes, called pit holes, which sense heat from warm-blooded prey. The bones in their jaws can also pick up vibrations from scurrying prey.
The majority of snake species lay eggs, and this was once thought to be the end of their parenting responsibility. Several species of snakes have been observed exhibiting impressive parental care for their eggs and their young. Lots of species of snakes will stay with their eggs for the first few days, as this will likely increase their survivability. Scientists however, have also observed snakes defending and caring for their young after hatching. These behaviours highlight how these animals are more complex than they are often given credit for.
Researchers in the Arizona State University observed rattlesnakes performing defensive behaviours towards humans after their eggs had hatched, but not before. They even saw another snake deter a baby from exposing themselves to a human predator, even though they were not the baby’s mother. Mothers were also seen to stay close to their young as they first began to explore their surroundings. Even male rattlesnakes were seen attending the young at nests.
These behaviours are a direct contrast to what was initially expected, as snakes are generally not thought to exhibit any maternal care and responsibility. The help from the unrelated snake may also be the reason why rattlesnakes tend to spend more of their time in groups rather than alone, as they can benefit from helping one another.
Southern African pythons are also known to be excellent mothers. Typically around 16 feet in length, these huge snakes show caring qualities when it comes to their young. A researcher in Johannesburg studied these pythons for seven years, and he found that they were capable of surprising maternal care. The southern African python lays around 40—50 eggs, and when they hatch, the babies are often timid, staying in their eggs for up to two days, whilst their mother continues to coil protectively around them. If a human approaches, the mother will dart towards her hole, and will even show aggressive behaviour towards the threat once they are inside.
Snakes are generally hard to study in the wild, as their nests are hard to find. These findings demonstrate how amazing snakes are, and defy preconceptions that they are unfeeling, automatic beings. The maternal care snakes show highlights how complex their lives are, and these observations may just be the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the amazing abilities of snakes.
Around 100 species of snake are listed on the IUCN Red List as endangered. Their vulnerability is generally due to human interference, particularly habitat loss from human development.
Snakes are often feared by humans, and this is generally unnecessary, as only 7% of snake species can harm humans. Negative attitudes towards snakes can impede conservation efforts to address threats towards them.
We can live alongside snakes safely. Simple steps such as snake proofing gardens, using lights at night, being cautious about walking through long vegetation, and understanding the natural habitats of snakes can help to avoid issues.
Snakes play a vital role in the ecosystem, and they can be both predator and prey. This means that they are not only able to keep prey numbers down to appropriate levels, but they are also a valuable food source for other animals. Their presence in an area is an indication that it is a healthy and productive ecosystem. In fact, snakes are more helpful than harmful. Snakes eat carriers of many diseases, and so snakes can actually reduce the risk of diseases spreading.
Snakes in captivity
Snakes are a popular exotic pet, and the exotic pet industry is increasing annually. Many of the snakes in the pet industry will have been taken from the wild, subjected to long periods of transportation and cramped housing, before being sold as pets. Then, due to common misconceptions regarding the needs of snakes and their capacity to suffer, pet snakes often live in grossly inadequate conditions far removed from their wild environments.
Organisations working to conserve snakes:
Save the Snakes
Center for Snake Conservation
Advocates for Snake Preservation