Category Archives: Snakes

Shiver

If you’re anywhere north of Florida right now, you have probably had it up to here with this winter $#!*. The human body changes in the colder months, as even in heated homes we simply spend more energy thermoregulating our bodies minute-to-minute. Besides gaining “winter weight,” we do something almost unique to mammals and birds: we shiver. When the body’s core temperature drops below a critical threshold, our muscles involuntarily twitch to generate heat. While exercising in the cold does heat the body somewhat, which is why your dad always told you to suck it up when you were out shoveling the driveway, most heat generated by exercise goes to waste as it is flung into the atmosphere. Shivering produces a nice, constant, and most importantly, internal heat that keeps the hypothermia at bay. Heat generation is unique to us “endotherms,” or what used be known as the “warm-blooded” animals. But there are always exceptions to the rule. If you can start a fire by rubbing two sticks together fast enough, it’s possible for even a cold-blooded snake to keep a fire inside.

Not pictured: About twelve feet and partially-digested goat.

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Pseudocidal Tendencies

If you want to know how to fake your own death, you have many exemplary mentors to choose from: Andy Kaufman. Tupac Shakur. Elvis Presley. Jesus Christ. Ol’ Dirty Bastard. The art of pseudocide is a revered tradition throughout human history. The most popular way to fake death is by drowning, as it eliminates the need to provide a body, though the 9/11 attacks also provided a convenient excuse for escape artists to vanish into thin air. The motives for pseudocide are many: most folks who fake death are evading the law, but there’s always the ever-popular publicity stunt, or fraudulent collection of life insurance. Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, faked his death and fled to Paraguay in 1966 to avoid jail time for possession of marijuana. “Lord” Timothy Dexter, a New England businessman and famous kook, faked his death in the early 1800’s just to see how people would react. (His wife refused to cry at his funeral, for which he later caned her.) Connie Franklin faked his death by homicide in 1929. Later that year, the “Arkansas Ghost” was discovered in a nearby county and was brought to court to testify at his own murder trial.

Elvis Presley: Currently 75 years old, a Walmart greeter in Boca Raton, and 500 lbs.

But pseudocide isn’t just a lame plot device or a conspiracy theory for fans who can’t cope with a celebrity death. (I know you’re reading this, Stephen Jay Gould!) Animals use the tactic of faking their deaths to get out of a pinch, just as humans do. You know it by its more common name: playing possum.

The larval stage of the Virginia Opossum, before it metamorphoses into its final "roadkill" phase.

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Serpentine

It’s Kung Fu Week on The Quantum Biologist! Chinese martial arts have been imitating the hunting and defense styles of animals for thousands of years. What can we learn about the animals from the fighting styles? Shaolin Kung Fu has five major animal styles: Tiger, Panther, Crane, Snake, and Dragon. But there are many subcategories from other regions, including Horse, Mantis, Monkey, Frog, and even Duck. We’ll examine three this week.

Love them or loathe them, you have to admit there are few animals so hypnotic to watch move as a snake. With no legs to focus on, the snake seems to move with all parts of its body at once, one fluid and graceful length of momentum. This fluidity, paired with its quick, explosive attacks, is what is mimicked by the kung fu masters of the Snake Style.

Snake Style is primarily a Southern Chinese specialty, characterized by a low stance, quick footwork, and hands held up like twin cobras and stiffened into spears for striking pressure points with blinding speed: eyes, groin, joints, and major blood vessels. Circular parries and attacks may be what best define Snake Style; the arms imitate a snake’s body while striking the opponent from unusual angles. The spirit of the style shares the low, quick, accuracy-obsessed aspects of Mantis with the flexible, slippery, sinuous grace of Crane. A Snake fighter seems to be everywhere and nowhere at once, constantly moving and evading blows, like her namesake. It was popularized in movies by both Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee, whose small stature and legendary speed lent itself well to the style. Legend has it that the modern Snake Style is an amalgam of what were originally several styles modeled after different species: the coil-and-strike venomous snakes like the viper and the cobra, and the bite-and-constrict method of the python.

So let’s reverse-engineer the kung fu style to find out how snakes really fight. When two snakes go at it, it usually comes down to a matter of wrestling one or the other into submission, and indeed the kung fu style allows for such grappling techniques. But since the style mainly mimics the coil-and-strike method of terrestrial venomous strikes, we’ll focus on that. Like most animals, snakes would strongly prefer not to fight; fleeing or hiding is the first response to a threat, and failing that, warning coloration, or an inflated hood, or emission of noxious smells, or rattling usually gets the message across. (And it isn’t just rattlesnakes that rattle; many species shake the tips of their tails in order to rustle dead leaves.) Only when there’s a complete failure to communicate will it defend itself. A snake such as a viper or cobra can attack from any position, but the classic defense posture is the coiled pedestal: two-thirds of the body is wrapped in a circle on the ground, while the top third forms a wave pattern, so that it can strike and return from a standstill.

Snake for "Eff Off."

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The Subterraneans

Underground! From rabbit warrens to nuclear fallout shelters, it’s a great place to hide out. If you’re a terrestrial vertebrate, the safest place you could conceivably be is underground, where you’re protected by a temperature-stable bunker, an ocean of dirt, rocks, and roots. But it’s one thing to dig a burrow, and another to spend all your time underground, swimming through the soil. If you’re a full-time tunneler, there are really just two body types you can evolve to fit: the “mole” model, and the “earthworm” model.

Consider the difficulties of underground travel. You don’t want to be too large, or digging would be exhausting. You don’t want large eyes, which would be useless and become full of grit. You’ll need a keen sense of smell and touch, as you’re likely to be finding food by chemical and tactile signals rather than visual ones. This star-nosed mole from North America is a great example of the mole archetype: small, compact, wedge-shaped, with sealed-off eyes and ears, powerful front claws, and 22 fleshy appendages that are among the most sensitive touch receptors in the animal kingdom. Star-nosed moles are true swimmers; they breaststroke through soil, but are also quite adept at catching prey in the water. Moles are insectivores, related to that most ancient of mammals, the shrew. But thanks to the awesome power of convergent evolution, you don’t have to be related to the moles to become a mole.

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Silent Island

When writing about the Lesser Short-Tailed Bat colonizing New Zealand 30 million years ago, I wrote it from the perspective of the bat. But no species can colonize an inhabited island peacefully. The bat might think of itself as a pilgrim, while the native birds consider it an invader. And as humans invade and colonize each other’s lands by caravan, ship, and airplane, a form of animal imperialism has followed us.

Guam is a South Pacific island that was, at one point, idyllic. We cannot know what the ecosystem of Guam looked like 4,000 years ago when it was first colonized by humans, but when the dust and blood settled over the millenia, those early pioneers forged a sort of peace accord with the island, and the ecosystem re-calibrated itself to accommodate them. These people became the Chamorro, a culture based on the principles of respect and reciprocity. They had a mythology, but no religion; ancestor veneration took the place of deity worship. (Although there is one 17th century account of human sacrifice.)

Then, in the 15th century, the Spanish invaded. To say nothing of the misery visited on the people, the island was invaded by the rats, pigs, dogs, chickens, deer, and water buffalo the Spaniards brought with them; an ecological blitzkrieg. When control of Guam was passed to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War of 1898, we established a major naval base there (and introduced the poisonous and insatiable cane toad), which in turn was captured by the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. The Chamorro suffered torture, beheadings, and rape under Japanese occupation, and the island suffered the Giant African Snail which devastated the island’s crops. This is not to mention all of the invasive plants and pathogens introduced, which starved the local wildlife and pushed out the native vegetation. Then, in the 1950’s, when the island was again under the stars & stripes, we struck what could be the finishing blow.

This is the Guam Micronesian Kingfisher. No picture I could find could do justice to the magnificent plumage of this bird, which I have seen at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. It behaves very much like North America’s belted kingfisher: furtive, with a raspy, laughing call, and specialized for diving into the water to catch small fish. It was once found all over the island. Now the kingfisher, like most of the birds on Guam, is extinct in the wild, the victim of American imperialism and a little brown snake.

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Lust

Finally. The one you’ve been waiting for.

The list of bizarre sexual rites in the animal kingdom is almost too numerous and well-documented to enumerate. Even if I were to define “lust” by the quantity of sex a species has, as opposed to just the quality, I’d be writing until you fell out of your chair, stunned by the sheer depravity and shocking variety taking place in the name of sexual selection. For example, lions in heat will mate 20-40 times a day for several days in a row, and the male lion’s corkscrew-shaped penis has backwards-facing barbs which both help him stay attached and rake the vagina to induce estrus. A pig’s orgasm can last half an hour. And how do porcupines make love? Very carefully… and also insatiably, as the female is only in heat for 8-12 hours a year. With only a half-day window of opportunity, the female will mate with a lover until he is exhausted, and then move right on to the next. Conjugal visits begin with foreplay which involves the male hosing the female with urine from six feet away.

My natural pick for an animal to represent “lust” would be the bonobo, a chimp-like ape which uses constant sex as a means of social bonding. However, since I’ve already written about the bonobo in another context, I’ll have to choose something new. Reproduction being essential for life, it’s hard to define “lust” as an over-indulgence in the animal kingdom; animals that procreate often are just fulfilling their biological imperative. But there are a few cases so exceptionally naughty, so blue, so indisputably NSFW that I am forced to admit that, when it comes to the dirty deed, Homo sapiens is a total prude.

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Venom

I like to start each day by drinking a nice hot mug of cobra venom.

Did I say cobra venom? I meant coffee. But if I wanted to, I could certainly drink cobra venom, provided I didn’t have any cuts in my mouth or esophagus. I offer this as an example of one of the many ways that “venom” is not synonymous with “poison.” A poison can be anything that harms the body, from complex organic compounds to heavy metals to atomic radiation to bleach under the kitchen sink. But venom is special. Venom is an arrangement of proteins and enzymes that must be injected into a victim’s bloodstream through a mechanical device, such as a fang. Poisons are land mines that anyone can step on; venoms are delivered special to you.

Most of the venomous animals in the world are snakes, but there are a fair number of fish and lizards that deal death as well. The stonefish, the world’s most venomous fish, uses spines to defend itself against attackers, and can certainly kill a human, and gila monsters, one of two North American venomous lizards, produce a neurotoxin which cause an excruciatingly painful paralysis. The world’s most venomous land snake, Australia’s Inland Taipan, has never killed a human due to its reclusiveness, but the venom in one bite is powerful enough to kill 100 people. A few molluscs make the list: the golf ball-sized blue-ringed octopus — again, Australian — has a blinding, paralyzing toxin that will kill a human victim in minutes, and for which there is no antivenin. The venom is nearly identical to that of the marbled cone snail, nicknamed the “cigarette snail” because you’ve got about enough time left on Earth for one cigarette after it stabs you with its neurotoxin-tipped harpoon. But the most venomous animal in the world is the infamous box jelly, the “suckerpunch of the sea,” a nearly-invisible predator responsible for over 5,500 human deaths since 1954. Of course, its fatal deathblow usually comes from the drowning triggered by extreme pain before the venom can stop the victim’s heart.

Clearly, venoms are useful to predators across the animal kingdom: reptiles, fish, insects, cnidarians, molluscs, and even a few amphibians. Why, then, aren’t more animals venomous? And why aren’t there any venomous mammals? And here is where a few of you zoophiles say, What about the duck-billed platypus? Very good; just testing you. The male duckbilled platypus, and only the male, has venomous spurs on its hind legs. The few other venomous mammals are all types of shrew, including one of the rarest and strangest: the solenodon.

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