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The primal fear aroused by snakes is a cautionary warning system

Posted in Animals, Nature, Wildlife on Tuesday, 31 January 2012

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This edited article about snakes originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 621 published on 8 December 1973.

Rattlesnake, picture, image, illustration

Rattlesnake by Richard Hook

Cruising along a deserted African road in his open-top sports car, a young driver failed to notice the deadly black mamba in his path. Quite unknowingly he ran over the snake. And suddenly it happened. Viciously angry, the mamba shot forward in high-speed pursuit, caught up with the car, whiplashed up into the back and struck dead the driver with one swift bite.

Believe that tale and you will believe anything. On the other hand, you would not be the only person taken in by the story. Many others accepted its truth with wide-eyed gullibility when it was told a few years ago. Though it was pointed out that it must have been an extremely versatile snake also to stop a car safely and then spread news of its feat, some people still weren’t convinced.

Snakes continue to strike terror in people’s hearts more than any other creatures, and have done so since ancient times. The Romans, for instance, knew this and put the knowledge to profitable use in naval battles. Many a skirmish was won by dropping snake-filled earthenware pots on the decks of enemy vessels; for, in the ensuing panic, more men jumped overboard than were actually bitten.

Why there is such a widespread fear of snakes may never be fully known. They are generally quite attractive in colouring and exceptionally graceful in movement; they usually keep out of man’s way and also promote his survival regularly by keeping down rodent populations which spread disease. Then, of the world’s 3,000 kinds of snakes, only 300 are equipped with venom fangs, and of these only about 200 can be said to be dangerous to Man.

Yet still snakes are feared. Is there a good reason for this?

Two things contribute to the universal loathing of snakes. One is ignorance, the other is knowledge. Knowledge that they can and do kill terrifies people. Ignorance about which kinds of snakes are the killers intensifies the terror.

Having shown sympathy towards snakes in general, though, one must then go on to condemn the poisonous variety for the deaths they cause. It is estimated that about forty thousand humans are killed each year; possibly more. Over a period of twenty-five years then, snakes could account for about as many lives as the First Battle of the Somme in 1916, the bloodiest battle in history.

Of these deaths, about seven out of ten are to be found in Asia. Burma has the highest mortality rate with 15.4 deaths per 100,000 population, but India has the most deaths with about 25,000 people a year. Although Africa has more dangerous snakes than Asia, its population is not so dense, so deaths there number perhaps 6-8,000 each year.

Obviously it would not be possible to list all the poisonous snakes here, but attention can be drawn to some of the most formidable. Authorities are not in complete agreement about which is the most poisonous. Some say the Australian taipan, others the krait, found in south-east Asia and yet others say the tiger snake of Australia. It is believed, too, that some sea snakes may be even deadlier than these.

However, the debate is really only academic. The important point is that all the man-killing snakes are equally efficient in their end result – which is death, unless an antivenin is administered to the victim. In the case of some snake bites – such as those of the King Cobra and the Gaboon Adder, which introduces massive doses of venom – the antivenin must be injected almost instantaneously or it will not be effective.

Generally speaking, death comes in two different kinds, depending on the species of the snake. Cobras have what is known as a neurotoxin poison; that is, one that attacks the nerves, causing sleepiness and paralysis before death. Adders have haemotoxin poison which attacks the blood, causing severe internal damage before death. As for the speed with which they kill, by and large it depends on the amount of poison injected, but the cobra bite is believed to be the fastest, death coming within minutes, or, at the most, hours. Adder bites take longer sometimes even days – which improves the victims chances of expert treatment – but the pain involved is dreadfully agonising.

On one thing all snake experts are agreed; that the King Cobra is far and away the world’s deadliest snake. It has even been called the most dangerous of all living creatures. Highly intelligent, extremely insolent and also the world’s largest poisonous snake, it launches itself at humans without provocation. In one attack it may inject enough poison to kill twenty-five healthy men or more, and frequently death is instantaneous.

However, chilling as the King Cobra is, it is not the world’s greatest killer. This distinction belongs to the spectacled cobra, Naja naja. It accounts for something like 22,500 of the snakebite deaths in India, mostly because it is so common. Extremely bad-tempered, it strikes with lightning speed and is rarely content with one bite.

Could anything be done to cut down the number of deaths it causes? Apparently there could. The answer appears to be to provide more protective apparel for the legs and feet. A good half of the victims of cobras, it is known, wear nothing on their feet, tread on the snakes or go too near them and suffer the consequences. Another thing to be said in favour of footwear is that it causes heavier vibrations on the ground than naked feet. As snakes are deaf and feel only vibrations, they would no doubt move out of the way if they ‘heard’ someone coming.

The same can be said of many African snake fatalities. There, too, the natives tend to go about bare-footed and most often they fall prey to the puff adder, said to be the deadliest creature in Africa. Reputedly it causes between 3,000 and 4,000 deaths a year. A very sleepy snake, it has the habit of dozing off in the sun, preferably on bare stretches of ground. Unfortunately these barelands are often footpaths, along which the unwary traveller walks at peril.

Also to be found in Africa is the world’s fastest snake – the black mamba, mentioned earlier. Exaggerations – and they are plentiful in snake stories – have given it speeds of 40mph or more. In fact, it moves at a conservative 7mph and may be capable of 15mph in short bursts. It is as well to move faster than a mamba for, like the cobra, it injects enormous amounts of poison and has a reputation for becoming a ‘rogue’ snake; that is, apparently hunting humans for no known reason. Certainly it is Africa’s most feared snake.

Another snake that has earned its feared reputation is the American rattlesnake. There are several in the family, the deadliest of which is the 8 feet long Great Diamond Back, whose bite few people survive. And if that is America’s most dreaded snake, Australia’s can be said to be the Tiger Snake, which causes more deaths there than all the other snakes put together. Ill-tempered and swift in the strike, it often cracks forward like a whip at its victim; and, if help is not at hand, death comes within two to three hours.

Snakes come in all sizes and colours and will probably never win friends because of the killers among their ranks. Only five parts of the world are free of them – New Zealand, Hawaii, Ireland, Madagascar and the West Indies – while every other part of the world wages constant war on them.

As far as is known, only one snake has ever been liked. This is the American hognosed snake, one of nature’s comedians. It acts at being menacing and can imitate a rattler, a water moccasin and a cobra. If its imitations fail to deter, it flops on its back and feigns death, at which you can do almost anything to it without it showing any signs of life.

But even this harmless little thing can lose friends. One man is reported – probably unreliably – to have died laughing at its antics. Snakes, it seems, just cannot win.

One comment on “The primal fear aroused by snakes is a cautionary warning system”

  1. 1. Michael1 says:

    Poor driver. Maybe it’s true, maybe not. Black mambas are tremendously agile and for short distances they can travel along the ground at 14 miles per hour (23 km/t) and for longer distances it can travel at up to 7-12 miles per hour. If you’re going to base this to a black mamba’s speed, this is probably true. But the alleged fact that this car ran over this snake but it still had managed to chase the car, I don’t know.

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