The Secrets and Splendor of Squamata

People fear what they don’t understand and hate what they can’t conquer. ― Andrew Smith

snake eye

My heart is so happy right now.   My social media news feed has been overtaken with posts about snakes!  These post are not snake-hating posts; they’re posts from snake savvy people who absolutely adore these magnificent, valuable, and misunderstood species.  They’re posting about snakes today because it’s World Snake Day!

Snakes (like most reptiles) are one of the most misunderstood and least researched animals in the world.  Before you decided to disengage from this article, please give me just a few minutes of your time.   It’ll be worth it.  And one thing is for sure:  You’ll learn something new!  And, if you are lucky enough, you might see snakes in a new light by the time you are done reading this.


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In my watershed/wetlands class my students found a juvenile Queen snake (Regina septemvittata) 🐍 We said hello then released her back into the water.

If you have been following this blog, you know that I usually discuss companion animal topics, but I have a secret: Reptiles are my passion.  When I see a snake, toad, frog, turtle, or lizard my entire being lights up with glee.  While others are screaming and running away, I am trying to figure out how I can get closer to the animal without freaking him/her out!  I know that might seem crazy to many, but if you have been in my shoes you would feel this way, too.

I have worked with snakes for nearly 20 years.  I was indifferent to them prior to this, but things change after 20 years of educating and research.  After working with exotic and domestic snakes, venomous and nonvenomous, boas and pythons, constrictors and prey chasers, common and critically endangered, captive and wild, I saw every species of snake in a new light.  Each snake taught me something new and captured my imagination.

I would like to share some of this with you.

During my career with snakes one of the most amazing things I was able to coordinate and witness still warms my heart. Youth and adults (many who were once afraid of snakes) learned to love and respect them.  Then, if that wasn’t amazing enough, I watched these youth and adults share their love and appreciation of snakes with strangers.

These mini miracles happened at The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Me and my amazing volunteers and inters on Discovery Walk
Hanging with my amazing volunteers and inters on Discovery Walk

In a very special area of the Audubon Zoo, called Discovery Walk, we focused on educating the public with facts not fear. And since most people are scared of anything that slithers, snakes were the perfect teachers. Some snakes were common snakes you could find in your backyard, and some were critically endangered.   Our collection of public education snakes were animal ambassadors. They were the voice (and face) for snakes all over the world.

My volunteers and interns learned how to care for each snake in our collection, they learned each snake’s temperament, and learned how to safely handle the snakes. They learned how to transport snakes on outreach programs, how to recognize when the snake was stressed, and when the snake was having a really good time!

Yes, you read that right; snakes can have good times!  In fact, snakes are very sensitive to our emotions, our moods, how we are feeling one day to the next, and our scents.  Some of our snakes even had a favorite handler!

Snakes are not the mindless creatures that many believe them to be.  In a word, they are spectacular.

Below is a slideshow of images that capture fun-filled education and appreciation of the species of snakes in our ambassador program.
(Note: You can see the images & captions better from your computer, not on your mobile device).

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“Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.”― Marie Curie

There are so many ridiculous myths out there about snakes.  And honestly, fear is at the heart of these misconceptions. The initial reaction when someone finds a snake is to kill it.  People do this because they are afraid.  So I am going to share a few snake facts with you today, in honor of World Snake Day, to help people to not be so afraid.

Let’s Remove Fear and replace it with Facts!

anaconda_
Anaconda researchers in the field with a live specimen – Notice the snake is NOT trying to eat the humans (another myth perpetuated in the movies).

Snake Stats:

  • “Squamata” means scaled reptiles.
  • Squamata is the largest order of reptiles, comprising all lizards and snakes.
  • Worldwide, there are about 3,000 species of snakes.
  • Snakes are on almost all continents except Antarctica, Iceland, Ireland, and New Zealand.
  • At least 50 % of Americans are afraid of snakes.

    snake skeleton
    Snakes have a beautiful skeleton
  • A true fear of snakes is known as ophidiophobia
  • Only about 15% of snakes worldwide can do actual harm to humans.
  • Only about 1/4 of all snakes are venomous.
  • There are hundreds of snake species in the U.S. but about 90% of them are non-venomous. Only 10% have venom!
  • Snakes are not “poisonous”.  Snake can be venomous.  Poison and venom differ in the method of delivery.  Poison is ingested orally or absorbed; venom, is injected. There are no “poisonous” snakes.
  • The venom gland is a modified salivary gland, and is located just behind and below the snake’s eye. The size of the venom gland depends on the size of the snake.
  • Venom is a protein. In fact, it is a very precious resource to snakes. This protein exists to subdue their prey (not to inject into humans!) Snakes do not want to waste this precious resource on us.
  • This is why over half of the snake bites that people receive from native venomous snakes are “dry bites”, meaning no venom is injected into the person.
  • Venom delivery is voluntary — snakes squeeze their venom glands with muscles to deliver venom. All venomous snakes could deliver dry bites.
  • Some snakes, like the Coral snake deliver venom to their prey (other snakes) by chewing on the snake. They use teeth in the back of their mouth to deliver the venom.  Coral snakes are extremely reclusive and are not aggressive towards anything except their prey!  In fact, no deaths from coral snake bites have been reported in the U.S. since 1967.
  • You are 9 times more likely to die from being struck by lightning than to die of venomous snakebite.snakebite_death_stats
  • A snake will bite a person (and other perceived threats) as an absolute last resort. They depend on camouflage and retreat as their preferred method of avoiding threats. When someone is bitten by snake, it is always the persons fault.  Always. And many times it could have been avoided.  I have worked with hundreds of snake species over the years, but have only been bitten 3 times.  Every single time it was my fault.
  • Snakes try to avoid human contact. Wild snake bite incidents occur when humans inadvertently step on or otherwise disturb the peaceful creatures.
  • Snakes (and other reptiles) allow more energy to remain in the food chain compared to mammals and birds. Snakes can convert 10 times more of their food to actual biomass (instead of losing it through metabolism).
  • Snakes’ presence is important for healthy ecosystems as they are predators as well as prey for other species.
  • One of the most vital roles that snakes hold is their position in the food chain. As voracious predators, snakes provide an indispensable contribution to human survival. If snakes were to disappear, we would be besieged with vermin, pestilence, plague and crop destruction within a matter of months.
  • Snakes are important to our medical advancements: Medicines for heart disease and diabetes were derived from snake venom. And new treatments for cancer, autoimmune diseases, and pain management are currently being developed using proteins and peptides in venom toxins.
  • Copperhead venom has cancer-fighting abilities and is being tested to treat breast cancer and other forms of cancer: The vemon has a protein that inhibits the growth of tumors and growth of blood vessels into tumors without damaging healthy tissues.
  • The IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) estimates that about 28% of snakes are threatened.
  • 1 in 4 snake species are threatened worldwide.
  • 12 snake species are listed as Threatened (9 species) or Endangered (3 species) in the U.S.
  • Sea snakes are now critically endangered due to over fishing and habitat loss.
  • 1.5 – 2.5 million snakes are killed for the skin trade yearly.  Even with their skins removed, they can live on in agony for days and days before dying. ~ Eden Bio-Creations, LLC © 2015
  • Conservationists believe that habitat destruction and climate change are to blame for snakes’ declining numbers.
Indy, the endangered Indigo snake, one of our snake ambassadors.  Indy was so gentle. He would sit calmly as I removed eye caps - parts of his snake skin that were stuck on him after she had an incomplete shed
Indy, the endangered Indigo snake, one of our snake ambassadors. Indy was so gentle. He would sit calmly as I removed eye caps – parts of his snake skin that were stuck on him after he shed incompletely

Snakes are not the malevolent creatures portrayed in the Bible. Over time, they have become convenient victims of superstition, bad movies and the anthropomorphic misassumption that animals can be evil. It is entirely possible that if Satan had appeared to Adam and Eve as a squirrel, humans today would try to justify an irrational fear of squirrels.

World-Snake-Day-children-and-snakes-2

Snakes Need Compassion and Conservation.

Snakes deserve much credit for the invaluable role they play within ecosystems, including the ones in our backyards!  Focusing on facts –not fear, can help raise awareness and support to better understand these misunderstood species.  Jul 15, World Snake Day, is a opportunity to see these animals in a new light, and to gain respect for them.   Let’s remove our fears and illusions about snakes.  Let’s help our fellow travelers of this Earth gain recognition as a spectacular species.

An Indian girl from a snake charmer community plays with a local snake on World Snake Day
An Indian girl from a snake charmer community plays with a local snake on World Snake Day

If you want to join the conversation, please share and use the hashtag ‪#‎WorldSnakeDay and ‪#‎CelebrateSnakes365!  And Thankssssssssssss for helping to ssssssssave snake speciesssssssss!

Related Recommended Reading

world snake day education kids

This is dedicated to every snake I have ever met.  Thank you for teaching me what I did not know.  Thank you for showing me that you are to nothing fear, but a species to be understood and respected. Thank you for showing me that within each species, each one is an individual; each having his or her own personality, preferences, and abilities.  May your beauty and gifts be seen by all men one day.  May we loose all fear of you and see you with eyes of love.

And thank you, to all of my volunteers, interns, and colleagues. You all were the greatest, most powerful voices for the voiceless.  You affected thousands of people’s lives. You were the compassionate educators. You literally saved species.  This is dedicated to you as well. All my love.

Oh My Word! Baby Birds!

Life is as dear to a mute creature as it is to man. Just as one wants happiness and fears pain, just as one wants to live and not die, so do other creatures. – His Holiness The Dalai Lama

baby bird _house sparrow Newborn We recently moved into a new home. As with most moves, there are circumstances that you cannot control, and we have had our share this move.  Our landlord has been building on an addition to the house since before we moved in, and the construction still continues.  During all of the banging and vibrations, we discovered an active bird’s nest in the exterior wall.  We had been monitoring the nest for weeks, but this weekend we heard the wee cries of new hatchlings!

As exciting as this was, we knew that we had to make a decision quickly because the construction crew was scheduled to come the next day to seal up the exterior wall with insulation and drywall. The nest was going to be sealed in there with live baby birds! We put our heads together, identified the bird species, did some bird fact checking, and came up with the best solution for this species … We relocated the nest.


NOTE: Nesting songbirds are protected by federal law, which prohibits moving their nests!

In the United States it’s illegal to remove or destroy any active nest from any native bird species.  An active nest is defined as “a nest with eggs or brooding adults in it”.  If the nest has been abandoned or no eggs have yet been laid, it can be removed or destroyed as needed.

House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and  European starlings, are not native birds. This is how we knew that it was legal to relocate the nest.

The images below show how we did it. I am sharing this to help others if they encounter a similar situation with native or nonnative bird species.

If you click on/scroll over the images above, you can see how and what we were doing.  Please note that this entire process happened very quickly, to reduce the amount of stress on the parents and the offspring.  After we moved the baby birds to the new nest area, we c l e a r e d ourselves out of the area, to allow the parents to feel safe enough to explore the area and listen for their offspring.

As we had hoped, Mother Nature and the maternal and paternal instincts saved the day! Just hours later, the cries of the hatchlings were heard and the parents found their offspring!  The mother and father are now guarding their recently relocated nest.

My husband holds the hatchling birds as I prepare a new, safer nest for them
My husband holds the very vulnerable hatchlings as I prepare a new, safer nest for them. Mom and dad watched us the entire time.

The next day we bought a bird feeder and offer them seed they prefer.

We found a very sturdy double seed bird feeder at Lowe's for $5!  I set it up in a tree that I often see the parents hanging out in. I also added some biodegradable nesting material; they have been using it already! yay!

We found a very sturdy double seed bird feeder at Lowe’s for $5! I set it up in a tree that I often see the parents hanging out in. I also added some biodegradable nesting material; they have been using it already! yay!

If you have found this article while searching for help on ‘how to move a bird’s nest’, or ‘how to help a baby bird’ it’s very important that you correctly identify the species of bird (by watching the adult birds at the nest), before you even consider interfering with the nest!  You must determine whether or not the nest removal would be legal according to local wildlife laws.  Native birds are protected species, so tampering with a nest could lead to hefty fines or other penalties.

Although often considered a nuisance species and an agricultural pest, the House Sparrow has proven well-suited for studies of general biological problems such as evolutionary mechanisms, temperature metabolism, and pest control.
Although often considered a nuisance species and an agricultural pest, the House Sparrow has proven well-suited for biological problems such as pest control.

Nests You Shouldn’t Remove

Somenestsshould not be removed regardless of the circumstances, unless wildlifeauthoritiesare consulted, or there are no other options to keep the nesting birds safe. These nests include:
  • Endangered birds that are unlikely to build a new nest if disturbed
  • Raptors or other large birds that will reuse the same nest for many years
  • Natural cavities that would be destroyed in order to remove the nest
  • Any nest in early summer that may be reused for additional broods
  • Learn more about rules regarding Relocating Nesting Birds

 

Bird Nest Facts:

  • Birds usually lay one egg a day.
  • They don’t begin incubating their eggs until all the eggs have been laid.
  • Clutch sizes vary from 2 to 8 eggs for most common backyard birds.
  • Once the last egg has been laid, incubation takes about two weeks.
  • The eggs will usually hatch about the same time.
  • After hatching, it will take another two weeks before the nestlings are ready to leave the nest.
  • To be on the safe side, and to allow for variety in species, allow six weeks before the nest is ready to be moved.
  • Learn more about incubation and fledging time for common bird species in North America.
  • Common questions about Baby Birds

 


What About Touching The Babies?!?

You’re probably familiar with the “rule” that many of us were taught as children: never touch baby birds, or the mother bird will reject her own offspring.  Unfortunately, it’s still generally believed that the mere scent of a human on a hatchling or fledgling bird will spook the mother bird into abandoning her offspring.  Good thing this misperception is FALSE!  This lore may have been invented for keeping children away from birds, in order to ensure the bird’s safety. Also, the parents of the baby bird may be nearby, and could become protective and aggressive when they see children near their nest; parents could have been protecting their human offspring with this tall tale. In fact, birds have a limited sense of smell and even if the mama bird could smell your scent, this would not interfere with taking care of her offspring.   However, if you disturb the eggs in a nest, the mother and father birds could understand that they are facing a danger, and may abandon the nest completely. So please give nesting birds the space they need!

Please help the birds and ignore those crazy myths!

Mother birds will not reject their babies because they smell human scent on them, nor will they refuse to set on eggs that have been handled by a person. Most birds have a limited sense of smell and cannot detect human scent. (If you handle bird eggs while the mother is away from the nest, mama bird will usually notice upon her return that the eggs were disturbed during her absence, and some species of bird will take this as an indication that a dangerous intruder is present and may temporarily or even permanently abandon their nests as a result. Such behavior is relatively rare, however, and in these situations the mother birds are reacting to visual warnings, not olfactory ones.)

 

Learn the Truth Behind More BIRD MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS!


So what should you do if you find a baby bird out of the nest? These graphics should help you!

baby bird out of nest help


found a baby bird

Learn more about What To Do If You Find A Baby Bird


If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men. – St. Francis of Assisi

 


Sources:

http://www.worldbirdsanctuary.org/index.php http://www.allaboutbirds.org/ http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna

That Guilty Look

 “Calvin : There’s no problem so awful, that you can’t add some guilt to it and make it even worse.” 
― Bill Watterson, The Complete Calvin and Hobbes

guilty dog_dog shaming

 

Common Myth: When our pup puts on that doleful, guilty look, they must be guilty of something, right? He/she clearly feels bad for doing something wrong.

TRUTH: Your dog knows you are angry or upset and is using that particular body posture in their attempt of using dog language to get you to calm down and avoid any punishment from you.

 

The Science-Based Truth Behind That Guilty Expression:

Nearly 75 percent of dog guardians believe that their dogs experience guilt. Just watch Denver Dog, as he is presumed to feel very guilty in this video. It’s a natural tendency for us to interpret animal behavior in our human terms, but when we anthropomorphize (compare animal behavior to human behavior) we can overlook what is really happening.  Guilt is a human emotion.  Humans often project this guilt onto their animal companions.

Dog guardians observe particular behaviors: “avoiding eye contact, lying down and rolling to the side or onto the back, dropping the tail, wagging low and quickly, holding one’s ears down or head down, moving away from the owner, raising a paw and licking” – and owners believe these behaviors correspond with a dog’s feeling of guilty.  However, these are normal and very common dog behaviors that dogs display with each other, depending on the circumstances. These displays are called “appeasement behaviors” – behavior that inhibits or neutralizes aggression in a behavioral partner.

 

When a dog owner reprimands their dog, especially with loud, deep tones, the dog will attempt to calm the aggressive behavior of the owner (note: aggressive does not necessarily mean violent) with appeasement gestures: lowered head, ears, tail and body and squinty eyes. To the owner, this looks “guilty.”

In reality, the dog is only reacting to the behavior of the owner in the present moment and not associating the owner’s behavior with the actions of the dog that occurred hours before. The owner, however, is gratified by the dog’s appeasement gestures, taking it as evidence that the dog has learned he’s “bad.” ~ 4Paws University

 

dog guilt _dog shaming _Guilty dog
Denver the dog is displaying appeasement behaviors to his human. This does not equate to proof that Denver feels “guilty”.

“In wolves, guilt-related behaviors are believed to reinforce social bonds, as in primates, by reducing conflict and eliciting tolerance from other members of the social group. The same could be true of dogs, though their social groups would primarily include humans. Submission serves to keep a social group together, to foster group cohesion.”

 

The “guilty look” — head cowered, ears back, eyes droopy — is a reaction to the minor (or major) tantrum you are now having over the damage fido did hours earlier. They are not making the connection that you must be upset because of that poop they dropped on the rug, or the shoe they chewed that you left out. They only know you are upset about something, so they are doing what dogs do best to appease each other through nonthreatening body language.

The dog’s guilty look is a response to the owner’s behavior, and not necessarily indicative of any appreciation of its own misdeeds.

A study discovered that the “guilty” look people claim to see in their companion animal is directly related to whether or not the person expected to see the look, regardless of whether or not the dog had actually done something to be “guilty” about.  When a dog looks guilty it is because they are reacting to a change in our body language that tells them something is wrong.   This leads to a dog’s body language that appears worried or nervous to us.  In reality the dog has learned to exhibit these behaviors in order to appease humans who display angry or upset body language.  Details of the research studies are here and here.

Unless your dog has been going to canine church behind your back, and has been taught to feel guilty for moral or religious reasons, it’s safe to assume that they are not actually feeling guilty; they are using their canine senses and behavior to carefully appease your anger.

paw print

 You can learn more about this subject from dog behaviorists, and read their take on it here and here.

Learn more common myths and truths about dog behavior in Decoding Your Dog, a new book from the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. Drs. Debra Horwitz and John Ciribassi.

Myths About Dog Behavior
Myths About Dog Behavior

 Sources:

Scientific American

Discovery

Snakelessness in Ireland

Glencar Waterfall; Co. Leitrim, Ireland
Glencar Waterfall; Co. Leitrim, Ireland


2014

Hello, Friends! 

Tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day AND it’s also the feast day of the original Cat Lady, Saint Gertrude, so many are celebrating all over the world.

We are not.

Although our family has a deep Irish heritage and we absolutely adore Ireland, I Am not one to celebrate nonsensical traditions.  One side of my family’s heritage is Irish and Welsh, so Saint Patrick’s Day is always quite amusing to me.  People all over the world are celebrating a culture they know very little about.  Here’s just a few facts that most green food/beer consumers know about:

  • The real St. Patrick wasn’t Irish.
  • He didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland; many see this story as symbolism for banishing the Celtic “heathens”.
  • Adding green dye to food symbolizes not only the green countryside, but also the time of the Great Famine, when Irish people were so deprived of food they resorted to eating grass; people’s mouths were green as they died.
  • March 17th is the feast day St. Gertrude, the Patron Saint of Cats.


Did You Know..?

Lá Fhéile Pádraig (Saint Patrick’s Day) is a religious holiday in Ireland, that happens each year on March 17th.  They celebrate the patron saint of Ireland – Patrick, who lived in the beginning of the 5th century AD.  Saint Patrick is the most recognized Irish saint, however, the real St. Patrick wasn’t even Irish!

Lá Fhéile Pádraig began as a Catholic holiday and became an official feast day in the early 17th century.  But today Lá Fhéile Pádraig represents a week-long (and sometimes longer) celebration of Irish language, music, culture and art.

You can learn more about the history of St. Patrick Day here and here.

The land surrounding one of the castles we stayed at in Ireland


The image below pretty much sums up the silliness of many myths and legends that have been created around this day of celebration around the world.  And the image above sums up the real Ireland. So in honor of the Irish, I wanted to share some insight into where one particular myth about this one came from.

MYTH: Saint Patrick banished all of the snakes from Ireland.

Legend states that Saint Patrick, the Christian missionary, rid the slithering scaly reptiles from Ireland’s icy shores by chasing the snakes into the sea after they began attacking him during a 40-day fast that he had on the top of a hill.  This was just around the time that he had semi-successfully converted the Irish people from paganism to Christianity during the fifth century A.D.

saint-patrick-snakes-ireland_happy st patty day_irish blessings


TRUTH:   No, he really didn’t drive the snakes out of Ireland.  At all. 

Yes, it’s true that snakes do not inhabit the island of Ireland today, but they never did.  Ireland is surrounded by freezing ocean waters. These icy waters are way too cold to allow snakes to migrate from Great Britain or anywhere else around the Irish island.  And as it turns out, we can blame the Ice Age, not St. Patrick for the lack of snakes on the breathtaking green isle.

On the cliffs of Sliabh Liag Ireland
Standing on the cliffs of Sliabh Liag — in Ireland on our honeymoon.


If you have the opportunity to visit Ireland, go.  But do so with respect in your heart for the Irish, for these people are unlike no other.  Be prepared to meet the kindest, most loving and generous people you’ve ever known.  Prepare to see breathtaking scenery, experience delicious food, and enjoy sincere, open-hearted hospitality.  Oh, and prepare to appreciate the best beer in the world.   Ireland, you have my heart.


♣ An Old Irish Blessing:

Go raibh an bóthar ardú suas chun bualadh leat.
Go raibh an ghaoth go brách ag do chúl.
Go dtaitní an ghrian go bog bláth ar do chlár éadain,
agus bháisteach ag titim bog ar do ghoirt.
Agus go gcasfar le chéile sinn arís,
Bealtaine Dia a shealbhú tú ar an dtearmann a lámh.


Brú na Bóinne
Brú na Bóinne, Ireland


Last But Certainly Not Least

Since March is Women’s History Month,  a lot of people celebrate St. Gertrude of Nivelles.  She’s a prominent historical female figure.  Gertrude is the patron saint of gardeners, travelers, widows, recently deceased people, the sick, the poor, the mentally ill, and travelers in search of lodging.  And our fellow Lord of the Rings fans will love this: Gertrude was the daughter of Pippin of Landen.

So, before you go …

check out:

St. Gertrude of Nivelles depicted with mice circa 1530.

The Real History Surrounding Saint Patrick’s Day