If you need to identify a snake, try the Snake Identification Facebook group.
For professional, respectful, and non-lethal snake removal and consultation services in your town, try Wildlife Removal USA.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Blog Carnival: Ecology of Snake Sheds

Today I am participating in my first Blog Carnival (or blogeroclick here for the Spanish edition), which is called #SnakesAtYourService and is about the roles snakes play in ecosystems. Check out the links to the other posts below.

I've already written a series of posts about identifying snake sheds, which is definitely the most common question people ask about them (those three posts make up over a third of all the traffic on this site). People ask other questions about snake sheds much more rarely. In fact, I never stopped to ask some basic questions myself. What are snake sheds made of? What are they used for, and by whom? Where are they found? Do they make substantial contributions to ecology? You might think that because snake sheds are so insubstantial that they don't have much of an impact, but several facts about snakes lead us to believe otherwise.

Part I: Contributions to nutrient cycling

Oodles of Black Swampsnakes (Seminatrix pygaea)
from Ellenton Bay, South Carolina
Snakes can occur at high densities, although their population density can be difficult to measure because snakes are so hard to find. Some estimates provided by snake population ecologist JD Willson in his dissertation included 4-14 vipers per hectare in Scandinavia, 275 vipers per hectare on Shedao Island in China, and over 1000 ring-necked snakes per hectare in Kansas. Aquatic snakes in Ellenton Bay, South Carolina, where I did my undergraduate field research, can reach densities of  170 snakes/ha. I did a couple of back-of-the-envelope calculations using these estimates, plus those for snake shed frequency and shed energetic content, and found that all snakes shedding across the entire continental United States probably generate close to 1.6 billion pounds of shed skin each year, which contain about 3.6 trillion calories of energy. That's enough for everyone in Alabama to survive eating nothing but snake sheds every day all year long (ma, not this for dinner again!), if they could somehow collect all the snake sheds from the entire country. So it isn't an unimaginably immense amount of energy, but it's not insubstantial either. Given the results of this rather bizarre thought exercise, I think it's safe to say that shed snake skin contributes substantially to nutrient cycling in areas where snakes frequently shed.

A food web showing snakes as top predators
What exactly do I mean by nutrient cycling? Think of it as nature's ultimate recycling. It's one example of the services that ecosystems provide for free, and it's why you have regular access to clean water to drink, air to breathe, food to eat, and other essentials, without having to manufacture or engineer systems to produce these things. The cycles of carbon, nitrogen, sulfur, and other elements in and out of the water, air, soil, and the bodies of plants, animals, and microbes, are critical to maintaining a healthy ecosystem. Perturbations can lead to serious imbalances, like the changes to the global carbon cycle that result from the burning of fossils fuels. Few people have investigated the roles that amphibians and reptiles play specifically in nutrient cycling, but we are beginning to suspect that they are important components of many ecosystems. They may be small, but there are a lot of them. For instance, redback salamanders in forests in the northeastern US outnumber all other terrestrial vertebrates combined. On some tropical islands, lizards occur at densities of over 67,000 per hectare. Snakes can occur at really high densities as well, partly because they are so efficient at converting food into biomass as a result of being ectothermic (cold-blooded) and partly because feeding as infrequently as they do reduces the effects of competition with other snakes. By one estimate, snakes are 25 times more efficient at turning food into biomass than carnivorous mammals of equal size, and occur at population densities 20 – 1400 times greater, meaning that they probably contribute disproportionately to nutrient cycling. Explicit investigation of this phenomenon is underway in turtles, which have large bony shells that probably contribute to cycling of calcium and phosphorus, but to my knowledge no one has so far studied this in any snake, let alone for shed snakeskin.

A red-tailed green ratsnake (Gonyosoma oxycephalum)
sheds its skin
In the wild, shed snake skins disintegrate in about a week, although if you collect one and put it in a plastic bag, they can last decades. The chemical composition of snake sheds is poorly known, but they contain some keratin and some lipids, among other things. Some fungi feed on keratin, including those that cause athlete's foot and ringworm as well as the chytrid fungus that has caused amphibian declines worldwide (with disastrous consequences for the snakes that specialize on them), but these species mostly grow on living organisms. Although we don't know for sure, it seems likely that numerous fungi and microbes have probably evolved to take advantage of the abundant energy found in snake sheds. Of course, the dead bodies of the snakes themselves also eventually contribute to nutrient cycling, but depending on the source of mortality, many of those are probably eaten by predators, and fewer probably decompose compared with snake sheds.

Part II: Use by other animals

An Eastern Indigo Snake (Drymarchon couperi)
getting ready to shed
Snakes shed their skin in order to grow bigger. You do this too, just not all in one piece. Once a snake sheds its skin, it's typically done with it. However, both snakes and you might be surprised to learn that snake sheds are frequently used by other animals for a variety of purposes. As I mentioned previously in my article on conservation successes with Eastern Indigo Snakes, snake sheds are really smelly, and specially-trained dogs can sniff out even individual scales left over from a decomposing snake shed. This might be one reason that, although snakes usually spend several days inactive at their shedding site prior to shedding, they don't normally hang around for long afterwards - their predators might have an easier time finding their stinky sloughs than they would finding the snakes themselves. This could be especially true when those predators are other snakes. Some evidence suggests that dogs have an easier time sniffing out snake skins than actual snakes - the indigo-snake -sniffing dogs correctly identified a concealed snake 4 out of 5 times, but they got the sheds right every time. Dogs have also been used to help search cargo on Guam for hitchhiking Brown Tree Snakes, an invasive species which has spread around the Pacific. No word on whether the Brown Tree Snakes were shedding or how this affected the dogs' ability to smell them.

Most shedding sites are protected in some way, because snakes are vulnerable prior to shedding - they cannot see and other functions may be impeded as well. Shed sites used by Black Ratsnakes in Ontario include old barns, old mining machinery, cracks in building foundations, old hay piles, large hollow logs, rock crevices, and standing dead trees. Most of these things sound like something somebody might want to "clean up", but the fact is that they are important habitat features that many amphibians and reptiles use for shedding and also for hibernation. Many burrowing snakes come to the surface to shed, and shedding snakes may remain on the surface even during cold weather, when other snakes have retreated underground.

Sometimes other animals exploit the stink of snake sheds. Ground squirrels in California use them to scent themselves - first they chew up shed rattlesnake skins, then vigorously lick their own fur, which results in  a type of olfactory camouflage that reduces a rattlesnake's ability to correctly identify snake-scented ground squirrels as prey. Rattlesnakes and ground squirrels in California a partners in a coevolutionary relationship that goes back millions of years and has been well-studied by scientists from both the predator's and the prey's point-of-view.

A Great-crested Flycatcher nest with several
snake sheds
Birds use snake sheds in their nests, something people have noticed since at least as far back as the 1800s. Although birds cannot smell, ornithologists (who should study snakes more often) wondered whether the shed skins helped protect eggs or nestling birds by deterring would-be predators. Recently, two experiments have helped determine which predators might be frightened off and whether the strategy really works. Ecologists at Arkansas State University conducted a study to test whether snake skin is an effective deterrent to predators. They found that flying squirrels, a major nest predator, ate the eggs out of 20% of nests without sheds, but didn't depredate any nests with sheds. Because flying squirrels are themselves vulnerable to predation by snakes, this makes intuitive sense. Interestingly, they also noticed that the deterioration rate of the snake skins in their experimental nest boxes (which were not occupied by birds) was much faster than that in real nests, where birds were actively raising chicks. Many of the sheds were eaten by ants, which would probably have been eaten by birds maintaining active nests. Ornithologists in Slovakia found opposing results - nests of great reed warblers festooned with snake sheds were no more or less likely to be depredated by birds and small mammals. However, over a third of reed warblers incorporated grass snake (Natrix natrix) sheds into their nests. When given a choice, two thirds of female reed warblers elected to use sheds left near their nests, whereas only 10% used ribbons of a similar length and color. If they weren't deterring predators, what were they for? The researchers suggested that because snake skins were mainly incorporated by female birds early in the nest-building process, they may have functioned as a signal to male reed warblers that the nest-builder was good at finding rare nest materials, which might lead the male to invest more heavily in helping share the duties of parental care later on in the nesting season.

This holiday season, you can choose from a variety
of snake shed jewelry for that special someone
Humans use snake sheds too. Because of their many similarities with the outermost layer of human skin, shed snake skins are used as model membranes in membrane permeability research, which primarily includes studies of ways to better transport pharmaceuticals into target cells, including some drugs that are inspired by or derived from snake venom (another ecosystem service). Snake sheds are a good alternative to using human, mouse, or synthetic skin, because they are cheap, large, and lack hair. This work is just one of many examples of snakes being used as model organisms to study general concepts in biology. Snake sheds can also be very aesthetically pleasing - many people have taken to creating beautiful snake shed jewelry.

Finally, snakes are themselves very olfactory creatures. Skin lipid pheromones have been shown to play important roles in male combat and in mating behavior, which could mean that sexual selection could act on these chemicals, creating species-specific diversity and dimorphism between males and females, which is mostly lacking in other snakes (except for a few species, including Langaha from Madagascar, where snake play many important cultural and ecological roles). Because most of these pheromones are in the skin, what's the potential for snakes to use their shed skins to mark territories, communicate information about their reproductive stage, select ambush sites, or perform other functions? Really, no one knows. Although territoriality is not the norm in snakes, some species have been suggested to be territorial and others may exhibit other types of social behavior. I hope that by understanding more about the important roles snakes play in ecosystems, people attending this carnival will be more likely to see them as valuable and less likely to fear them. As I hope I've been able to communicate, the old axiom that 'the only good snake is a dead snake' is just not true.


Thanks to JD Willson, Angie Luebben, and Volker Wurst for their photographs and to everyone who helped publicize this blog carnival. A special thanks to the other #SnakesAtYourService blog carnival participants. Be sure to check out their contributions:

Social Snakes: Good Neighbors Make a Greater Impact: How Viper Behavior Increases Their Effect on Prey Populations by Melissa Amarello, @socialsnakes

Living Alongside Wildlife: Kingsnakes Keep Copperheads in Check by David Steen, @AlongsideWild

Nature Afield: Pythons as Model Organisms by Heidi Smith, @HeidiKayDeidi

Ophidiophilia: Converting Ophidiophobes to Ophidiophiles, One Kid at a Time by Emily Taylor, @snakeymama

The Traveling Taxonomist: Snakes of Madagascar: Cultural and Ecological Roles by Mark Scherz, @MarkScherz

Strike, Rattle, & Roll: Snakes and the Ecology of Fear by Bree Putman, @breeput

Australian Museum: When the Frogs Go, the Snakes Follow by Jodi Rowley, @jodirowley

SnakeBytes: The Brown Tree Snake of Guam by Brian Barczyk (@SnakeBytesTV


Blem, C. R. and M. P. Zimmerman. 1986. The energetics of shedding: energy content of snake skin. Comparative Biochemistry and Physiology Part A: Physiology 83:661-665 <link>

Blouin-Demers, G. and P. Weatherhead. 2001. Habitat use by black rat snakes (Elaphe obsoleta obsoleta) in fragmented forests. Ecology 82:2882-2896 <link>

Clark, R. W. 2007. Public information for solitary foragers: timber rattlesnakes use conspecific chemical cues to select ambush sites. Behavioral Ecology 18:487-490 <link>

Clucas, B., D. H. Owings, and M. P. Rowe. 2008. Donning your enemy's cloak: ground squirrels exploit rattlesnake scent to reduce predation risk. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 275:847-852 <link>

Engeman, R. M., D. V. Rodriquez, M. A. Linnell, and M. E. Pitzler. 1998. A review of the case histories of the brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis) located by detector dogs on Guam. International Biodeterioration & Biodegradation 42:161-165 <link>

Itoh, T., J. Xia, R. Magavi, T. Nishihata, and J. H. Rytting. 1990. Use of shed snake skin as a model membrane for in vitro percutaneous penetration studies: comparison with human skin. Pharmaceutical Research 7:1042-1047 <link>

Medlin, E. C. and T. S. Risch. 2006. An experimental test of snake skin use to deter nest predation. The Condor 108:963-965 <link>

Stevenson, D. J., K. R. Ravenscroft, R. T. Zappalorti, M. D. Ravenscroft, S. W. Weigley, and C. L. Jenkins. 2010. Using a wildlife detector dog for locating Eastern Indigo Snakes (Drymarchon couperi). Herpetological Review 41:437-442.

Trnka, A. and P. Prokop. 2011. The use and function of snake skins in the nests of Great Reed Warblers Acrocephalus arundinaceus. Ibis 153:627-630 <link>

Willson, J. D. 2009. Integrative approaches to exploring functional roles of clandestine species: a case study of aquatic snakes within isolated wetland ecosystems. PhD dissertation, University of Georgia, Athens, GA <link>

Creative Commons License

Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

#SnakesAtYourService Blog Carnival - 9th December!

Rough Green Snakes (Opheodrys aestivus)
mostly eat insects and spiders.
Photo by Kevin Durso
Next week, a few herpetology bloggers, including myself, are putting on a blogging carnival to celebrate the Year of the Snake! The theme is going to be ecosystem services of snakes - from the relatively well-studied relationships between snakes and their ecosystems in some parts of North America, to the basically unknown services rendered by snakes in Madagascar and elsewhere.

Social media has become an important tool for conducting effective science education and outreach, and amphibians and reptiles, especially snakes, have much to gain from this kind of positive exposure. Many reptiles and amphibians occur in large numbers, are top predators, and provide important services to their ecosystems. However, these animals are often cryptic, and the general public seems to overlook their presence and great importance. As a result, we have decided to bring attention to a network of students, naturalists, and professionals that use social media to communicate information about amphibian and reptile natural history, science, and conservation.

Our inaugural event is inspired by Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation’s (PARC) Year of the Snake. On December 9th we will be publishing blog posts about the diversity of ecosystem services provided by snakes. Snakes are generally vilified in the popular media. Our goal is to create new media that accurately portrays snakes’ importance in the hopes of decreasing the negative perception many people hold against them. Leading up to this day, we will be tweeting about snake ecosystem services using the hashtag #SnakesAtYourService. We encourage everyone to follow us on Twitter, visit our blogs on December 9th, and help spread the word about our outreach event, which we hope will be the first of many touching on different themes related to the importance of amphibians and reptiles.

December 9th 2013 Participating Blogs and Authors:

Life is Short But Snakes are Long: Ecology of Snake Sheds by Andrew Durso @am_durso

Living Alongside Wildlife: Kingsnakes Keep Copperheads in Check by David Steen @AlongsideWild

Nature Afield: Pythons as Model Organisms by Heidi Smith @HeidiKayDeidi

Ophidiophilia: Converting Ophidiophobes to Ophidiophiles, One Kid at a Time by Emily Taylor @snakeymama

The Traveling Taxonomist: Snakes of Madagascar: Cultural and Ecological Roles by Mark Scherz @MarkScherz

Social Snakes: Good Neighbors Make a Greater Impact: How Viper Behavior Increases Their Effect on Prey Populations by Melissa Amarello @SocialSnakes

Strike, Rattle, and Roll: Snakes and the Ecology of Fear by Bree Putman @breeput

Australian Museum: When the Frogs Go, the Snakes Follow by Jodi Rowley @jodirowley

Creative Commons License

Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Truth About Snakebite

Many people live in fear of snakes, especially of venomous species that can inflict a lethal bite. There is evidence that our fear of snakes is innate, because our ancestors have been preyed upon by them for millions of years, even before we were primates. Other evidence suggests a significant learned component to ophidiophobia. Either way, few people today are at risk of being eaten by snakes, but bites from venomous snakes are still fairly common. However, in my experience fear of snakes is way out of proportion to the actual risk they pose, especially among my fellow North Americans. It's surprisingly hard to find good information on the prevalence of venomous snakebite (hereafter, just 'snakebite'), but it's getting easier, and I was able to gather almost 100 papers that include data on the subject, which I've synthesized here. As a result, this article has many footnotes, and because I used so many references to prepare this article I've provided a selected list at the end of this post, with a link to the full list.

Map of snake envenomings per year, from Wikimedia Commons
So how dangerous is a snake bite? If you're bitten by the wrong kind of snake and you're far from help, it's pretty dangerous. But the truth about snakebite is that it's a lot less likely to endanger your life than people think. First of all, you're pretty unlikely to ever get bitten. Worldwide, estimates range from 1.2 million to 5.5 million snakebites annually. Remember, there are several billion people out there, so although those numbers are large, each year over 99.92% of people are not bitten by a venomous snake. These bites result in 420,000-1.8 million envenomings leading to 20,000-94,000 deaths. This probably seems really low, until you realize that unlike when they are biting their prey, snakes that are biting in defense don't inject venom every time (i.e., the bite is "dry"). Depending on the species of snake and the context of the bite, estimates for dry bites range from 8% to more than 80%, with North American rattlesnakes, one of the best studied groups, injecting venom only 20-25% [edit 10/23/2015: I made a mistake here. The source cites two other sources that say that rattlensakes inject venom 75-80% of the time (i.e., 20-25% dry bites), not the other way around as I originally wrote. But, Hayes goes on to say that neither of these sources appear to be based on empirical data, and then he gives some other sources that do. These list rattlesnake and other viper dry bite percentages between 7 and 43% (i.e., injecting venom 57-93% of the time). So, indeed, much higher than the 20-25% I originally listed, but still less than for predatory strikes. I apologize for the error.] of the time when biting in defense, compared to more than 99% of the time for predatory strikes.1 This behavior is partly because the strike itself may startle attacker sufficiently and wasting expensive venom needed to eat is useless, and partly because even injecting venom into an attacker is unlikely to immediately incapacitate it. Most snake venom is fast-acting, but it's not that fast. As a result of these dry bites, a lot of snakebites go untreated and unreported because they fail to produce symptoms, leading the bitten person to assume (correctly) that they are safe or (incorrectly) that the snake was not venomous. This is one major cause of the wide range of numbers given above for the prevalence of snakebite.

Copperheads (Agkistrodon contortrix) bite
a few hundred people a year in my home state of
North Carolina, more than in any other state.
Fatalities are exceedingly uncommon.
Worldwide, about 1 out of every 20 people envenomated by venomous snakes dies from the bite, according to the best available estimates for the prevalence of bites and resulting deaths between 1985 and 2008. Depending on where you live, your chances of surviving a venomous snakebite are really good, although in a few places they're pretty bad. I'm going to focus on the USA because I live here and because we have some of the best data. In the USA, only 1 out of every 500 people bitten by a venomous snake dies as a result, which includes deaths from bites that take place under several special circumstances that we'll discuss later. You're actually safer from venomous snakebite in the USA than in any other country on Earth where venomous snakes kill people, thanks to our excellent medical care, relatively benign venomous snake fauna, and large proportion of the population that live in urban areas where venomous snakes are scarce. There are some countries, such as Canada2 and Norway, where venomous snakebites occur but nobody has apparently been killed by one in recent history, except for people who have been killed by their exotic, captive snakes (more on this later).

Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes (Crotalus atrox)
are large and widespread in the southwestern USA.
Contrary to the popular myth, a recent study showed that
larger rattlesnakes cause more serious bites than smaller ones,
which makes sense because they have more venom to inject

(see also unpublished data from the Hayes lab at
Loma Linda University showing the same trend and also
that smaller bite victims have more serious bites).
How about all the people who are bitten and survive? Being bitten by a venomous snake isn't exactly a pleasant experience. It's been described as feeling like “hitting your thumb with a hammer”, “stepping on a bare electrical wire”, or “being repeatedly stabbed with a knife”. This alone is a good enough reason to avoid snakebite. However, not every venomous snakebite is a recipe for a nightmare. In the USA, most people are bitten by pit vipers (copperheads, cottonmouths, and rattlesnakes). Very few people are bitten by coralsnakes, and I'd be surprised if anyone has ever been bitten by a coralsnake that they didn't first pick up. Pit vipers are generally pretty retiring snakes, a fact observed most poignantly by both the herpetologist Clifford Pope, who called them first cowards, then bluffers, then warriors, and also by Ben Franklin, who wrote of a rattlesnake: "She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders...she never wounds 'till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her."

Figure from Gibbons & Dorcas (2002)
In a field test of these famous anecdotes, Whit Gibbons and Mike Dorcas molested 45 wild cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) in South Carolina swamps and found that only 2 in 5 bit their fake hand when picked up, only 1 in 10 bit a fake foot when it stepped on them, and none bit a false leg that stood beside them. In a similar test, Xav Glaudas and colleagues picked up over 335 pigmy rattlesnakes (Sistrurus miliarius) in Florida and found that only 8% bit the thick glove they were wearing. Further evidence to support the fact that vipers are reluctant to bite potential predators comes from anecdotes from snake biologists radio-tracking snakes to study their spatial ecology, in which the biologist has accidentally stood on Timber and Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnakes and Puff Adders without provoking any responses. This makes sense because striking is a last resort for these snakes, which have a lot to lose and very little to gain by it. Although this isn't a perfect simulation of a typical snake-human interaction (these researchers weren't trying to kill the snakes in their experiments, after all), these findings are a good argument in the snakes' defense - if they bite you, they probably had a good reason.

Russell's Vipers (Daboia russelii) are probably
one of the world's most dangerous snakes,
combining a relatively aggressive demeanor
and relatively potent venom with a habitat
and geographic range that overlaps areas of
very dense, rural human population in south Asia.
Although the above news is hopeful, it is of course impossible to predict whether an individual snakebite will end in tragedy, so it is prudent to avoid snakebite at all costs. Each year in the USA, between 2,400 and 4,700 (edit: some sources say up to 8,000) bites occur, putting your chances of being bitten by a venomous snake in the USA at about 1 in 100,000 (1 in 40,000 with higher bite estimate).3 If you live in southern or southeastern Asia, you're more justified in having a fear of snakes. In India, at least 80,000 and possibly as many as 165,000 people are bitten by snakes each year (1 in 7,000-14,000). India's venomous snake fauna isn't that much more diverse than the USA's, but medical care isn't as good, and it has about 4 times as many people, many of whom live in rural areas and work in agricultural or pastoral professions, both of which really increase your chances of being bitten. Even in India, "only" about 10,000-15,000 people a year die from snakebite (edit: a more recent study that estimated snakebite mortality in India using household surveys instead of hospital records came up with a figure of ~46,000 deaths in 2005, which is probably more accurate because many victims elect to use traditional therapy in their village and most do not die in government hospitals, where the data are collected; for a more thoughtful discourse on snakebite in India, click here), meaning that about 4 out of 5 (edit: using the newer data, between 1 in 4 and 1 in 2) snakebite victims survive. Taking into account your chances of being bitten and your chances of dying from the bite, many countries in sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, and Latin America are risky places to live. Snakebite in these places is a legitimate public health concern. The USA is the least risky country in terms of snakebite. The only safer countries are places like Ireland, New Zealand, Madagascar, and oceanic islands in the Pacific & Caribbean, where no venomous snakes occur. Snakebite risk in the USA is thousands of times lower than it is in many parts of the world, and it would be even lower if people modified their behavior in a few key ways, starting with not attempting to kill every snake they see.

The USA (bottom left) is the safest country in the world in terms of snakebite risk.
Countries without any venomous snakes not shown.
Data from Kasturiratne et al. 2008
Click for larger version
You might be surprised to hear that attempting to kill venomous snakes actually increases your risk of snakebite. This masterful post written by David Steen at Living Alongside Wildlife is a good argument for why this is the case. Specifically, the reason is that up to 2/3rds of snakebites in the USA are a direct result of intentional exposure to the snake and could be avoided if the people involved had made different decisions. These bites resulted from people who were trying to kill snakes or molest them, or who chose to interact with them for some other reason (ranging from snake handling churches to collection for rattlesnake roundups). Although snakebite is an occupational hazard for some, such as zookeepers and herpetologists, the vast majority of Americans are at extremely low risk of snakebite.

Black Mambas (Dendroaspis polylepis) are among
Africa's most dangerous snakes, but they still kill fewer
people than hippos
 or mosquitos
Let's take a closer look at those 5 people a year who die from venomous snakebite in the USA. Not all of these people are hikers, fishermen, and gardeners who fall victim to 'legitimate' bites, as you might assume. This number includes deaths that result from a pair of special cases that deserve special attention. The first is people who keep exotic venomous snakes in captivity in their homes. Although this can be done safely, it isn't always, and it is a little unfair to group these cases in with 'legitimate' bites, envenomations, and deaths from native, wild venomous snakes. It inflates USA snakebite statistics because the risk is not evenly distributed among the entire population and it inflates death statistics because antivenom may not be available for these exotic snakes. About 1 of the 5 deaths each year in the USA can be attributed to these circumstances. The second special case, people who refuse or do not seek treatment after they are bitten, includes some of the bites that also fall under the first case, because some snake owners that keep snakes illegally may not seek treatment out of fear that they will be arrested, fined, or have their animals confiscated. This case also covers religious snake handlers proving their faith, which in many cases entails foregoing treatment. It's harder to put a finger on how many people die in the USA each year from untreated snakebites, but I think it's probably fair to say that most of those people got what was coming to them. Let's not overlook the role of alcohol in people's decisions to interact with venomous snakes: studies show that around 40% of snakebite victims have been drinking. Data on intentionality of exposure to snakes in developing countries is sparse, but I would be willing to bet that exposure in these places is much less intentional, as it once was in the USA.

CroFab antivenom used to
treat most snakebites in the USA
Today in the USA, medical treatment for snakebite is so good (thanks to synthetic antivenoms with few side-effects), and research on snake venom has come so far (with much left to learn!), that there is little justification for the overblown fear bordering on hatred people have of snakes. Progress toward this same goal is being made by some really smart people researching the venom of snakes in developing countries in Africa, south Asia, and Latin America, and figuring out better ways to make antivenom available outside of a hospital setting.

Yet more than 1 in 20 people in the USA have a pathological fear of snakes, as defined by criteria including uncontrollable, greater than justified, and significantly interferes with a person’s routine, occupational or academic functioning, or social activities or relationships. Leading to situations like this recent news story and this bizarre interaction between a man, a gun, and a snake. Risk perception is influenced by many things, including the rarity of the event, how much control people think they have, the adverseness of the outcomes, and whether the risk is voluntarily or not. For example, people in the United States underestimate the risks associated with having a handgun at home by 100-fold, and overestimate the risks of living close to a nuclear reactor by 10-fold. Ironically, evidence suggests that two of these things (how much control you have and how voluntary the risk is) are actually quite high for snakebite, despite popular perception that they are low.

Eastern Brown Snakes (Pseudonaja textilis) are one of
Australia's more dangerous snakes, but even they won't
chase, bite, or attack people without trying to escape
or bluff first. Australia's low population density
also contributes to their low prevalence of snakebite.
Data on fear of snakes in developing countries is lacking, and it is difficult to generalize, but based on the impressions of several people I know who have lived and worked there, most inhabitants of rural areas in developing countries are terrified of snakes. One notable exception is Madagascar, where no venomous snakes occur and it is fady to kill any snake (edit: although apparently superstitions still abound). In contrast, in Australia people seem to have a relatively high level of respect for snakes and don't seem to mess with them solely out of machismo the way they do in the USA. Venomous snakebites are relatively rare, which is remarkable considering that the majority of snakes in Australia are venomous. I heard a story recently about a newly-hired Australian CEO of an American mining company. When the new boss asked about the snake policy, the employees jokingly replied that it was "a No. 2 shovel". The Australian CEO was not amused, because at his previous company Down Under routinely relocated much more dangerous snakes at their job sites. He instituted a company-wide training program to teach safe venomous snake practices. These classes are also available to the general public in some areas, especially in southern Africa.

As people and wildlife come to share more and more space, snake-human interactions are inevitable. The future of conservation will probably be in maximizing compatibility between humans and wildlife rather than preserving pristine areas, we will need to get a lot better about behaving ourselves to keep ourselves safe from the defense mechanisms of wildlife, starting with educating ourselves about the real risks that underlie our fears. Everyone should read these guidelines for snakebite prevention and first aid. I would add to this: don't kill snakes! It only puts you at risk. Don't try to kill them, don't let your friends kill them, don't let your family members kill them. They won't try to kill you. I promise.

For more about snakebite research and treatment, check out Dr. Leslie Boyer's blog and Bill Hayes's snakebite research page.

1 Venomous snakes that are striking at their prey practically always inject venom, and some evidence suggests that they can precisely meter their venom so that they inject exactly the right amount needed to kill each particular prey item, based on its mass. Fortunately for humans, there are no venomous snakes large enough to consider us prey. Dry bites to humans may result from the snake's deliberate decision to withhold venom or from kinematic constraints that reduce the duration and coordination of fang contact when striking a large, vertical object.

2 Although global snakebite statistics frequently list 0 fatalities out of 200-300 snakebites for Canada, this seems not to be quite accurate. In Ontario, at least two people have been killed by Timber Rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus), a soldier who was bitten at the battle of Lundy's Lane near Niagara Falls in 1814, and an American Indian chief prior to 1850. Two or three people have been killed by bites from Massasaugas (Sistrurus catenatus) in Ontario, all before 1962, and between 0 and 10 people were bitten annually from 1971-2007, mostly men aged 10-29
. In 1981, a man who was "quite intoxicated" was killed by a bite from a Northern Pacific Rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganuson the Nk’meep reserve near the town of Osoyoos in British Columbia's Okanagan Valley. He was the first person to be bitten by a native venomous snake in BC in over 50 years. The only other Canadian provinces that are home to venomous snakes are the Prairie Provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, where no recorded deaths have occurred from Prairie Rattlesnake (Crotalus viridis) bites. So we can conclude that native snakebites in modern Canada are even more infrequent than but follow the same basic pattern as those in the USA.

3 In the US, relative to dying from heart disease (1 in 5), cancer (1 in 7), in a motor vehicle accident (1 in 80), in a fall (1 in 185), from a gunshot (1 in 300), by drowning (1 in 1100), by choking (1 in 4400), from drinking too much alcohol (1 in 10,900), by a sting from a wasp, bee, or hornet (1 in 63,000), from being struck by lightning (1 in 80,000), from a dog bite (1 in 120,000), or in an earthquake (1 in 150,000), you are very unlikely to be killed by a snake (1 in 480,000). The only less-likely causes of death are being trapped in a low-oxygen environment (1 in 548,000), being killed by ignition or melting of nightwear (1 in 767,000), and being bitten by a spider (1 in 960,000). These odds are for your entire lifetime; your annual chance of being killed by a venomous snake is more like 1 in 50 million. Worldwide, they're more like 1 in 200,000, which is a lot higher but still pretty low overall.


Thanks to Julia Riley and James Baxter-Gilbert for providing me with information on deaths from snakebite in Canada, to Wes Anderson, James Van Dyke, and Xav Glaudas for sharing with me with their impressions of people's fear of snakes outside of North America, and to Matt Clancy, John Worthington-Hill, Larsa D.Todd Pierson, and Pierson Hill for the use of their photography. If you're so inclined, check out David Steen's post on why it doesn't make sense to kill venomous snakes in your yard here and Jessica Tingle's historical view of the subject here.

(click here for a longer list of references pertaining to snakebite [last updated February 2017])

Scientific illustrator Liz Nixon made this infographic
featuring facts in this post!
Click here for a larger version.
Bellman, L., B. Hoffman, N. Levick, and K. Winkel. 2008. US snakebite mortality, 1979-2005. Journal of Medical Toxicology 4:43 <link>

Gibbons, J. W. and M. E. Dorcas. 2002. Defensive behavior of Cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorus) toward humans. Copeia 2002:195-198 <link>

Glaudas, X., T. M. Farrell, and P. G. May. 2005. The defensive behavior of free–ranging pygmy rattlesnakes (Sistrurus miliarius). Copeia 2005:196-200 <link>

Hayes, W. K., S. S. Herbert, G. C. Rehling, and J. F. Gennaro. 2002. Factors that influence venom expenditure in viperids and other snake species during predator and defensive contexts. Pages 207-234 in G. W. Schuett, M. Höggren, M. E. Douglas, and H. W. Greene, editors. Biology of the Vipers. Eagle Mountain Publishers, Eagle Mountain, UT <link>

Isbell, L. A. 2006. Snakes as agents of evolutionary change in primate brains. Journal of Human Evolution 51:1-35 <link>

Janes Jr, D. N., S. P. Bush, and G. R. Kolluru. 2010. Large snake size suggests increased snakebite severity in patients bitten by rattlesnakes in southern California. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 21:120-126 <link>

Juckett, G. and J. G. Hancox. 2002. Venomous snakebites in the United States: management review and update. America Family Physician 65:1367-1375 <link>

Kasturiratne, A., A. R. Wickremasinghe, N. de Silva, N. K. Gunawardena, A. Pathmeswaran, R. Premaratna, L. Savioli, D. G. Lalloo, and H. J. de Silva. 2008. The global burden of snakebite: a literature analysis and modelling based on regional estimates of envenoming and deaths. PLoS Medicine 5:e218 <link>

Morandi, N. and J. Williams. 1997. Snakebite injuries: contributing factors and intentionality of exposure. Wilderness and Environmental Medicine 8:152-155 <link>

Parrish, H. M. 1966. Incidence of treated snakebites in the United States. Public Health Reports 81:269-276 <link>

Swaroop, S. and B. Grab. 1954. Snakebite Mortality in the World. Bulletin of the World Health Organization 10:35-76 <link>

Tierney, K. J. and M. K. Connolly. 2013. A review of the evidence for a biological basis for snake fears in humans. The Psychological Record 63:919-928 <link>

Van Le, Q., L. A. Isbell, J. Matsumoto, M. Nguyen, E. Hori, R. S. Maior, C. Tomaz, A. H. Tran, T. Ono, and H. Nishijo. 2013. Pulvinar neurons reveal neurobiological evidence of past selection for rapid detection of snakes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1312648110 <link>

Walker, J. P. and R. L. Morrison. 2011. Current management of copperhead snakebite. Journal of the American College of Surgeons 212:470-474 <link>

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Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Friday, November 1, 2013

How snakes see through closed eyes

Early American symbols depicting rattlesnakes:

(top) Rattlesnake on the $20 bill issued in 1778 by Georgia.
The Latin motto (Nemo me impune lacesset) means,
"No one will provoke me with impunity."

(middle) Benjamin Franklin's "Join or Die" cartoon,
first published in the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1754.
Franklin advocated a rattlesnake as the national symbol
by writing: "...her eye excelled in brightness...she has no
eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed
an emblem of vigilance."

(bottom) The Gadsden flag, used during
the American Revolution

Normally when someone asks me how to tell the difference between a snake and a legless lizard, I tell them to look at the eyes. Lizards have eyelids whereas snakes do not. Whenever I say this I am lying, although really I am just oversimplifying for the sake of clarity. Most lizards have obvious movable eyelids and so can blink like we do. Snakes, by contrast, seem not to have eyelids. They are ever-staring, ever-vigilant. Ben Franklin esteemed the rattlesnake as a symbol of vigilance because its eyes were always open.

Snakes' eyes are closed all the time. Rather than having movable eyelids, snakes have a single, fused, clear layer of skin over their eye, called a spectacle or brille (German for "glasses"), which protects the eye. A snake's skin is covered in scales, and the outer part of the spectacle is indeed a scale. The deeper layers of the spectacle are formed, during development, from the same embryonic tissue that in other animals forms the eyelid. The spectacle is not attached to the snake's eye in any way, so the eye can move freely behind it, although its movement is limited. This limited movement is because snakes are probably descended from fossorial lizard ancestors that lived underground and had degenerate eyes, much like today's amphisbaenians, although fossil evidence for this hypothesis is scant (as are snake fossils in general).

Eye of an Eastern Ribbonsnake (Thamnophis sauritus)
during the phase prior to shedding when fluid
has built up between the old and new spectacles
Unlike other animals' eyelids, snakes' spectacles are transparent, like a window in their skin, allowing them to see out through their always-closed eyelids. Just before a snake sheds its skin, a layer of fluid builds up between the new inner skin and the old outer layer, clouding the spectacle and causing the other scales to have a faded, milky appearance. This period usually lasts a few days, during which snakes have difficulty seeing and usually will not eat. People who keep snakes as pets have observed that they may become particularly ornery during this period, perhaps as a result of not being able to see clearly.

The horizontal, key-shaped pupil
of Ahaetulla prasina
Another obstacle to snake vision that has been long known but little studied is that snakes' spectacles are vascularized, meaning that they have blood vessels running through them. It is very unusual for tetrapods to have blood vessels in a place that might interrupt their field of vision. First noticed in 1852, these vessels are small but symmetrically distributed across the optically transmissive region of the eye in most species, although the arrangement is radial in basal snakes, acrochordids, and vipers but vertical in colubrids and elapids. In one visually-oriented species, the Asian vine snake (Ahaetulla nasuta), these blood vessels are less dense in the region of the field of vision known as the fovea, where the maximum sharpness is achieved. Most snakes don't have foveas, suggesting that the unusual arrangement of blood vessels in the eyes of Ahaetulla is an adaptation to minimize visual disturbance in this region of highest visual acuity.

Until recently, no one had considered whether movement of blood into and out of the spectacle blood vessels might aid snakes in being able to see. In an article published this week in The Journal of Experimental Biology, Kevin van Doorn and Jacob Sivak of the University of Waterloo in Ontario presented the first evidence that snakes are able to do this. When van Doorn was investigating the mechanisms snakes' eyes use to focus, he noticed the blood vessels in the spectacle, which led him to look more closely at their function. He found that coachwhips, another highly visual species, were able to reduce blood flow to the spectacle in the presence of a potential threat. At rest and undisturbed, newly oxygenated blood flowed into the spectacle blood vessels of the coachwhips for about a minute at a time, interspersed with approximately two minute periods during which no flow took place. When an experimenter walked into the room to perform some routine tasks, spectacle blood flow was almost completely cut off. What little flow there was during this period occurred in short spurts of around 30 seconds each, about half the length of the flow period in undisturbed coachwhips. When the experimenter left the room, the pattern of blood flow in the snakes' eyes returned to normal almost immediately.

Figure from van Doorn & Sivak 2013 showing blood vessels in the spectacle of a Coachwhip (Masticophis flagellum). (A) Image taken during the renewal phase of the integument when the spectacle becomes cloudy. The vessels are most apparent in the region that overlays the iris–pupil boundary because of their higher contrast with the background in this region. (B) The spectacle under retro-illumination, showing the vessels in the illuminated anterior portion of the pupil on the right side. The vessels are dorso-ventrally arranged as is typical for colubrid snakes. Debris and scratches are visible on the spectacle scale (particularly the left side), attesting to its protective role.
Shed skin of a Cornsnake (Pantherophis guttatus)
showing the shed spectacles
Furthermore, van Doorn & Sivak found that when snakes were handled they cut off blood flow to the spectacle completely, probably as part of a sympathetic nervous response. In contrast, blood flow to the eye was continuous and uninterrupted, even during handing, in shedding snakes. You can see a video of blood flow in the spectacle of a shedding corn snake here. Although no experimental evidence has been gathered that filled blood vessels in the spectacle reduce a snake's ability to see, it seems likely given that the blood vessels themselves are quite difficult to see when they are not filled with blood. Snakes actually have remarkably good color vision, better than that of rats and on par with the visual acuity of a cat. Because they move their eyes so little compared to humans, they might be less likely to notice the interruption to their visual field by these blood vessels.

Geckos and some other lizards also have spectacles. A few other species of tetrapods have blood vessels in their optical path, including manatees, armadillos, and some blind salamanders, none of which are renowned for their visual prowess. Little is known about the images these vessels might project onto the vision of these animals, but because they are part of the cornea and so move about with the eye rather than remain stationary relative to it, their area of occlusion would appear to remain stationary to the animal. This is not true for animals with nictitating membranes (diving animals such as penguins or crocodilians) or those with spectacles, both of which have the potential to interrupt the animal's vision. We don't know yet how crocodilians and geckos deal with this issue, but as with so many other features of their lives, snakes have evolved an ingenious and potentially unique solution to a vexing problem, allowing them to remain vigilant as well as keep their eyes protected. Snakes have guarded the Golden Fleece in the Greek tale of the hero Jason and his band of Argonauts, a treasure chamber beneath an ancient city in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, and various other treasures in Hindu, Inca, and Basque mythology, all with their eyes closed.


Thanks to Hans Breuer and Kwok Wai for their photographs of Ahaetulla prasina.

Correction: I originally said that the fovea work was done on Ahaetulla prasina, but it was actually Ahaetulla nasuta. Both species have horizontal pupils so it is likely that the reduction in blood vessels is found in both.


Baker, RA, TJ Gawne, MS Loop, and S Pullman (2007) Visual acuity of the midland banded water snake estimated from evoked telencephalic potentials. J. Comp. Physiol. A 193, 865-870 <link>

Crump, M. Expected 2015. Eye of Newt and Toe of Frog, Adder's Fork and Lizard's Leg. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, Illinois.

Foureaux, G, MI Egami, C Jared, MM Antoniazzi, RC Gutierre, and RL Smith. (2010) Rudimentary eyes of squamate fossorial reptiles (Amphisbaenia and Serpentes). Anat. Rec. (Hoboken) 293, 351-357 <link>

Franklin, B (1775) The rattlesnake as a symbol of America. Pennsylvania Journal. <link>

Lüdicke M, 1969. Die kapillarnetze der brille, der iris, des glaskörpers und der chorioidea des auges vom baumschnüffler Ahaetulla nasuta Lacepede 1789 (Serpentes, Colubridae). Zoomorphology 64:373-390.

Mead, AW (1976) Vascularity in the reptilian spectacle. Invest. Opthalmol. Vis. Sci.15, 587-591 <link>

Neher, EM (1935) The origin of the brille in Crotalus confluentus lutosus (Great Basin rattlesnake). Trans. Am. Ophthalmol. Soc. 33, 533-545 <link>

Quekett, J. (1852). Observations on the vascularity of the capsule of the crystalline lens, especially that of certain reptilia. Trans. Microsc. Soc. Lond. 3, 9-13. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2818.1852.tb06020.x

van Doorn, K. and Sivak, J. G. (2013). Blood flow dynamics in the snake spectacle. J. Exp. Biol. 216, 4190-4195 <link>

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Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

50,000 Hits & Snakes from Florida

Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei)
The purpose of my trip
This week I am in northeast Florida collecting lizards for my PhD research (don't tell anybody who still thinks I only work on snakes). This is a special place for me because it is where I started writing this blog a year and a half ago. Since that time Life is Short but Snakes are Long has received thousands of visitors: almost 100,000 if you go by the stats included with Blogger, but probably closer to 48,000 using stats from the more conservative Google Analytics, which doesn't count bots and other non-human visitors. The true number is probably somewhere in the middle. With many thanks to Alvaro Pemartin and Estefania Carrillo, all posts are available in English and Spanish (the links to the Spanish versions are at the top of each post), and I am working on converting the format of the Spanish pages from PDF to HTML to more closely resemble the English pages. Readers from the USA make up the majority of visitors, but the UK, Canada, Australia, and India are also well-represented, and readers from 177 countries or territories have visited. 

Map of visits to this blog
I am proud to have been able to disseminate knowledge about snakes to so many people. The first post on snake sheds is still the most popular, garnering between 44 and 100 hits a day and appearing in the top 10 hits for Google searches for 'snake shed' and 'snake sheds'. Its popularity prompted me to write another article that was less storytelling and more detail about the processes used in snake shed identification. As proof positive that it works, last week I received images of a snake shed from Jean in Lawrence, Kansas, who wrote:

The first photo
I happened across your blog while searching for a way to identify a snake species by it's shedded skin.

We found this [snake shed] in our barn near Lawrence Kansas. I had this extreme fear of snakes so I became proficient in identifying them, if I see them. We have only seen 3 types of venomous snakes in our area, the timber rattler, the western massasauga, and the osage copperhead. Unfortunately, I find that I am truly inept at identifying them by their skins.

We have seen more poisonous snakes this year than usual and we found this skin inside our barn. It very easily could have been trapped inside as we close it up every other evening. We primarily use the barn for storage and workshop. Hopefully, we have allowed plenty of opportunity for the snake to escape.

I mainly want to know if you can help me to identify whether this is a poisonous snake. After reading your blog I am concerned is that it is possibly a copperhead and that it could be hiding. There are numerous places for a creature to stay hidden in our 70 ft barn and I fear that I will open a bin or cabinet and find it, dead or alive.

We love our wildlife and try to be protective and careful, but it seems we have failed at this lately as we recently had to scare an endangered skink out of the barn.

I would appreciate your assistance in possibly identifying this snake. I don't think we have the tail end of the skin. We do have the fairly intact head portion of the skin and can send more pics if needed.

Your blog is very informative and I learned a great deal from it. I thank you in advance for your assistance.

Although the first photo wasn't detailed enough, she was able to find the tail and I was able to help her identify it as a harmless ratsnake, after which she wrote:

The second photo,
showing divided subcaudals
Thank you so much! I checked your blog to take a double look at your pics there and was still unsure, so thank you so much! We did see a few rat snakes earlier this year so my guess is you are spot on!

It is still scary that we didn't see it! We live in a rural area very near to public hunting and fishing but don't have a lot of traffic. It makes my blood boil at the number of snakes we see dead on the SIDES of the roads!

Please keep up the great work! Yours was the first site when I googled snake skin id and by far the most informative i found! I learned so much by reading your blog and I really feel that people need more education about snakes!

Identifying snake sheds has been a new challenge for me. I probably wouldn't have gotten so much practice at it if I hadn't started this blog. I am working on a lot of new content, but I particularly want to develop content that people will find useful and interesting. With that in mind, here are a couple upcoming articles that I've planned:

  • Basics of snakebite
  • Venomous bites from "non-venomous" snakes
  • Common urban snakes
  • Snake predators
  • Invasive snakes
  • Some personal stories about how I became interested in herpetology
  • Several taxon-specific posts
I'm open to suggestions about how to prioritize these and I'm especially open to ideas from readers about new posts that aren't on this list. Some of the best ones I've written so far are ones people have suggested to me. I'm also open to hosting guest posts if there are any interested guest authors out there. Feel free to leave a comment or to contact me by email.

Cornsnake from the island
I also wanted to share a couple of stories from this week. Yesterday we found a young Cornsnake on one of our islands when one of us chased a lizard into the tree hollow where it was hiding. That snake had eaten one of the Brown Anoles in our study, a large male that we marked back in 2011. Young cornsnakes are particularly fond of lizards and ambush them from hiding spots under bark and within decaying trees. My former student David Delaney, now in the Warner lab at UAB, will be conducting research on the effects of cornsnake predation on anole sleeping site selection. I thought this would be the coolest find of the whole trip, but today some folks alerted us to the presence of an Eastern Diamondback Rattlesnake on a public beach right near where we were collecting mainland lizards for David & Dan's lab experiments. This snake was in the surf, which was really foamy due to the wind. The lady who found it said she almost stepped on it. Usually when someone tells you they saw a rattlesnake nearby it's either not a rattlesnake or not there or both, but this time it was for real! I have read about EDBs entering the ocean occasionally, but apparently it is fairly rare. My friend Kerry Nelson, who worked as a naturalist on Little St. Simons Island in Georgia for almost two years and saw diamondbacks in the sand dunes daily, said to me that he never saw one in the surf.

Me with Diamondback

Thanks to Hans Hillewaert, Dan Warner, and Jean Ostrander for their photos and to Jean Ostrander for allowing me to reprint her email.

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Life is Short, but Snakes are Long by Andrew M. Durso is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.