This famous line from the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark, reflects the sentiment of many folks in response to the mention of snakes. In an earlier Project Noah blog posts this week by Neil Dazet, we learned that almost 51% of American people have a fear of snakes. I cannot even begin to tell you how many times I have heard, ‘the only good snake is a dead snake.” But did you know that snakes are such a valuable part of our environment we would be hard pressed to live without them? In fact there are many people who now owe their life to a snake!
What is venom? The American Heritage Dictionary of Science defines venom as, “a poisonous substance secreted by special glands of some snakes, spiders, scorpions, lizards, and similar animals, who inject it into their prey or enemy by biting or stinging.” In the scientific world, venom is injected, while poison is ingested. Therefore, spiders and snakes are considered venomous rather than poisonous. Because of the many components of venom and the unique properties of each specific to the many different venomous species, researchers are studying the natural pharmacy of potential medicines that may be used in the near future to treat and even cure diseases.
For instance, if you or a loved one have ever suffered a heart attack and have been treated with either of the drugs eptifibatide or tirofiban, then you owe many thanks to snakes. Eptifibatide is a drug that was developed from the venom of rattlesnakes and tirofiban was developed from the venom of the African saw-scaled viper. Venom is a complex mixture of proteins and varies upon its makeup from different snake species. Those same proteins that make venom a deadly cocktail when injected by a snake, can be used by doctors in modified amounts to treat human disease. The two drugs mentioned above are used to halt heart attacks when given within the first three hours of symptoms.
Ancrod was developed from the venom of the Malayan pit viper (Calloselasma rhodostoma) and has been used to help prevent deadly stroke-causing clots during difficult surgeries. Contortrostatin, a protein found in the venom of the southern copperhead (Askistrodon contortrix) is showing much promise in treating breast cancer and the venom of the African black mamba is being studied for the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
But snakes are important to us in other ways too. Do you like to eat? Of course you do, but what do snakes have to do with food? Snakes are the best form of rodent control and have the unique ability to go where the rodents can go. None of the traps mankind has invented, the cats we have spread around the world or even the birds of prey, can get to the rodents like snakes, or equal the number of rodents consumed by snakes. Even if you don’t like to eat your veggies, the meat animals you consume rely on the vegetation/grain produced on farms. Without snakes to control the rodent population, vegetation/grain production can greatly be impacted. Crop loss and ruination of stored grain by rodents and their feces and urine can range upwards to 100% on some farms during periods of rodent population explosions. Grow your own vegetables and fruits? Many of our smaller snakes feed on slugs, snails and other garden pests and they are non-toxic and do not cause cancer!
Did you know that snakes could help protect your home from fire? It is estimated that about 20% of all house fires in the U.S. of unknown origin can be attributed to damage caused by rodents chewing on wiring and other electrical components. Because of their constant need to gnaw to keep their teeth in check, rodents may also cause structural and other damage to your home or property. And let’s face it, if a poison is toxic enough to kill a small mammal; is that really something you want to ever have near your children?
What about disease? Hanta virus occurs naturally throughout most of North and South America; it is airborne, and in the absence of prompt medical attention, its infections are usually fatal. The main host for the hanta virus is rodents. Rodents carry many other diseases that can be transmitted to humans (zoonoses), among them: Rabies (Lyssavirus), Plague (Yersinia pestis), Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis virus (LCMV), Salmonellosis, Tuberculosis and many of the tick-bourn diseases like Lyme’s Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Do you like to hunt or fish? Snakes affect the quality and numbers of game animals available. They help to prevent diseases in these animals and promote stronger stock by weeding out weak, diseased or old members. They can also affect the food available for game animals to eat. Large timber rattlesnakes show a food preference for squirrels. In preparation for winter, squirrels collect and bury nuts, seeds and acorns in underground stashes. Other animals like deer and turkey are then deprived of these foods except for the occasional accidental uncovering of a poorly buried shallow stash.
Nature is a system of checks and balances. If you remove one component from an ecosystem, the balance shifts in favor of another. And while humans like to think we have control over life; when we tinker with these systems we start a cascade of events the consequences of which we may not even realize for months, years, decades or even generations. In the United States, it is easy to learn the venomous snakes from the non-venomous and how to take measures to reduce or event prevent human-snake encounters. There is NEVER a good reason to kill a snake in any of our protected parks and natural habitats. Remember, snakes do a valuable service in the environment and the costs of killing them far outweigh the costs of protecting them and the benefits living with them provide in the long run. So in answer to the question posed in title of this blog, I know why it has to be snakes and I feel very fortunate to share my world with them.
This article was originally published September 21, 2012 as a blog for www.projectnoah.org
Photo of Lisa Powers is courtesy of Serpent Encounters