Zoo Tales: Myths & Legends Have Followed Snakes Through the Ages
BY TOM GILLESPIE
Special to The Pilot
Snakes. The "bum rap" on them started with the story of the Garden of Eden and has never stopped.
They have fascinated humans throughout the ages and have led to countless superstitions and religious myths.
Maybe it's their unblinking stares or the fact that some can kill with a single bite. Whatever the reason, few animals have been more maligned and misunderstood than snakes.
Snake lore has been around through the ages. Greek mythology thrives on snake references. Dionysus had snake form. Eurydice was killed by a snakebite on her wedding day. For his second labor, Hercules killed the hydra. Even the caduceus, the modern medical symbol of two snakes wrapped around a staff, comes from Greek mythology.
In Judaism and Christianity, Satan is often identified as a serpent. In India, cobras were regarded as reincarnations of important people.
Snake myths abound. Although labeled as slimy, snakes actually have very dry skin. They don't even have mucous glands to produce "slime." Scales prevent the snake from drying out and aid in locomotion.
A common snake myth is that they have no backbone. Untrue. Like all vertebrates, snakes have backbones. Their spines are composed of hundreds of vertebrae, with a pair of ribs to go along with each one.
Another myth is that the venom of young or small snakes is not as toxic as that of an adult of the same species. Actually, the venomous bite of small, juvenile snakes may be more dangerous than an adult's.
A snake's venom gland must replace venom lost with each bite, which takes time. For this reason, adult snakes learn to conserve venom. Juveniles often have not learned this and discharge their venom completely with each bite.
Any snakebite, whether venomous or not, should be considered a medical emergency; however, most are not lethal. According to the American Red Cross, about 8,000 people a year receive venomous bites in the United States; about 12 of those victims die. A venomous snake does not necessarily inject venom with each bite and can vary the amount of venom injected with each bite.
Venom is actually modified saliva, used both to capture and kill prey and then to digest the prey. Venoms are either hematoxic, which means that they primarily affect the blood, or neurotoxic, which means that they attack the nervous system and brain.
Snake venom is made up of about 20 different enzymes. Each species usually has 6 to 12 of these enzymes, which determine the snake's toxicity and whether it is hematoxic or neurotoxic.
Forget everything you've seen in the old Westerns about venomous snakebites and their treatment. Don't suck the venom out with your mouth - any open cut or sore in the mouth can provide the venom with another entryway into the bloodstream. Don't cut the affected area to relieve pressure or to allow bleeding; this creates the potential for even more tissue damage.
Unfortunately, many people believe that the only good snake is a dead snake.
Seeing a snake is no reason to kill it. Most snakes are more afraid of humans than humans are of them.
Snakes are here for a reason: They serve an important role as both predator and prey in complex food chains. Killing a snake and breaking the natural food chain can affect all the other creatures in the chain.
A few common-sense precautions can greatly lower the risk of being snake bitten. Foremost, leave snakes alone; many snakebites occur when people try to kill a snake or get a closer look at it. Keep hands and feet out of areas you can't see, and be cautious and alert when climbing rocks.
Learn how to identify venomous snakes common to your area. Most snakes are not harmful or venomous and can usually be coaxed to leave the area or will leave on their own. If it doesn't want to leave, don't try to catch it. Also, avoid sudden movement. This could cause the snake to strike in self-defense.
Through exhibits and educational programs such as those offered at the N.C. Zoo, many of the myths and misunderstandings about snakes can be dispelled, and people can learn to better appreciate these beneficial reptiles.
Tom Gillespie works for the public affairs office of the N.C. Zoo.
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