Snakes! / by Louisa Ulrich-Verderber


Recently I started reading Snake Bit, a book about the lives of herpetologists and the stories of how they came to this strange profession. It's a very interesting read, and it made me wonder, beyond anti-venoms, what can we learn from our limbless friends? 

Historically I have had a pretty good relationship with these creatures. There are no poisonous species of snakes in northern Vermont, so as a child there was no danger from picking up and inspecting a baby garter snake, except that they tended to pee on you. Their smooth scales and soft, almost velvety, underbellies were fascinating to me. As a child I wanted - and still do want - to understand them, to know how they work.  

And thanks to PBS I, and you, can!


Aren't they amazing? Each species is so perfectly adapted to its specific environment, perfectly camoflaged, perfectly equipped with venom or other survival strategies. And think of what we can learn from such a successful class of animals?  

From a Biomimicry stand point snakes are a gold mine. They have a multitude of different adaptations that are not only useful to them, but can be useful to us. 


  • Scientist have learned how to produce anti-venom, a medicine derived from many of the most potent species of venomous snakes, that counteracts the poison. This advancement has saved countless lives in snake inhabited areas of the world, but many places have no access to anti-venoms.  
  • What if there was a way to vaccinate people from snake venom? This thought came to me as I was reading Snake Bit. One of the herpetologists mentioned he had been bitten many times by venomous snakes and he appeared to have built up a sort of immunity to certain venoms. What if we could apply this to patients? Much like a tetanus vaccine, a small non-lethal dose of the venom would be given to the patient and over time they would develop an immunity to the toxin. It may not work, but it's and idea. 


  • Snakes have excellent sensory abilities, far surpassing our own. Though most ground snakes eyesight is not superb, their other senses more than make up for it.  
  • Hearing: 
    • Snakes have great hearing; far better than ours. Though their lack of an external ear may seem like a hinderence they have evolved to not need it. Their jaws take the place of our fleshy external ear. Low frequency vibrations from the ground and air travel through the snakes body to the jaw, then to the quadrate bone ( the bone connecting jaw to skull) and then to the inner ear. This sensitivity to ground vibrations may be very useful. If we could utilize the sensitivity of the design of the quadrate bone we might be able to improve seismograph accuracy to better predict earthquakes. 
  • Smell:
    • Snakes have done something spectacular with their sense of smell: combined it with their sense of taste. The snake's nostrils have no olfactory organs, and are only used to breath. Their tongue, however, is used to capture scent particles in the air and converts them to sensory information. They accomplish with with the helps of the Vomeronasal organ. Located on the roof of the snake's mouth, this organ is highly sensitive and accurate, making the snakes sense of smell far better than ours. By studying the design and functions of the Vomernasal organ we could enhance the accuracy of chemical detectors, such as smoke and carbon dioxide sensors, thus better protecting our homes and businesses. 
  • Heat receptors: 
    • This is by far my favorite snake sense. Some snake species have the ability to sense the heat created by living creatures around them. These heat sending organs, or pits are often located on the bottom (informalbial) or top (supralabial) lip of the snake. Pit Vipers have especially sensitive heat pits. The pits on a Pit Viper are concentrated into just two pits on the front of the snake's face. The pits are so prominent on the Pit Viper's face that they are often mistaken for nostrils. The pits are a pore divided by a membrane positioned against the opening to the chamber and the maxillary bone. The membrane is a double sheet of epidermis, separated by connective tissues, blood vessels, and free nerve endings. The heat seeing ability of the pits allows pit vipers to hunt their prey in the complete darkness of a moonless night or in an underground den. These pits are so sensitive that a blinded pit viper can sense a mouse that is a 10 degrees warmer than the surrounding air from 70cm away. By studying the heat pits of snakes, new techniques to detect heat and enhancements in current heat sensing technology could be made. This could be used to enhance surveillance technology, military reconnoissance, and search and rescue. 

I think nature is amazing. Evolution is amazing, and the multitude of things we can learn just through observation astounds me. I feel so lucky to be living on earth at the time that I do, when there is still so much to be discovered and created.