On the Cusp of Enlightenment: An Advice Column

Dear Simone, 

What is so great about snakes? I hate them and they’re annoying. Change my mind. Give me an example of a good snake.

Signed, 

Indiana Jones 

Dear Indy,

I know more about snakes than you do. 

Do you really want to know what is so great about snakes? Because honestly, everything about them is so great. I need you to recognize that my expertise surrounding these sexy, legless carnivores is not to be argued with — I will not stand for any more attempts to undermine my grasp of snakes. 

The dirty lowdown on this elongated squamate is as follows: snakes are absolutely gorgeous vertebrates who are covered in a perfect sheath of overlapping scales. Snakes can be land-dwelling and/or sea-dwelling and are found on every continent sans Antarctica. Some species contain venom for subduing prey, and some kill prey by swallowing it whole or through constriction. Get the picture? Still not convinced that I know more than you do? Okay, I will continue. 

From the most prolific Colubridae to the few Pythonidae, species of snakes are as varied as their markings. For this reason, I will be focusing my time displaying my knowledge of the one of the only two venomous snakes in North America: the pit viper. Oh, you were unaware that besides the coral snake, every venomous snake in the United States is a pit viper? I am not surprised, considering my knowledge of snakes far surpasses yours. 

Snakes in the family Viperidae are all equipped with long, hollow fangs through which they inject venom. What makes pit vipers, or Crotalinae, different is the presence of a pit organ between the snake’s eye and nostril. This heat-sensing pit gives these vipers a sixth sense — they can actually detect the infrared light coming off of prey, which allows them to find and determine the size of the animal they are hunting. Even when deprived of smell and sight, pit vipers can utilize this sensory organ in order to accurately hunt and feed on prey. Pit vipers also contain another organ that differentiates them from the other snakes within the Viperidae family — a muscle that helps push venom out of the gland — but I will not go into this, as it is far too advanced for someone without the knowledge of snakes that I possess. 

I bet you are thinking, “Does this mean the eastern diamondback rattlesnake and the southern copperhead belong to the same subfamily of snakes?” to which my answer is: “Yes, obviously. Have you even been paying any attention?” It is true: moccasins, lanceheads, rattlesnakes, hognoses and every venomous snake in the United States (besides the eastern coral snake) belongs to the same subfamily: Crotalinae. 

As you may have guessed by now, I love snakes. I especially love pit vipers, and within that family, my favorite genus of snake is the Agkistrodon. Of the genus Agkistrodon, there are three closely related snakes: Agkistrodon bilineatus (cantil/Mexican ground pit viper), Agkistrodon piscivorus (water moccasin/cottonmouth) and, my personal favorite, Agkistrodon contortrix — the copperhead. I know what you are thinking “Simone, copperheads are so boring! You should have picked a more interesting snake, like a boa constrictor!” to which I say: “Beat it, simpleton!” 

Copperheads are far from boring: they are slinky, mysterious, dangerous and intrepid vipers. For one, their coloring is absolutely gorgeous: copperheads are well-adapted to camouflage, and they blend seamlessly into the forest floor, with their scales resembling fallen leaves. Copperheads are also amazing because of their defense mechanism: they are notorious for freezing in place when threatened, which leads them to being stepped on by humans and the humans consequently bitten. While completely benign if left on their own, copperheads will not hesitate to strike if provoked. And, if you were paying any attention, you would know that this snake is venomous. While not deadly, the pain inflicted by copperhead venom is intense and definitely not particularly pleasurable. However, because personal reactions differ, it is impossible to know the extent to which you will be affected by a snake’s venom! It is that unpredictability and danger that really makes these sexy pit vipers my favorite snakes. Your careless judgement on the merit of the copperhead is what situates you below me in terms of snake scholarship and appreciation, obviously.

The next time you doubt or challenge the beauty and elegance of snakes, I suggest you reassess your choices, as the information I have given in this piece is a mere chip off of the iceberg of snake beauty. I sincerely hope that this has subdued your baseless assumption that snakes are “annoying.”

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