Monday, May 23, 2011

The Only Good Snake is Dead Snake Pt. 2

My wife and I went camping and hiking at Enchanted Rock near Fredericksburg, Texas this weekend. As I walked across the parking lot I noticed a group of adult scout leaders pointing at something in a tree. Another man from their group was rushing toward the tree with a bundle of tent poles. I knew what they were gawking at before I even heard the word, "snake." Several kids were admonished for not keeping their distance.
I slipped in behind the group, who were almost all in agreement that it was a diamondback rattlesnake. They were looking at it with the same disgust usually reserved for drug dealers or child abusers and the plan to kill the snake was clear.
"It's a Texas rat snake," I said, "totally harmless." They whirled toward me and I thought for a second that they might beat me with the tent poles for suggesting that the snake was anything less than the devil's avatar on Earth.
"It doesn't matter! It's alive," said the guy with the poles. He assembled them into a long rod and started swinging into the tree. The snake climbed higher.
I tried to encourage them to leave it alone, to explain it's role in the environment as a voracious eradicator of rats. But that old mantra reared it's head: "The Only Good Snake is a Dead Snake." 
Finally a compromise was reached: I would wait for the snake to come down and take it away from the campsite. It almost worked, too. After they backed off, the rat snake slithered down the tree and ALMOST right into my hand. That's when a park ranger approached, tipped off by a band of excited boys. The men, wanted her to "do something" about the snake. To which she replied, "there's not really anything I can do. We're in the outdoors, there are snakes!" She explained that they weren't allowed to go all lynch mob and kill any of the animals in the park. They looked genuinely surprised.
I offered her the same solution—I would remove the snake—under the condition that she wouldn't give me a citation for disturbing the wildlife. She agreed and left the area.
The snake never did come down while I was there and I went back a couple of times to look for it. Tent-pole man said he didn't see it again.
I'm really disappointed by the behavior of the adults from that troop. You guys should be ashamed! That was a perfect opportunity to teach those boys about a vital part of the ecosystem. Isn't that what the Boy Scouts/Cub Scouts are all about?

As a footnote, I want to tell you a little about the Texas rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta linheimeri)
It's one of the most commonly encountered snakes in Texas, whether in the wild or climbing the sides of houses. They grow to around 6 feet or so, but reports of larger ones aren't unheard of. Coloration is tan to brown with darker saddle-shaped blotches and usually has a gray head. It avoids humans and will try to escape, but if you grab it, it will usually bite. The bite may bleed a little, but is little more than a scratch. 
The Texas rat snake eats rodents, birds, eggs and lizards. It's ability to consume large numbers of rodents is probably it's biggest contribution. Aside from keeping the rattlesnake population in check by competing with them for food, the reduction of rodents serves to protect humans from infestation. Rats and mice destroy crops and property and they spread disease. 
"But I don't have rats! My house is clean. I'm not in danger of getting a disease from rats." Guess what: you don't have to come in contact with a rodent for disease to spread. Rodents and other small mammals are just vehicles for the real vectors, fleas. You can catch all sorts of fun stuff from flea bites, my favorite of which is plague! No, it wasn't wiped out. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) cases of plague are still reported every year around the world including in the United States!

So here's what you do when you see a snake: leave it alone. It's just doing it's job.

The Only Good Snake Is A Dead Snake Pt. 1

I can't count the number of times I've heard this little pearl of wisdom regurgitated by the uninformed whenever I try to save a snake or when I tell them I keep snakes.
Here's an interesting list for anyone who thinks snakes have no place in the world:

Multiple sclerosis
Heart attack
Heart disease
High blood pressure
Congestive heart failure
Parkinson's disease
Alzheimer's disease

What do all these diseases/conditions have to do with snakes? Venom from some of the deadliest snakes in the world is being used to treat some of the deadliest diseases in the world! Every illness on the above list is either currently being treated by compounds derived from snake venom or undergoing studies that may yield new medications. For example:
Controstatin, a compound found in the venom of the Southern copperhead has been shown to reduce breast cancer tumors by up to 70%.
Eptifibatide (Integrilin®) prevents blood clotting during heart attacks and certain cardiac procedures. It is derived from a protein found in the venom of the pygmy rattlesnake.
Viperinex (Ancrod), from the Malaysian pit viper, is being studied as an option in treating stroke victims.
Parkinson's and Alzheimer's may be treated with compounds derived from the venom of certain cobras.
Leukemia and certain cancers? Also may be treated courtesy of the much maligned cobra.
Captopril, a drug for treating high blood pressure, comes from the venom of the South American Jararaca.
Tycotoxin acts as a calcium channel blocker that may be useful in treating heart disease. It comes from the most venomous land snake in the world: the Taipan from Australia.

Snakes aren't the only living things whose venom or poison is being used to save lives. A number of insects, arachnids, fish and plants have proven to contain highly toxic substances from which lifesaving drugs can be derived. Everything in nature has a purpose, whether it's immediately apparent or not. I find that fascinating!

So the next time you or someone you love takes a pill that treats one of the diseases above, you might owe your life to a deadly snake, spider or flower.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Snake Bite

At almost every presentation I do someone asks if I've ever been bitten. My answer: yes, many times. 
I thought I'd share these pics of a snake bite I received today. This is from a 3-4 foot California king. This snake is tame, but, like most king snakes, he has a voracious appetite. Sometimes his appetite gets the best of him and he decides to try and take a bite out of me. Today, he must have been really hungry. When I took him out to handle him, he explored my hand for a bit, then slowly opened his mouth and clamped down, promptly throwing his coils around my hand and wrist and constricting. I was surprised, because a hungry snake will usually let go instantly when it realizes it's made a mistake. Not today. He chewed and pulled as hard as he could. After about a minute, I had to hold him under running water (for another whole minute) before he let go. As soon as I took him out of the water he started looking to get another grip on me. I put him back in his cage and have some mice thawing out for him.

So did it hurt? Not at all. But it itches like crazy! Like a mosquito bite or a cat scratch. I was a little worried that he would tear the skin, but even pulling as hard as he could I ended up with nothing but numerous little pin-prick marks.

The first pic above is right after he bit me and the second is a few minutes later after I washed the blood off. You can see the bite is of no consequence.

The important thing to remember is never to panic and try to pull the snake off. You'll hurt yourself and the snake. If it bits your finger, you can PUSH your finger into the snakes mouth to make it release. And sometimes a little rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizer on the snake's nose will make it release, but not always (it didn't work today; he just sneezed on me while he continued chewing). The best bet is to submerge the snake's head in running water and be patient. For big snakes, you may need a helper to pry off the snake's mouth.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Aldabra Tortoises and Ebony Trees

An interesting article about using Aldabra tortoises to rewild ebony trees.
Take a look here.