By Sarah Kelly, Program Intern
If you asked a group of people what they are afraid of, snakes definitely come up. Snakes are one of the most feared things on the planet. Even everyone’s most beloved fictional archaeologist, Indiana Jones, is deathly afraid of these creatures. This fear comes from many origins. Perhaps people don’t like the way snakes slither and hiss or think that they are slimy. Others may fear they have cunning and sly personalities such as found in books or stories. And others may fear they could be bitten and injected with venom or eaten whole by one of the bigger species. It is theorized that fear of snakes is an innate characteristic of humans. Along with fear of spiders, sharks, and other creatures, this trait is a survival mechanism so that we avoid these things. The fear is then intensified through media, stories, and depictions.
There are many cultures that celebrate snakes. In Greek mythology the snake is a symbol of healing and medicine. The snake was used by Asclepius, the god of medicine, on his walking staff. This symbol is still used today for medicine, pharmacy, veterinary care, and is commonly seen on ambulances. The snake also represents rebirth and renewal as it sheds away its old skin to reveal a new one. Snakes are also seen as a symbol of wisdom and shown in art as consultants to kings and queens, such as Cleopatra. Snakes are revered in India and associated with certain gods and goddesses. Snakes are also used as fertility symbols and there are festivals celebrating snakes. Even in western culture the snake is used to represent independence. The “Don’t Tread on Me” flag represents snakes positively, as tough and willing to stand up for themselves.
In general, snakes are not the slimy and calculating creatures we might think them to be. Most snakes are not slimy. Their scales are dry and smooth. The hissing noise they make comes from the use of their tongue, which they use to smell. Venom that is found in some snakes is primarily used to stun prey, (typically not for something as big as a human) and secondarily as a defense. A snake will usually only bite a human if it is taunted or startled but otherwise goes in another direction.
Snakes have been feared for centuries. This fear has caused a decrease in some populations because of eradication by humans. Snakes, however, are important to our ecosystems because they help to balance populations of small mammals, fish, amphibians, insect, and birds.
Timber rattlesnakes are an example of how eradication and other factors can bring a species to near extinction. The status of timber rattlesnake in this state is “critically imperiled.” They are so rare that there is only one population left known to New Hampshire Fish & Game. This species is the only venomous snake in New Hampshire and the only snake with a rattle. The rattle is used to warn possible attackers. The milk snake is sometimes confused for a timber rattlesnake because they also shake their tails but do not have rattles. Timber rattlesnake populations have declined mostly because of habitat destruction, automobile accidents, gravel mining, and hunting by humans. These threats are exacerbated by the snake’s reproduction patterns. Females only reach maturity after 10 years and give birth every three to four years. Any sightings of timber rattlesnakes should be confirmed and then reported to New Hampshire Fish & Game (603-271-2461).
If you visit the Science Center this summer you might be able to attend an Up Close to Animals presentation about snakes in New Hampshire and see either a Red-Tailed Boa or Ball Python. Neither of these snakes is found in New Hampshire but live successfully in captivity. Their size allows us to demonstrate the different parts of snakes. And they are large snakes! The Ball Python can grow to five or six feet, while the Boa can be anywhere from six to ten feet! The Ball Python is from Africa and the Boa from South America so seeing these creatures in New Hampshire is a unique pleasure.
To learn more about snakes native to New Hampshire, visit:http://www.wildnh.com/Wildlife/Nongame/snakes.htm