Awesome Snake Science
40 Activities for Learning About Snakes
By Cindy Blobaum
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2012 Cindy Blobaum
All rights reserved.
Look around — you are surrounded by snakes. Where are they? On flags and signs; on bodies as tattoos; as a part of the medical symbol in pharmacies and doctors' offices; in books, movies, and games; and on exhibit in pet stores, museums, nature centers, and zoos. Unless you are in a polar region, on top of very high mountains, or on the islands of Ireland, New Zealand, or Greenland, live snakes are outside and likely not too far away. There are around 3,000 different kinds of snakes living around the world, including the sea snakes swimming in the warm waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans, the European adder living just above the Arctic Circle, and the common garter snakes and brown snakes that call many lawns, golf courses, and vacant lots home. Even more exciting, scientists believe there are snakes that have yet to be discovered!
Snakes are fascinating reptiles that have long been both feared and revered by humans. People have hunted snakes, drawn snakes, written about snakes, built snake statues, and even created snake jewelry for millennia, with the oldest snake artwork being made well over 10,000 years ago. People eat snake meat, wear snake leather, keep snakes as pets, milk snakes for their venom, use snakes for religious ceremonies, visit snake museums, and line up to touch live snakes. Even with all this interest, for many years most snake studies focused on the anatomy (parts of the body) and the physiology (how the body systems work) of snakes. Scientists knew a lot about snakes but not much about what they needed to live and reproduce in the wild. Only recently have a growing number of scientists started concentrating their studies on the natural ecology and conservation of snakes.
During their studies, ophiologists (off-ee-all-uh-jists; snake scientists) came to a shocking realization. Just as they were starting to do more field studies about snakes, it was becoming harder to find snakes. Many species of snakes are in danger of becoming extinct.
There are many reasons snake populations are declining — their habitats are being destroyed, too many of them are captured for food and the pet trade, sometimes new animals that are introduced into snake habitats either hunt the snakes or eat their food, and snake roundups (contests to find and kill as many snakes as possible) are just a few. If snakes were to disappear, there could be a huge increase in the populations of their prey — from insects to mice and even slugs! Scientists are concerned that most people don't understand how vital snakes are to the health of our environment. All these factors make it more important now than ever for people to learn all they can about snakes.
By reading the chapters and designed to save snakes. Armed doing the activities, you will learn with this information, you can not only about the anatomy and become a snake ambassador, physiology of snakes but also educating your family and friends about projects around the world about the wonders of snakes.
Make a Research Journal
Good scientists keep records of their observations, experiments, results, discoveries, questions, ideas, and even their conversations. Many of the activities in this book include making charts that will help you keep the information in order, which will make the data easier to understand. Sometimes an activity will make you think of other questions. Write down all these things in your research journal so you don't forget them.
3-ring binder with pockets
Label the dividers, and put 10 sheets of paper in each section:
Every time you see a snake or the image of a snake, record the date, what you saw, and where you saw it. Glue in photos you have taken, pictures, comics, and ads from magazines and newspapers. Be sure to add drawings of your own!
This is where you record the results of your activities. Don't forget to write the name of each experiment at the top of the page.
In this section, write down any interesting information you see or hear about snakes.
It's easy to think of questions as you are doing something, and it's easy to forget your questions if you don't write them down. Leave a few lines after the question so you can write down the answer if you discover it later.
Write down the names and authors of books you read or the URLs of helpful websites. As you get to know snake scientists, record their names, mailing addresses, e-mail addresses, and phone numbers so you can contact them if you have questions or ideas.
Keep a few extra dividers available to make new sections as you need them. For example, if you volunteer at a nature center to help take care of snakes, keep track of your hours and experiences in a special section.
Use the pockets to hold a couple of pencils, a pair of scissors, a glue stick, a field guide, and the snake string you make in a later activity.
* * *
Once you start looking for snakes, you start seeing more and more of them. Researchers have been studying people's ability to see snakes by using a touch-screen computer to measure reaction times. They asked people to look at a group of nine pictures that were shown on the screen at the same time and touch a certain one. All the participants, from age three through adult, found snake pictures faster than they found a picture of a flower, frog, or caterpillar.
Spot the Snakes
See how long it takes you to complete this test, and then time your family and friends doing the same test.
Time how long it takes to follow the instructions at the top of the next two pages. Start the stopwatch as you turn this page, and stop it when you complete the task. Record your time, and then reset the stopwatch before you turn to the next page.
Even though people react quickly to pictures of snakes and to wild snakes if they see them, most people walk right by a live snake in the outdoors and never see it. Even seasoned snake scientists admit to walking within inches of a snake without noticing it is there. If you do see a live snake and tell someone about it, one of the first things they'll ask is "How big was it?" If you were lucky, the snake was still and you got a good look at it. Most likely, you only saw a small portion of the snake for a very short time. But people will still want a guesstimate — a guessed estimate of both its length and weight.
Snakes come in many sizes; they can be long and thin, short and heavy, or any other combination. Size differences depend on the type and age of the snake, and how well it has eaten. A mature Prairie ringneck snake might be 14 inches (36 cm) long, the same length as a hatchling ball python, but you would never mistake one for the other. The adult ringneck snake would have about the same diameter as a pencil, while the young python's diameter would be closer to that of a thick marker. African egg-eating snakes, which can only find their food during a few months each year, can be quite skinny before birds start to nest each spring. They make up for it by gorging on eggs as long as they can, gaining a lot of weight before the end of the season. Of course, snakes are also individuals, even if they are of the same species. One nearly 6-foot (181-cm) long boa was recorded at 5.25 pounds (2.4 kg), while another nearly 6-foot (178cm) long boa was only 2.25 pounds (1.03 kg).
Being able to accurately estimate lengths is a valuable skill for studying snakes and other animals, as the size of the animal is often a clue to its identity.
Roll of wide, light-colored ribbon
Markers or labels, in several different colors
Use a ruler to mark inches or centimeters on one side of the ribbon. On the other side, use various colors of markers or sticky labels to mark the normal lengths of adult snakes often found in your area.
Coil up the snake string and keep it in the pocket of your journal, ready to measure things you find.
How good are you at estimating the lengths of snakes? Use your snake string to take a survey of a yard full of fake snakes!
Fake snakes: 10 or more snake-shaped items, long and short, skinny and fat
(yarn, rope, shoelaces, belts, hoses, tubes, and, of course, toy snakes)
Have a friend scatter the fake snakes outside, putting some into coils, partially hiding others, and if possible putting one in a body of water.
Make a chart on your paper like the one shown here.
Snake scientists rarely catch, hold, and measure every snake they see. For this activity, you can
pick up three snakes;
stand or kneel next to three snakes without touching them; and
stay at least 10 steps away from four snakes.
When you first spot a snake, decide how close you can get to it and mark this distance in the first column on your chart. Then record the type of each snake in the second column (shoelace snake, spaghetti snake, etc.); whether its position was straight, coiled, half hidden, and so on in the third column; and your estimate of its length in the fourth column.
After you have estimated the length of each one, gather all the fake snakes and measure each one with the snake string. Write these numbers in the final column. Compare your estimates to the actual lengths. You can save your chart in your research journal.
Most people overestimate the length of snakes they see. One reason is that the bigger the snake, the better the story. Of course, there are other things that can affect your estimate. Based on your experience, would you believe an estimate made if someone saw only part of a snake? A snake that was coiled? A snake that was far away? Is it easier to overestimate the length of thick-bodied snakes or thin ones? What happens when something is in water?
To improve your field estimating abilities, learn the lengths of some common outdoor items. Measure the length of your hand and your foot, a section of sidewalk, a car tire, a stripe in the middle of a road, and the width of a lane in the road. Use these items as references and practice estimating the length of sticks, ropes, leaves, and other things you see lying on the ground.
* * *
Explorers in South America from the 1700s up to the present day have told stories of seeing snakes that were 50 feet (15.2 m), 90 feet (27.4 m), even 156 feet (47.5 m) long — that's over half the length of a football field! Of course, in most of these cases, no one actually measured the giant snakes, had pictures of them, or even brought back a skin, so scientists doubt the snakes were really that long.
When there are pictures, skins, or measurements, scientists often still doubt the reported size of giant snakes. You might think it would be easy to measure a snake you are holding, but live snakes rarely hold still in a straight line, their strong muscles make it almost impossible to straighten them out, and dead snakes or skins are easily stretched. Accurately measuring snakes, especially the big ones, has always been a challenge. There is also the question of what should be measured. Some scientists measure the total length, others measure from the tip of the nose to the start of the tail, and some record both measurements.
For smaller snakes, some scientists place the snake alongside a ruler and try to stretch it out. If a snake is too difficult to straighten out or too dangerous to handle, they put it in a squeeze box, which has foam cushioning on the sides and bottom and a clear plate on top. This keeps the snake from moving while the scientists lay a piece of string along its back to measure the snake. Some snakes, like anacondas, are too big for a squeeze box and might not want to hold still. So scientists use a flexible or cloth tape they lay on top of the snake.
Some people claim to have photographic proof of giant snakes. Type "giant rattlesnake" into an Internet search engine and you're sure to get lots of hits that will lead you to pictures of snakes that are supposed to be super long and really heavy. Take another look at the pictures on pages 8 and 12 and then look at the picture here. The same 12-inch (30-cm) rubber snake was used for all three pictures. Were you fooled?
The real deal.
Snake on a Stick
Many photos of "giant" snakes show people holding the snake at the end of a long stick. How heavy of a snake could you support?
4-foot (1.2-m) broomstick Handsaw
Net bag (from onions, oranges, etc.) Cans of food Masking tape
Adult supervision required.
Use the ruler to mark 25 inches (64 cm), 35 inches (89 cm), and 45 inches (114 cm) from one end of the broomstick. Make a small notch at each mark using the saw.
Put the strap of the net bag at the 25-inch (64-cm) mark. Hold onto the end of the stick and lift the net up to about elbow height. Lower the net and put in one can of food. Lift it again. Keep adding cans until you can no longer hold the net at elbow height. Add up the weight of the cans. Record that number in your journal and on a piece of tape you stick near the notch.
Repeat the same process at the 35-inch (89-cm) and 45-inch (114-cm) marks. What do you notice about your ability to lift weight at a distance? How can this stick be used to weigh things? Snake scientists often do use a long stick with a hook at the end or a pair of long tongs to pick up potentially dangerous snakes. Photographers have picked up on this and use similar sticks to make a snake look bigger than it is. They put the camera very close to the snake and far away from the person. This creates a false perspective — the person looks smaller and the snake looks bigger.
To make something look smaller, they put it next to an oversized object. The toothbrush used in the photo on page 12 was bigger than a regular one.
OK, so now you want to get up close and personal with snakes. Not so fast — remember, many snakes are becoming rare or endangered. Snake scientists design their studies very carefully and do their best not to harm snakes in any way. They also often have to get special permits. This is because most states and even some countries have enacted laws to protect snakes, and rightfully so. Some of the laws don't allow you to even pick up many kinds of wild snakes.
Of course, that doesn't mean you shouldn't look for wild snakes. In fact, even though all the activities in this book are done without a live snake, doing the activities will help sharpen your senses and give you more information about where and when you are most likely to encounter snakes in the wild. Just as ornithologists (bird scientists) have learned a lot about birds by watching them at feeders, you can learn a lot about snakes by observing them from a distance. If you are really interested in handling snakes, it's best to start as a volunteer at a museum, zoo, nature center, or pet store that has snakes. Let the wild ones live their lives naturally, out in the wild, as you increase your snake smarts by doing more activities.
What makes a snake a snake? Snakes belong to a group of animals known as reptiles. Reptiles are animals that:
have a backbone;
breathe air using lungs;
are covered with scales; and
are ectothermic (cold-blooded).
Snakes are different from other reptiles with their strange combination of haves and have-nots. They have skulls, extra jawbones, backbones, scales, and more, but they don't have arms, legs, eyelids, or external ears. Snakes may look like just a head attached to a long tail, but they are very efficiently packaged, highly specialized hunters. The shape of their heads, position of their teeth, bones in their jaws, structure of their skeleton, size and form of their scales, and shape of their tails are all factors that determine their success in where they live and what they eat. Once you get a better understanding of their basic bodies, their actions and reactions will make a lot more sense.
When I hold a snake for people to touch, most of them will shy away from the head. That's a good thing, because most snakes are pretty nervous when hands loom over their heads. Animals that attack snakes often try to strike the neck right behind the head, so it's a snake's instinct to jerk around and act defensively. However, a good look at a snake's head provides a lot of clues about a snake's diet and habitat.
The foundation of any head is the skull. Skulls hold all the pieces and parts of the head in place and protect sensitive areas like eyes and brains. Snakes show a lot of variety in the size and shape of their skulls. Puff adders have eyes and nostrils on the tops of their heads so they can watch for prey with the rest of their bodies buried under the sand. Burrowing snakes have stouter bones at the nose to help them push through soil and sand. Vine snakes have thin noses and forward-facing eyes so they have better binocular vision, which makes it easier to catch fast-moving prey. Snakes with large foldable fangs need jaws that open quite wide. So even if you don't know what type of snake skull you are looking at, a quick glance at its head can give clues about its lifestyle. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Awesome Snake Science by Cindy Blobaum. Copyright © 2012 Cindy Blobaum. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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