Snakes. Some people are afraid of them, some people tolerate them, and then there are the few who love them. Whichever category you fall in, it is important to know that snakes play a very important role in the ecosystem.
Snakes are among the least popular of animals. Along with spiders, leeches and other "creepy-crawlies," people often perceive snakes as animals to fear and hate. In the case of snakes and spiders, some are venomous, with a few having the potential to kill. Snakes don’t have legs and are ectotherms — they depend on external sources, such as the sun, for heat. Snakes being so different from us has led to the belief that "the only good snake is a dead snake" — the vast majority of spiders suffer the same stigma.
Snakes have amazing adaptations they use to find their prey and to avoid predators. Snakes do use their tongues to smell! Snakes have nostrils, just like humans. But a snake’s tongue is also very important when it comes to their sense of smell. When a snake flicks its tongue in the air, it picks up tiny chemical particles. When the snake brings its tongue back into its mouth, the tongue fits into a special organ on the roof of the mouth. This special organ is called the vomeronasal system. The vomeronasal system takes those tiny chemical particles and tells the snake what they are. This way, the snake “smells” things like dirt, plants and other animals.
Many snakes help control some animals we consider pests. But not every snake eats every pest. Instead, many have evolved to feed on specific prey. Gopher snakes (also called bullsnakes), mostly prey on rodents, but also eat birds, eggs and some lizards. Rubber boas are known to feed on other snakes, mice, birds and lizards, as well as worms, slugs and insects. The hognose snake, famous for its ability to puff up to scare off attackers and then “play dead” if it doesn’t work, eats toads. Small snakes, such as green snakes, garter snakes, and ring-necked snakes, hunt insects. Some even specialize in daddy long-legs! But snakes are sometimes the prey.
Snakes aren't always the top predator; they can become prey for higher predators. Snakes are prey for birds like hawks and herons, or mammals like skunks and raccoons. Some snakes are even preyed upon by other snakes, like the kingsnake, which can prey on rattlesnakes because they are immune to rattlesnake venom. Each population helps keep the other in check, creating a balance among the earth’s inhabitants.
Zoos and biologists are spreading the word about the good points of these amazing scaly predators in a bid to protect them. A single black snake, for instance, can eat dozens of rats a year.
Of course, even the humblest snake may hiss, coil, puff up, or bite if confronted by a person or other threat. Indeed, these behaviors can scare people and endanger the snake. But if you encounter a snake, biologists say, the best thing to do is leave it alone. Snakes usually prefer to retreat when encountered but can become defensive if threatened. Most snake bites are received by people who try to capture or kill a snake or accidentally and unknowingly stumble upon one sunning themselves. Doing away with snakes removes a check on the pest population, allowing that population (i.e rats) to increase.
If you want to learn more about snakes, come by Lee Richardson Zoo and stop by the Finnup Center for Conservation Education. We have several snake species native to Kansas, and there is always an educator eager to talk about our misunderstood, but beloved by zoo staff, snakes and other reptiles.
Max Lakes is the curator of education at Lee Richardson Zoo.