Oh, you lucky duck, you! Here’s your one-stop shopping for all your mind-blowing, legless Squamate factoids for the day! (Except legless lizards…those kind of creep me out. Eep.) I wasn’t feeling a hard-science post, but there’s always fun to be had in the biology world! As a disclaimer, there isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to today’s spewing of info, I just had a lot of fun snake tidbits in mind that I wanted to share. So look at today’s thought-process grandeur as a snapshot of what it’s kind of like to be in my brain. Except my brain is more glittery.
Credit: National Geographic
General Overview: Snakes are a group of long-bodied, legless* reptiles. (*I say “leg-less” with the quick caveat that some snakes do have teeny-tiny vestigial “leg” nubs.) As reptiles, they’re ectothermic, or “cold-blooded,” which means they can’t regulate their body temperature they way we can and instead rely on their environment and behavioral modifications (e.g., basking on a rock in the sun on a warm day.) Hand-in-hand with the energy conservation involved in their thermal regulation, snakes also have some amazing metabolic adaptations. Snakes can lower their metabolic rates, delaying the need for food. In fact, some snakes can go months without eating, and sea snakes can go up to seven months without drinking! (But don’t use that as an excuse not to feed/water your pet snake, please and thank you 🙂 In other snakey fast-facts, our vertically-challenged, slithery friends don’t have eyelids, but they do have protective brilles–a clear scale over each eye. Snakes also regularly undergo ecdysis–the shedding of their skin (including the brilles). Also, snake diets depend on the species but range from ants and termites to small rodents and reptiles to larger mammals, birds, and other snakes. How’s that for a carnivore?
Now the title of this post is “Snakey Superlatives”…so naturally, I have included some snakey superlatives. Ready?
Your Worst Nightmare Snake
Titanoboa cerrejonensis may be long-extinct, but it’s still a wonder to hear about. This monster could be as much as 40 feet long, weigh over a ton, and at its widest point, its body could be 3-4 feet high. The largest known snake in history, the species could probably send shivers up the spine of even today’s bravest herpetologist. Simultaneously awesome and terrifying.
The Biggest Extant Species of Snake
Kind of depends on what we count as biggest. The green anaconda (Eunectes murinus) typically goes down on record with the reticulated python (Python reticulates) as being the largest snake in the world, but it depends on whether length or mass is considered. Green anacondas are the most massive, weighing in at up 550 lbs when 20-30 feet long, but reticulated pythons can be longest with a record length of 32 feet and weighing ~350 lbs.
Green Anaconda, credit Arkive
Smallest Snake in the World
Maybe the big boys aren’t quite your thing, so what about the smallest snake in the world? The Barbados threadsnake (Leptotyphlops carlae) grows to only about 10 cm long and it subsists on ants and termites. How cute is that?
Barbados Threadsnake, credit National Geographic
Prettiest Snake in the World
Perhaps a slightly subjective assessment, I’ll admit, but the emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus) is a gorgeous green to blend in its South American forest home.
Emerald Tree Boa, credit National Aquarium
World’s Largest Gathering of Snakes
Yeah, you’re just gonna have to watch this one.
While I have your attention, though, I think it would be best if I dispelled a few myths about snakes. Out of casual observation, I would say this group of animals gets the most undeserved fear of most taxa.
Myth: Snakes are highly aggressive and should always be “taken care of,” mob style
As a good rule of thumb, if you don’t bother them, they won’t bother you. As predators, snakes are incredibly important members of their communities, and minimizing the disruption of food webs is a noteworthy goal on our part. That being said, if you do see a rattlesnake–please walk away and take your dog and small children with you. Big children, too, probably. (This safety page was directed at Florida residents, but it’s fairly reasonable for anyone–though I admit even I raised an eyebrow at the trash can method.)
Myth: Snakes unhinge their jaws to eat.
They’re not really unhinging their jaws. Snakes just have a much more kinetic skull than we do—they have a greater number of movable joints. If you feel your lower jaw, it’s one solid bone. When you were much younger, though, you used to have a “joint” down the midline of your jaw (think of an invisible line extending straight down from below your two middle front teeth). This was never a movable joint, though since we don’t particularly need a joint there, and the two halves of your jaw fused together as you progressed in development, forming the mandibular symphysis.
On the other hand, snakes have several kinetic points in their jaws that allow them to open their mouths multiple times as large as their head normally appears when resting. Since snakes don’t chew their food, they need to able to swallow their dinner whole.
Myth: Snakes are poisonous.
Nope nope nope nope nope nope nope…wait for it…nope! (Ok, there is one genus of legitimately poisonous snakes in the world.) But copperheads, rattlesnakes, cobras, bushmasters, vipers, etc—not poisonous!
However, there are plenty of venomous snakes in the world.
What’s the difference you say? Well, poisons are secreted, generally somewhere on the surface of an animal’s body. Animals like toads and newts can be poisonous. If you try to eat them, you could get very sick, have a very “strange” evening, or both. A way to remember, poison is ingested, venom is injected.
So snakes are pretty awesome, are you convinced yet? If not, don’t worry, I can post lots more snakey things to change your mind.
Until next time,
Peace, love, and science!