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.
Q: What is the best response for a homeowner if they see a snake in their yard, and they don’t want it there?
A: Most snakes won’t harm you. They just want to be left alone. But if they come into your personal area, you can drop a bucket over it, put a brick on top, and call animal control. Do not hit it with a shovel.
Q: In the rare case when a person is bitten by a snake, how can they identify if it is poisonous, or non-poisonous?
A: Of the 2,700 species of snakes in the world, fewer than 500 are venomous, and only a few dozen pose a threat to humans. However, there is no general rule for identifying every type of venomous snake in the world. Instead, your best bet is to do some research on the area you are visiting. The more specific you get geographically, the fewer snakes you have to deal with. It’s only when you focus on a specific area that broad identification rules such as a triangle shaped head or a warning rattle become useful. That being said, it is wise to treat any snake bite like it is venomous. In these situations it’s very important that the victim stay calm, remove any items that could cut off circulation during swelling (i.e., watches and bracelets), immobilize the bite area using a sling if possible, and seek medical attention immediately. Any information on the snake, such as size and color, will help doctors treat the victim accordingly, but avoid physical interaction with the snake at all costs. Data is not worth the risk of another bite. Even dead snakes can bite via reflex.
Q: How can hikers and campers prepare themselves to be in the outdoors so they can stay away from areas with snakes?
A: You’re probably already hiking past snakes without even knowing it, and that’s to be expected, because after all, you are walking through their habitat. Wear high top boots to avoid getting bitten on the ankle, which is where most snake bites land. Also, try not to disturb rocks, logs, leaf litter, and other places where snakes might be hiding. If you come across one out in the open, don’t do anything to make it feel threatened. Just walk in another direction.
Image Credit: lanlar