by Dr. J.Subramanean
Snake are more fascinating than any other animal in the world. Due to fear arising out of lack of knowledge they are often killed. There are about 2,700 snakes in the world of which about 278 are found in India. Snakes are cold blooded vertebrates that can be broadly classified into arboreal, terrestrial, burrowing and aquatic. Most snakes are harmless and can be safely handled however. Some species like the ‘common four’ are deadly venomous and should be treated with care. The four common Indian venomous snakes are Cobra (Naja naja: Tamil Name: Nalla pambu), Common Krait (Bungarus caeruleus; Tamil Name: Kattu viriyan), Russell’s viper (Daboia russelli; Tamil Name: Kannadi viriyan) and Saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus; Tamil Name: Surutai pambu ).
General facts: Frequently asked questions
Which is the smallest snake in India?
It is the worm snake (Typhlops brahminus)
Which is the largest snake in India?
It is the reticulated python (Python reticulatus).
Which is the longest venomous snake in the world and found in India?
The King Cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is the longest venomous snake
Which is the only snake that is known to build a nest.
The King Cobra
Which is the most poisonous snake in India?
It is the Common Krait (Bungarus caeruleus )
Do snakes eat eggs?
The only snake that eats eggs is the Indian egg eater (Elachistodon westermanni). Other snakes including the cobra do not eat eggs.
What determines a snakes activity?
Like all cold blooded animals a snake’s main pursuit is optimum temperature. All snakes bask in the sunshine to maintain an optimum body temperature. Only when the temperature is in the right range will they feed, mate and produce offspring. When it is too cold the snake becomes sluggish to pursue its prey or escape its enemies and when it is too hot it dehydrates and di
How and When do snakes reproduce? Snakes breed once a year and always with their own kind. Each species has its own breeding season. Water snakes, cobras, pythons and rat snakes among others lay eggs while vine snakes, vipers, sea snakes and others bear living young actually incubating the eggs internally. The King Cobra scrapes together leaves to build an elaborate nest at bottom of which she lays her eggs. The babies release themselves from the leathery eggs with the help of an egg tooth. They stay together for the first few days after hatching and disperse later.
How do snakes find mates to reproduce? Snakes reproduce by sexual reproduction. Males and females leave behind a scent trail during the breeding season by which they locate each other for reproduction.
What do most large land snakes feed on? Most snakes feed once in a few days but large snakes like the python feed once in a few months. Some large land snakes feed on mice, rats and frogs while water snakes feed on fish and frogs and sea Snakes feed on fish and eels. Krait and King cobras are exceptional in being snake eaters. Some snakes have to swallow their prey whole and it is amazing to see a snake tackle a frog two or three times the diameter of the head and get it down within minutes.
What do small and young snake feed on? Some young snakes feed on lizards, insects and their larvae, scorpions and earth worms. Very little is known about the feeding habits of young and small snakes.
Are snakes found in the sea? Yes. There are many species of sea snakes. Sea snakes are also among the most poisonous snakes in the world.
When do snake move about? Some move about during day (diurnal) while some move about at night (nocturnal). Kraits and Russell’s viper move about at night while most land snakes move during the day. The cobra moves about both in the evening and at night.
When does a venomous snake come in contact with humans? All snakes defend themselves by biting. Cobras come in regular contact with humans since they are active wide ranging hunters of rats, frogs and toads all which can be found in our homes, garden and crop fields. Russell’s vipers are bush dwellers but they come close to humans due to abundance of rodents in our crops during harvest time. Cobras and Russell’s Viper keep a check on the rodent population.
What is moulting? Snakes have dry skin often with a polished gloss that helps them travel fast unhampered by limbs. As snakes grow they moult and shed the skin and the shed skin is called a slough.
Why does a Cobra raise its hood? The cobra may raise a hood as a warning to indicate it is dangerous.
How does a snake sense the environment? Snakes depend mostly on their tongue to pick up scent particles from the air and ground and transfer them to the Jacobson’s organs present in the roof of their mouth. This is how they track their prey, find mates during breeding season and avoid predators like mongoose and Man. It is true snakes cannot receive airborne sounds but they are sensitive to vibrations on the ground
What role does snake play for mankind? Snakes should be called farmers best friend. No other animal is perfectly suited to pursue and trap rat’s right down their holes. Most people are unaware how destructive rats are. Dr.Salim Ali when explaining the role of rodent-eating birds mentioned that 20- 50 % of crops are eaten by rodents. Killing snakes can be avoided through better awareness about their behavior.
Role of the teacher: Awareness program about snakes will be organized in schools. Organize a class room session dedicated to lessons on snakes. In this session possibly with a slide show presentation the students should get a brief introduction about snakes. This will involve a summary of various species that are possibly found in the area and various aspects of the role played by snakes for benefiting mankind. The four common venomous snakes will be described and be presented to be identified by the students. The students will be able to recognize the venomous snakes in the field after the class room session.
Snakes around us: Myths and beliefs about arboreal non venomous snakes like Bronzeback tree snake (Dendrelaphis tristis; Tamil Name: Komberi Mookan) and Common Vine snake ( Ahaetulla nasuta; Tamil Name : Pachai Pambu) will be explained. It is believed that Komberi mookan will bite a person and climb a tree to see the body of the bitten person’s funeral fire being burnt. It is also falsely believed Pachai pambu will peck at one’s eyes. The water snakes are Striped Keel back (Amphiesma stolatam, Tamil Name: Nikitan kutti), Checkered Keel back water snake (Xenochropis piscator; Tamil Name:Thanni pambu) and Olive keel back water snake ( Atretium schistosum; Tamil Name :Pachai Thanni Pambu) will be identified. Large terrestrial non venomous snake like the rat snake (Ptyas mucosa: Tamil Name: Sarai Pambu) is mistaken to be the female of a Cobra which is not true since both are different species. Burrowing snake Common Sand boa (Gongylophis conicus: Tamil Name : Mann Pambu) is wrongly believed to produce leprosy in people. It is falsely believed that the Cobra will dance to the tune of the snake charmer. It is the movement of the hood that the snake responds to and not the sound.
Snakes are commonly seen in rural habitats adjoining paddy fields. Students living in rural areas must be encouraged to talk about the snake that they have found in their locality.
First aid that has to be given in the case of a venomous snake bite will be described.
- Keep the patient calm and resassure him with the fact that most bites are dry bites and also bite might be from a non-venomous snake.
- Protect the person and others from further bites. While identifying the species is desirable in certain regions, risking further bites or delaying proper medical treatment by attempting to capture or kill the snake is not recommended. Keep the person calm. Acute stress reaction increases blood flow and endangers the person. Don’t waste time washing the wound.
- Call for help to arrange for transport to the nearest hospital emergency room, where antivenom for snakes common to the area will often be available. Make sure to keep the bitten limb in a functional position and below the person’s heart level so as to minimize blood returning to the heart and other organs of the body.
- Do not give the person anything to eat or drink. Do not administer stimulants or pain medications, unless specifically directed to do so by a physician.
- Remove any items or clothing which may constrict the bitten limb if it swells (rings, bracelets, watches, footwear, etc.). Keep the person as still as possible. Most snake bites are from non venomous snake and identification of the difference between a venomous and non venomous snake will make one lose all fear of snakes. The four common venomous snakes need to be recognized when looking at the snake in the field by the student.
http/.www.tnresources.org/Ecology/Species directory/ Snakes
Daniel, J.C. 2002. The Book of Indian Reptiles and Amphibians. Bombay Natural History Society & Oxford University press
Whitaker, Romulus & Ashok Captain. 2004. Snakes of India – The field guide. Draco books. India.