Dead Snakes Hold Hidden Secrets

by | Last updated Apr 8, 2014

Dead-cape-cobra

Dead snakes, like this Cape cobra, can aid our learning and understanding.

There are very few experiences I enjoy more than coming across a wild snake. It doesn’t matter whether it be while attending to a snake removal callout or when stumbling across one in the wild, the result leaves me with feelings of wonder, awe and excitement. I find that each experiences is a learning opportunity which adds a tiny piece to a very large puzzle.

Dead snakes don’t keep me up at night or make me teary eyed. Don’t get me wrong I do get frustrated when snakes are killed unnecessarily but I also understand that snakes are part of an integral whole, a bigger picture, an intricate ecosystem with different players constantly shifting the balance on population numbers of every species on the planet.

As many of you reading this will know, since biblical times, snakes have received a bad reputation which threatens this balance as our own population grows. I stand on the side of snakes partly because many others won’t.

They are natural underdogs and I love supporting the underdog.

And although we do our best to rescue as many snakes as we can to prevent this balance from shifting, dead snakes are inevitable and are in fact often very important for science.

Dead snakes excite me because they hold opportunity and secrets.

Fire and Mole Snake

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Fierce Teeth of a Mole Snake

This is a mole snake like you’ve probably never seen before. You may have heard that mole snakes can give a nasty bite but I don’t think that there are many images which illustrate just how potentially potent a bite from this snake could actually be. Those teeth look needle sharp!

The recent fire where this snake was caught is unfortunate for this snake, especially considering that we  released a mole snake of this approximate size only a few days before.

Fortunately though we found him, and now we can learn from him. How do I know it was a him?

There were more snake secrets exposed by the fire that day. Ever heard of  hemipenes?

everted-hemipenes-of-a-dead-mole-snake

Everted Hemipenes

Hemipenes is the word used to refer to the pair of copulatory organs in male snakes.

Although some snakes like the adders are relatively easy to sex by sight alone most snakes can only be sexed accurately with probing by trained snake handlers. Even then, this process requires a sterile environment and the equipment to do so must be on hand.

The fire in the image on the right has taken care of this process for us by drying the mole snake out and everting the hemipenes. I would imagine that being burned is not the best way to go but when it comes to fynbos this is par for the course.

This fire in particular has gifted us with an example of the inner reproductive structure of this snake which many of us might otherwise have never seen.

A Drop of Cape Cobra Venom

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Cape Cobra Fang

This death of this Cape cobra was a little less natural than the mole snake. It was the victim of a large stick; used after the snake struck a large dog in the face resulting in the canine’s unfortunate death later the same day.

There are other ways to deal with a snake, death does not have to be its fate, this is what we work towards; but in a situation like this where the owner is left to rush off to the vet leaving an injured snake with another curious dog doesn’t seem to leave much choice.

(The owner subsequently completed a snake handling course – great stuff!)

When I collected it for identification it was a little too old to send off for DNA samples so I excitedly decided that I would take it away and give it the chop.

Let’s see what lies beneath…

cape-cobra-venom-gland

Cape Cobra Venom Gland

I was  a little nervous to dissect the head of this large Cape cobra. Although long dead I knew very well that it was still dangerous so I took every precaution to keep my skin away from the pointy pieces in this snake’s mouth.

And I was excited. I’ve done my fair share of reading on snake anatomy, including the structure and functioning of various snake venom apparatus; I’d seen pictures but I’d yet to come across the real thing which I was dying (not literally) to do.

And I wasn’t disappointed.

The white tissue leading to the fangs is the much-bigger-than-expected-venom-gland. One can easily see why they have “chubby” cheeks; a feature which distinguishes Cape cobras from mole snakes

I discovered that this gland was still filled with venom when I sliced it open and the viscous fluid slowly oozed out.

Incredible! Amazing!! Worthy of Much Respect!!!

I feel incredibly grateful for this experience and happy that I was able to capture it with photographs which I hope to use to educate with. The death of these snakes have increased my understanding of them and were certainly not in vain.

The death of these two snakes have gifted me with a few more secret and rarely seen pieces of the puzzle. I feel that the more I understand about snakes the more I am motivated to protect and aid the survival of these misunderstood creatures. The underdogs.

But You May See it Differently???

Here is where you help me out. Do you think that images like this help in people’s understanding or do you believe that they inspire more fear?

All you have to do is tell us whether you like snakes or hate them and comment on whether or not, you believe, images like this help the snake conservation cause.

Snake playing dead with a question mark over its head.

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