Are snakes really as scary as people think they are? And why are they scared of them in the first place? The most common reasons I hear include “they’re all poisonous” or “they’re going to eat me”! Many of these reasons are really just misunderstandings. Let me debunk some of these myths for you.
Myth: Snakes are poisonous; they will try to bite and kill you.
Let’s start with the first part: not all snakes are ‘poisonous’. In fact, only about 600 or 25% of all snake species are deemed venomous (not poisonous). Further, only 1 of the 9 species of snakes that live in British Columbia is venomous; that snake is the Northern pacific rattlesnake and it lives in the Thompson Okanagan Region.
Next up: people believe that if a snake strikes (or bites) at them, the snake is intentionally trying to hurt them. This is not the case! Most snakes are non-aggressive and are much more afraid of you than you are of them. If there’s a potential danger, a snake’s first defense is to stay hidden, it’s second is to escape but – if neither of those defenses are options – it’s third defense is to strike. This may happen because it’s been startled. By striking, they are letting you know “Hey! I’m right here! Please don’t step on me!”. If you think about it, a snake striking is a similar reaction to a human kicking or hitting if they’ve been startled.
Myth: Snakes can eat you.
The longest snake species is the Reticulated python, which usually reaches lengths of 25 feet on average. The second longest snake is substantially shorter; the Green anaconda averages around 18 to 20 feet. Only the Reticulated python has been known to eat people only in extreme circumstances. I can’t stress enough that this is an incredibly rare event. Here in British Columbia, the rattlesnake can reach lengths of 4.5 feet while the Western yellow-bellied racer can reach up to 6.5 feet long. A snake this small cannot possibly eat an adult, or even a tiny human.
Ok. So now that we’ve cleared up those common myths, let’s tackle some common questions.
Why do we even need snakes?
Snakes are top predators. When you take out a top predator, whether it be a bear, fox, shark, or snake, the result is often devastating to the ecosystem in which they live. Without competition, the prey will flourish and overrun the ecosystem; this leads to decimation of other animals and plant life. Oftentimes, we do not fully understand or realize the full effect that removing a top predator has had on the ecosystem for many years or decades.
Plus! A snake’s main diet usually consists of things that people do not want in their homes or backyards, including rodents and other pests. Having snakes around is a natural pest control.
What challenges do snakes face in the wild?
Snakes are a wildly misunderstood and understudied group of animals. More and more, scientists are working on projects with local snakes to find out where they are located and the impact made when snakes disappear from a habitat.
Habitat loss is a major problem here in British Columbia, especially for species that live in the Interior. There has been exponential growth in housing developments and vineyard/orchard planting and this development pushes the snakes out. Sometimes it disconnects groups of snakes and they cannot find their way back together, limiting reproduction potential. Some species only nest and hibernate in one area and, if their den is destroyed, they are unable to find a new home and don’t survive the winter.
Human conflict is a huge threat to snake survival, as many societies and individuals around the world choose to kill snakes simply because they do not understand snake behaviour. Fear and lack of education are some of the largest reasons why snake populations are declining here in British Columbia and around the world.
Can we help snakes?
Now that we’ve covered that snakes are not out to get humans and that they’re quite important to have around but are facing significant challenges in the wild, let’s explore what we all can do to help.
If you see a snake in the wild, give it some space, please. Just stand back and admire. (Or you can be like me and get giddy with excitement!) And, if you do see a snake, you can be a research assistant and report your sighting to local rescue and research groups trying to find out where snakes are hiding. This will help protect snakes and their environments for many years to come.
You can also learn a bit more about snakes here in British Columbia and around the world. (Reading this post is a great start, if I do say so myself!) The simple act of increasing your snake knowledge and your understanding that they are not so scary after all helps break stereotypes and protect these animals.
Of course, you can visit the Vancouver Aquarium to learn more. In addition to being able to see the ball pythons, boa constrictors, anacondas, and more, you can come face to face with snakes and spend time with snake biologists during our Meet a Snake program. Click here for program times.
Aquablog post by Andrea Cotter, Vancouver Aquarium biologist and assistant curator – Amazon. Andrea’s a life-long snake enthusiast and lover of reptiles.