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Snakes, legless members of the class Reptila, throughout history have borne the weight of myths and legends that portray them as evil rather than as the benefactors of humankind. Based on their propensity for preying on small mammals including disease-ridden and economically damaging Norwegian rats and house mice, snakes should be praised, not beaten. Of the roughly 2,100 species of snakes worldwide, only 200 species carry the potential for human suffering and death in their venom.
In North America, 137 snake species are represented by seven families including the notorious Viperidae (vipers and pit vipers) and highly venomous Elapidae (coral snakes). While most of the rattlesnakes (genus Crotalus and Sistrurus) are elusive and nocturnal, generally avoiding human contact, other relatively harmless and beneficial snakes such as the bull snake or gopher snake (Pituophis catenifer) often find themselves facing the sharp end of a shovel.
Not only patterned and colored as a rattlesnake, the gopher snake will often resort to behavioral mimicry by "rattling" its tail when threatened. The tail, which does not compare to the rattlesnake's anatomical rattles, actually vibrates rapidly in imitation of its toxic relative's "buzz". An accompanying noise is created at the mouth end of these often-substantial serpents (up to 6.5 feet long), completing the illusion. This evolutionary strategy of mimicking a poisonous creature has been repeated successfully again and again in the animal kingdom, but in this case, a strategy that is effective against potential bird and mammal predators, actually results in increased mortality when these snakes cross paths with humans. Gopher snakes are amazingly efficient constrictors and consume large quantities of mice, rats, gophers, prairie dogs, and rabbits during their relatively long lives of approximately 25 years.
The fear of snakes (termed ophidiophobia) may be rooted in primate evolution, according to some experts. Many species of snakes are capable of climbing and hunting in trees. Primates, particularly their young, are vulnerable to snakes such as the enormous reticulated python (33 feet in length) and other predators, if attacked while asleep in the branches, high above the rainforest's floor. Still others believe the fear is cultural and that most children display no fear of snakes, that is, until they notice their parents' alarm and the behavioral traits are learned. Some people have such an overwhelming, irrational fear of snakes that the phobia may restrict their lifestyles. Therapies, including desensitization exercises and hypnosis, are available in these cases.
Cynthia D. Kelly, Thomas J. Fellers and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310.
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