Some people love them, some hate them, and some respect them, but snakes tend to trigger an immediate response in most people. The sight of these long, slender, legless reptiles can paralyze some people with fear. Although they have a negative reputation, they are misunderstood by many.
I have heard several times that “the only good snake is a dead one.” Unfortunately, snakes are often the victims of fearful humans. I realize some people have true phobias of snakes. I spoke to a visitor at the nature center who said her fear was so severe that she had to stop for about an hour in the middle of a trail because she had passed a few garter snakes. She did not want to keep going but was also afraid to turn back; stating that she knew her fear was irrational but was unable to overcome it. Even unintentionally, many of these fears are passed on from parents to their children.
I know I’m not going to change anyone’s mind but snakes deserve respect as they play a vital role in the ecosystem by helping to control pest populations. There is a delicate balance in nature and snakes are an important part of this balance because they are both predators and prey. Snakes eat a variety of foods including rodents, insects, amphibians, and fish but they are also preyed on by hawks, owls and other animals.
Snakes are fascinating animals well adapted to their roles as predators and prey. They “smell” with their tongues. As they flick their tongue, they are picking up molecules from the air around them. The tips of their tongues take these molecules to a specialized organ, called the Jacobson’s organ, which analyzes what is in the air. With mouths specially designed to swallow prey whole, their jaws can unhinge allowing them to eat prey much larger than their mouth. In addition, their digestive enzymes are so powerful they can dissolve the bones and teeth of prey. Their bodies contain many small, delicate vertebrae and muscles which allow them to move or slither away quickly allowing them to catch food or escape predators. In terms of coloring, many of our native snakes are well camouflaged and blend in with their surroundings.
Spring is a common time to encounter snakes. Like other reptiles, they are ectothermic (cold-blooded) and can often be seen basking in the sun, soaking up the warm rays. They aren’t out to hurt us; as the saying goes, “they are more afraid of us than we are of them.” Will they bite? Yes, of course, but they typically won’t bite without reason. If you decide to pick one up, they may bite, musk, or defecate on you. Fortunately where we live in Northeast Ohio, venomous snakes are extremely uncommon.
We have a duty to future generations to protect the natural world including all of its inhabitants. It is important that we teach the children to respect nature and not share our fears with them. We need to appreciate the unappreciated.
Naturalist, Brecksville Nature Center