Warning: There are lots of pictures of snakes in this article. If you’re afraid of them, I would really love you to try to get through it, but I get it if you can’t.
Among the millions of animals on our dear round ball, few are so loathed as snakes. They’ve been getting a bad rap for thousands of years now, getting cast as the villain in tons of ancient stories, including the Bible, which I’m sure some of you have read. That wasn’t even a real snake and snakes still got all the fallout from it! This mostly applied to the Middle East and Europe, boosted by being a symbol of the devil, the guy who was cosplaying a snake in Genesis and got them in trouble in the first place. Other places had more fixed feelings on snakes, including portions of Europe. Greece often cast snakes as wise creatures associated with medicine due to their ability to renew themselves by shedding their skin, and the naga of Indian mythology can be either good or evil.
I’m not here to make fun of the ancients for not liking animals that I do. They had totally reasonable reasons to not trust snakes. Most of them lived in places with explicitly deadly snakes. It made a lot more sense than arachnophobia, which is just maladaptive panic over nothing for nearly every human being alive. No, I’m here to talk to modern human beings, cause a lot of us still have a weird hangup with snakes. Seriously guys, what’s up with that?
Over the past few centuries, we’ve seen the redemption of most of the world’s most derided creatures. Large predators are beloved for their majesty. Everybody knows that big cats are adorable when you give them boxes, and wolves are some of the most lionized animals humanity has ever seen, more than actual lions! Wolves used to be portrayed as scheming, monstrous beasts, born only for slaughter and cruelty. We’ve swung so far around on that it’s kind of weird for me to see wolves genuinely used as monsters anymore. And yet that treatment only appears to be for mammals (and even then, hyenas and other scavengers are often left out).
I find that education is the best way to make people less afraid of something. After all, what is more terrifying than the unknown? So, we’re going to start this article with a little bit of information about snakes, keeping largely to broad details and, where possible, diagrams, so if you’re afraid of snakes, don’t worry just yet.
Snakes are often separated from lizards, but in reality, they’re just highly specialized lizards, closest related to varanids (monitor lizards like Komodo dragons) and the extinct mosasaurs. This can get confusing because there are also other groups of legless lizards, but usually, snakes can be distinguished from them with a few key features. Snakes don’t have eyelids or external ear holes, while other legless lizards do. Given that they’ve been at this the longest, their anatomy has become highly adapted to this limbless, elongated body plan. While a lot of it is recognizable, you might notice just how weird the lungs are. What’s up with that?
Well, for starters, some water snakes actually have two full-sized lungs, but the left is only used for buoyancy while swimming. Similarly, most of the larger lung is also an air sack, with only the front portion actually processing oxygen. This is because snakes have no means for processing food other than swallowing it whole, and that can take upwards of an hour in some species. While they do have adaptations for breathing while swallowing, it pays to have extra air in reserve. Some of their other paired organs are also altered, sometimes stacked one in front of the other to fit in a thin body.
Most snakes have no trace of legs left at all, but pythons have “spurs” roughly where their hind legs would be if they had them. While it’s uncertain, these are thought to be remnants of the pelvis and femur, with a section of the femur sticking clear out of the body and being tipped with keratin. They find use in various mating rituals. Some snakes even have mutations that cause them to regrow entire hind limbs again. I won’t share the image because it’s rather gruesome and this is a relaxing article, but it is easy to find if you look for it.
On to head anatomy! Most snakes have somewhat round heads, but those with venom tend to have a more triangular shape, due to the presence of large venom sacks around the backs of their jaws. This is only a general rule, and several venomous snakes have rounded heads. Some snakes will even inflate sacks in the back of their head to pretend that they’re venomous!
Pupil shape, however, is not actually associated with venom but with activity cycles. Diurnal snakes tend to have round pupils, while nocturnal snakes have slit pupils. No matter what a snake looks like, don’t try to handle one you find in the wild! It likely won’t appreciate it. Just admire from a respectful distance, and if the snake seems to be paying attention to you, that probably means it isn’t comfortable and you should move away. Remember, you’re way bigger than them and humans will often kill a snake for no reason. They have plenty of reason to be scared.
Of course, the mouth is what most people notice first about a snake. There are two notable features here, one shared by all snakes, the other only found in some. The one common to all snakes are their highly flexible jaws, with their lower jaw coming in two pieces rather than one and the roof of their mouth moving independently. This is how snakes swallow such large meals; their jaws can stretch wider than their head and their upper jaw then moves to “walk” the prey down their throat. The more specialized feature is those fangs.
That kind of fang is only present in vipers, with very similar versions convergently evolving in two unrelated groups. These fangs function like a hypodermic needle, with a hollow cavity in the center that leads back to the venom sacks. Other venomous snakes cannot inject venom in the same way, relying on other methods, sometimes down to “chewing” the venom in. Nonvenomous snakes have no fangs at all, just a series of undifferentiated sharp teeth.
For more on snake fangs than I’ll cover here: http://snakesarelong.blogspot.com/2013/09/basics-of-snake-fangs.html
Now that we’ve covered the basics on snakes, let’s go into why you shouldn’t hate them. I won’t ask you not to be afraid, but I hope I can convince you that you don’t have to be! Let’s start with appearance. There’s going to be a lot of snake photos from this point on, so if you can’t handle that, this is your time to back out. Okay? Okay!
This is a pretty normal snake, but it has a lot of the cute features that I admire in snakes. First, large, round eyes. Those are a very standard cute feature, seen in most predators in particular. Snakes in general find and recognize their prey by scent, but eyesight is important to targeting a bite. Many snakes also have a neutral “smiling” shape to their mouth, something automatically read as friendly to humans, who are kind of freaks like that. Everything else smiles when it wants to kick your ass. Snakes can’t do that anyway. No legs.
Pythons in particular are often seen as adorable even among those who dislike snakes. Their heads are uniquely shaped, with lots of rounded curves, seen as friendly to humans. Pythons are also often very docile snakes, which leads into adorable snake behavior. Some snake species enjoy contact with humans, seeking out our warmth (however, I don’t generally endorse private ownership of most reptiles, for reasons best articulated here).
Snakes are also endearingly curious. Humans like curiosity. It reminds us of ourselves, so it’s cute to us when an animal investigates objects and otherwise explores its environment in a way that makes us see intelligence. Most snakes eat lots of small mammals and reptiles, which spend a lot of time hidden in burrows, undergrowth, and other locations, and so love to stick their heads in places where small animals might be hiding. They also have a curious-looking pose where they raise their head off the ground to scan their environment, looking bright and attentive.
The more endearing thing about snakes, however, is something underappreciated. See, a lot of snake qualities are just admirable or “cool” features, not cute. And that’s totally fine. That’s what people like wolves and tigers for. But what’s most endearing to us is what made us take over the entire internet with housecats circa 2005 and hasn’t let us stop since; ridiculous. Goofery. Nonsense of the highest order. Can snakes pull it off? Well, they don’t have feet, so they’re not very amusingly clumsy, and they don’t push things off of shelves, but they can still be goofballs.
It looks like we caught them stealing from the cookie jar. And they’re not even a little guilty.
Hognoses are particularly adorable already, but their behavior really pushes them over the top. Not only do they pretend to be venomous by puffing up their head to fake venom sacks, or even flattening their necks to play cobra, they very, very dramatically play dead.
Very rarely does a hognose bite, preferring to fake its way to safety rather than risk violence.
Whoops, this is a sock puppet with googly eyes, sorry.
Oh wait, that’s just the Arabian sand boa. Most people know this one now, but I included it for completion’s sake cause honestly, can you have a section on snake absurdity without including it?
The thread snake cries his despair to the heavens, for he was given no limbs and no dignity, and people keep mistaking him for a worm.
My personal favorite on the list, the elephant trunk snake somehow has skin two sizes too big, despite shedding its skin to make it the right size. Come on, it’s so easy! Just grow your skin a little tighter!
Also they have cute pug faces.
If you’re afraid of snakes and you made it all the way here, congratulations! I hope you can at least appreciate them a little more now. Snakes, just like every other animal, are threatened by human activity, and sometimes treated poorly just for being snakes. I’m gonna say it, rattlesnake roundups are horrifying. Even if a lot of the snakes are released and their populations seem stable in most areas it’s practiced, there’s a lot of unnecessary stress and cruelty caused to the animals involved, from gasoline being used to drive them from burrows to the constant stress of being corralled for whatever humans choose to do with them. Most snakes aren’t social, but rattlesnakes do have family groups, and prefer to live near family. But we accept such things because we see snakes as so alien. If I made even one person care a little more about snakes, this article has done its job.