Sam Sumrall and Nan Sincero, Naturalist Center Interpreters at the California Academy of Sciences took time out of their busy schedules to answer the following answers about snakes. The Academy is currently running a special exhibit on both Snakes and Lizards, called the Summer of Slither.
Q: What are some of the free benefits snakes provide to their habitats?
A: As predators, snakes play an important role in the ecosystem by controlling the populations of their prey, many of which may be pests or carriers of disease, like rodents and other small mammals. Snakes also serve as prey items themselves for larger animals. They are very much part of the food web.
Q: Why do people fear snakes, even though most are not poisonous and not dangerous?
A: Snakes have gotten a bad reputation from movies and other stories. Humans may also be hard-wired to be wary of snakes through encounters with them early in our evolution. Yes, snakes can bite, but so can dogs and small children. More people die from dog bites in the United States each year than from snake bites. The irrational fear of snakes leads people to engage in some odd behavior, including killing them for no reason.
Q: Is there any reason to be optimistic that more public awareness will dissolve the fear and aggression towards them?
A: One time, we had a middle-aged visitor at the Academy who was terrified of snakes. However, she came across one of our live snake handling programs and worked up the courage to touch it. It was the first time she had ever touched a snake in her life. Afterwards, she had tears of joy because she’d finally overcome her fear and done something she never thought she could do. I think more public awareness and education around snakes will show people that these animals are to be respected, but not feared.
Q: Are snakes, like the world’s frogs, in danger of going extinct because of human activity?
A: The potential threats they face today include habitat destruction, hunting by humans (for food and leather), and climate change. About 22% of all reptiles are listed as threatened species (i.e., critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable on the IUCN Red List). It’s unclear what this percentage is for snakes specifically.