Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Snakes alive

A week or so ago, still in the U.S., I was swimming with the grandkids in the pool at son Dan's house. And swimming along with us was a snake.

Mind you, this was no anaconda. It was a tiny snake, about ten-inches long and as thin as a shoelace. Still, it was enough to make the kids jump screaming from the pool.

As far as I could recall, I had not seen this species of snake before. It was distinctive: brown with a bright yellow ring around its neck. Easy to identify. I typed "ring-necked snake" into Google and there it was, Diadophis punctatus. Slightly venomous, but non-aggressive and of little threat to humans. Secretive and nocturnal, which probably explains why I had not seen one before. Dan says they occasionally end up in his pool, unable to get out.

We gave it an assist.

The neck ring has a role to play in Diadophis sex, according to Wikipedia: "Once the male finds a female, he starts by rubbing his closed mouth along the female’s body. Then, the male bites the female around her neck ring, maneuvering to align their bodies so sperm can be inserted into the female’s vent."

Why did the kids jump screaming from the pool? No one likes snakes, no matter how small. Or almost no one. Snakes and humans have a long myth-wrapped mutual history, which Ramona and Desmond Morris cataloged nearly fifty years ago in a book called Men and Snakes. Our fear of snakes is deeply cultural; it may even be genetic.

Way back in the mid-17th century, the Italian physician and scientist Francesco Redi wrote a book on vipers. He begins: "Every day I find myself more firm in my intention of not trusting the phenomena of nature if I do not see them with my own eyes and if they are not confirmed by iterated and reiterated experience, since I realize always more what a difficult thing it is to pry into the truth often obfuscated by falsifications." A more apt description of the spirit of the Scientific Revolution could hardly be found.

Redi assembled everything that had previously been written about vipers and subjected that "knowledge" to experimental observation, shredding serpent myths in the process. Most men are sheep, he said, choosing to believe what they have been told is true.