The lure of the loathsome

Snakes
October 31, 1997

What I can't understand is why people find snakes so fascinating," HRH the Duke of Edinburgh once said to me. Since he is president of the World Wildlife Fund, it was a good question. Why indeed? Everyone familiar with zoological collections knows that the reptile house is next in popularity only after the monkeys and apes. Yet the usual human attitude to snakes is one of dread and loathing. One female friend of mine can be depended upon to scream and fling away from her even an ordinary black-and-white photograph of a snake, if she happens upon one while looking through a pile of my prints. The eminent and enlightened Linnaeus found reptiles "foul, loathsome beings". And God of course, in the very beginning, laid a divine curse upon those reptiles who so efficiently and magically move with such speed without benefit of limbs of any kind: "upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life".

Poor friendless serpent! Snakes have had a bad press from the beginning of time. What with God and the Duke of Edinburgh, one wonders indeed why it is that collections of reptiles fascinate people so keenly, let alone why anyone should spend Pounds 35 on a coffee-table-style book of information and photographs of this unique form of life.

The very common Indian rat-snake or dhaman (Coluber mucosus) is a large, heavy snake that is non-venomous but which when cornered and molested can deliver a nasty bite. This is one of several snakes, including the venomous cobra and krait, that live commensually with people in the south of Madras city where I live, and are often active in the daytime. One of these was attacked in the garden of a house just a few doors down from mine not long before I began writing this review. The snake took refuge in a young peepul tree (Ficus religiosa), lodging itself in a fork about 30 feet above the ground. A young employee of mine went up hand over hand with the agility of a chimpanzee to catch it, but the snake made a dash for it down the tree head-first, flashed across my feet, crossed the road outside and vanished into some ornamental shrubbery opposite. One can easily understand how a snake can climb a tree, using its backward-facing scales and taking advantage of every irregularity of the tree's surface, but how could a heavy, six-foot snake come down a tree without falling off? It is demonstrations like this of snakes' astonishing powers of survival, as well as so much else, that seem downright magical and ensure the fascination of snakes.

Harry W. Greene has done us a service by producing this magnificent book about one of the least understood and most misunderstood of all the creatures we live with, in spite of the worst we can do to them. And in the case of snakes the worst is bad indeed, for in so much of the world, as in India, most people (including, sad to say, many doctors) believe all snakes to be venomous.

In the case of the Indian cobra, the situation is however ambiguous. While it is dreaded, it is also worshipped; and its phallic significance is obvious. In the Tamil language of people here in Madras, the cobra is called the Good Snake (nulla pambu), though in north Indian languages it is simply nag, which may mean any snake. Why the Tamils have singled out the cobra for so benign a title is not clear: it certainly helps farmers by keeping down the rodents that would otherwise devastate their paddy, but they do not seem to be aware of that; and if the epithet concerns the cobra's religious significance, why does it apply only in Tamil, which is very much a minority Indian language?

This lovely book has as its subtitle "The evolution of mystery in nature", and a very good one it is too. The text tends to vary from the rather too technical to the easy and popular. The photography is superb throughout, much of it made possible only since the introduction of very sophisticated and advanced lenses and photographic technology, such as infrared triggers. An outstanding example of this is the photograph of the eyelash viper (Bothriechis schlegelii) striking at but just missing a rufus-tailed humming-bird (Amazilia tzacatl). I could have wished for a simplified diagram of a snake's head and jaws; simplified because in fact it is far more complex than our own, but essential in order to understand just how snakes manage to eat without benefit of limbs and can, as shown in my own picture accompanying this review, engulf prey of far greater diameter than their own heads and mouths.

Those who dredge this sort of book for records will no doubt be interested to learn that possibly the world's most venomous snake is the Australian inland taipan (Oxyuranus microlepidotus), a bite from which is calculated sufficient to kill no less than 200,000 mice, though the author correctly remarks that men and mice may differ radically in their responses to venoms. My own experience leads me to believe that sea-snake venom is probably the most dangerous to people; the only cure seems to be reincarnation. Yet it is important to remember, as we are reminded here, that vast numbers of fishermen around the coasts and islands of the Indo-Pacific region are unlikely to report deaths from sea snakes or other venomous animals. After all, among such societies, who is there to report to, and why should such simple people invite the interest of authorities who might become unjustly suspicious and troublesome? Moreover, venomous snake-bite is surely sometimes a common cover for murders or embarrassing suicides.

Setting aside such concerns, we have here a particularly appealing book, with pictures that cannot fail to arouse very human, if misapplied, emotions. What can one feel but a surge of profound pity on turning the page to encounter a picture of a lizard or a broad-bellied frog sitting helplessly, eyes wide open, while being swallowed alive? What degree of consciousness exists in the brains of such unfortunate animals, whose hind parts are already being digested while they sit there and suffer the indignity if not the pain of being swallowed while alive? All victims of constrictors are dead before being swallowed, as in the case of the deer in my picture. It is not true that the big constrictors can crush or in any way reduce their prey before engulfing it. The prey dies by asphyxiation as the constrictor prevents breathing, and the predator appears to wait long enough to ensure the cessation of the heart-beat and blood circulation before beginning the lengthy and amazing process of engulfing it. It then pulls itself over its prey rather as you or I would pull on a glove or a stocking. Nor are all constrictors large snakes, like boas, pythons and the legendary anacondas. Many smaller snakes such as the trinket snake (Elaphe helena), which makes a delightful pet, especially for children, kill by constriction with exactly the same technique as their larger and more spectacular cousins.

Rudyard Kipling's Jungle Books are delightful but contain many howlers that would make any respectable naturalist wince. His famous mongoose story, "Rikki Tikki Tavi", refers to the krait, for example, and calls it "little brown death in the dust". The common krait is not a small snake, it is of medium length and usually a glossy black; but "little brown death in the dust" is a superb description of the saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus), and I was pleased to find the author of this book in agreement with me that Echis is probably responsible for more genuine deaths from snake bite that any other single species, if only on account of its amazing range - all through India and Pakistan, the Middle East, northern Africa down as far as Nigeria: many subspecies and races, perhaps, but a single species of this very small but potentially deadly snake.

As one with an especial interest in snakes, their habits and interaction with our own species, I warmly commend this excellent volume as quite the finest on the subject I have so far seen.

Harry Miller is a fellow of the Zoological Society.

Snakes: The Evolution of Mystery in Nature

Author - Harry W. Greene
ISBN - 0 520 20014 4
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £35.00
Pages - 391

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