It’s the Chinese Year of the Snake, and with hundreds of millions of snakes around the world, there is a lot of slithering going on out there. Despite their reputation, snakes are not the bad boys of the animal kingdom as they are often portrayed and they are one creature that could use a good PR campaign, says a Texas A&M University expert.
Jill Heatley, associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, believes that snakes often get a bad rap. The bottom line about snakes: they just want to be left alone, she says.
“Snakes are probably more afraid of you,” she notes.
“They are almost never aggressive unless provoked. And they do provide a valuable service because they keep the rodent population in check.”
All snakes can bite, but Heatley says there are only four venomous snakes found in the United States – the rattlesnake, copperhead, water moccasin and the coral snake, but there are numerous different species of each.
Venomous snakes inject their poison through their fangs, but it is estimated that about 50 percent of all snakebites are “dry” bites, meaning no venom was injected, the Texas A&M professor notes.
A snakebite, besides being painful, can be very expensive, often costing the victim between $50,000 to $100,000 in medical bills.
Snakes kill more people than any other creature, and the World Health Organization estimates that as many as 50,000 people worldwide die from snakebite each year, with almost all of them coming in undeveloped countries where access to medical care is difficult. In the United States, only 10-12 people die each year from snakebite, compared to 100 or more from bee stings.
Some interesting facts about snakes:
- The word for snake comes from an old English term called snaka, which means to crawl or creep
- Snakes have no eyelids, which means they can’t blink and they sleep with their eyes open
- There are about 2,900 species of snakes in the world and more than 350 of them are venomous
- A snake’s heart is able to shift and move several inches to allow food to pass through its body
- By far, more people are killed in India by snakebite than any other country, with between 10,000 to 12,000 people killed annually. A bite from a cobra, found frequently in India, can kill an elephant
- In ancient Greece, snakes were used for healing by the god of medicine Asclepius, and a snake forms part of the symbol representing medicine used today by doctors and veterinarians with a snake wrapped around Asclepius’ staff
- Snakes smell with their tongue, which is forked so that a snake can tell which direction the smell is the strongest, even in the dark
- Some large snakes have more than 300 ribs
- A bite from a black mamba, found in several places throughout the world, is so strong that it kills 95 to 100 percent of its victims
- Australia averages less than 5 snakebite deaths each year, but it is home to 7 of the 10 most deadly snakes in the world.
“We are learning more and more every year about the medical benefits of snake venom,” Heatley adds.
“It is being tested for use against multiple diseases, from cancer to muscle disorders. It is true that some snakes can kill, but it is also true that they are leading us to possible ways to save lives.”