Is getting rid of snakes the answer?

Snakes! Some of us love them (like me, man I love them!) and some of us HATE them – so much so that getting rid of snakes is commonly held as a necessary way to deal with these animals. But just because we dislike something doesn’t make it unimportant.


Think about paying taxes, stopping at a red light or going to your in-laws for Christmas lunch. Painful maybe, but we accept and continue on because we understand the importance of each. We are able to see the bigger picture and accept certain things in life that we cannot change.


We learn to live with them.


I believe that we can all learn to live with snakes with a small shift in perception. And if you’re a die-hard snake hater thinking that you’ll never change then read on.


Your life may depend on it.


1) No Chain No Gain


For any ecosystem to function there needs to be a flow of energy. Without it, nothing, not even humans, would survive.


For most ecosystems the ultimate source of energy is the sun. Plants, for example, capture the sun’s energy and use it to convert carbon dioxide into glucose. And because us animals need energy but can’t do this on our own we rely on other organisms to produce energy for us in the form of carbon bonds. These organisms are known as producers or autotrophs.


Energy is passed through the food chain when one organism eats another. Each link in the chain is equally as important as those little production plants which initially harness the sun’s energy. Each link in the chain is known as a trophic level.

Food Web

A trophic pyramid (a) and a simplified community food web (b) illustrating ecological relations among animals.

Snakes form a critical link in this chain for many species. Just as we rely on the plants and animals that we eat for our own energy needs, snakes rely on other organisms for their energy needs as do certain predators on snakes. A group of food chains is known as a food web and snakes may occupy multiple trophic levels depending on the ecosystem they find themselves a part of.


A balanced and healthy ecosystem requires that all the links of the chain are strong and in place. And not just for nature’s sake. Human’s rely on the ecosystem services that nature provides – which are any positive benefit derived by humans from nature.


Ecosystem services are diverse and varied ranging from provisioning services such as drinking water, regulating services such as flood control, to cultural services such as recreation. Importantly, we must remember that ecosystems themselves rely on underlying natural processes for their own existence.


Do you know what this means?


This means that everything that is derived from nature, i.e. our very survival, is derived from healthy ecosystems. Healthy ecosystems rely on a transfer of energy through the trophic levels. Snakes often occupy multiple trophic levels. And this brings me to why we need snakes.


Ecosystems need snakes. Humans need ecosystems. Therefore humans need snakes.


Still not convinced? Let’s talk rats.


2. Do you Know the Value of Free Pest Control?


A single pair of brown rats can have up to a million descendents in 18 months. Getting rid of snakes would also eliminate the free pest control service they provide.

Try this on for size. In optimal conditions a pair of rats can have up to a million descendants in as little as 18 months. Yes, a million!


The brown rat originally from Asia is now found worldwide. With a gestation period of just 21 days, a female brown rat can produce up to five litters per year. A single litter producing up to 14 young.


Thankfully, rats are short-lived and there is up to a 95% mortality rate each year. This is due to competition with other species and direct deaths from our friends – the predators.


And as you might remember – snakes are predators – they eat other animals to acquire energy.


Rats are no fun. Imagine an unnoticed pair breeding in your attic, your basement or any other area close to home. There could be hundreds in only a short matter of time and there is always the possibility of getting sick from these dirty, noisy and destructive animals.


Rats are omnivores and will eat virtually anything that humans do. This includes seeds and the fruit of crops. Other rodent pests such as mice are known to eat grain. We all rely on agriculture in some form just as we rely on ecosystems for our survival.


In come the snakes and by now you will probably begin to realise where I’m going with this. Snakes provide a service by limiting the growth of a pest population. And the best part is that this service is free.


What other predator besides a snake can get into your roof or basement and take care of business as efficiently?


3. Snakes are Food Too


Unless you’re a city-slicking-robot living inside a sterile bubble devoid of any carbon based lifeforms, I’m sure that there are some wild animals that interest you. Perhaps one of these animals is a snake killer. It’s not unusual for snakes to be killed and eaten by other animals – in fact there are certain species which rely greatly on snakes for their energy requirements.


Remember the food chains we spoke about as the first reason why getting rid of snakes is a bad idea? Not only do snakes remove pests for free but they serve as an important food item for a variety of species. Birds of prey, mongooses, cats of all species, coyotes, wild boar and even certain frogs are some examples of snake consumers.


Leopards playing tug-of-war with a South African rock python.

But one of the biggest killers of snakes is in fact other snakes. The King cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) is arguably the most well known of the snake-eaters, while others such as the North American Kingsnakes (Lampropeltis spp.) and locally the Cape cobra (Naja nivea) are prolific snake hunters. In some cases, snakes have the fascinating ability of being able to swallow other snakes even longer then themselves.


Read here to find out how they do this.


Do snakes seem like mysterious evil beings to you? Well if you look closely it should be clear that they are simply a predator like any other. While owls and felines rip their prey to shreds snakes swallow theirs whole. And besides the benefit to the ecosystem that these predators have – think about what the world would be without them: no bears; no leopards; no eagles.


Humans love predators! Shouldn’t we naturally love snakes too?


4. Nutrient (Re)Cycling and the Value of Shed Skin


Andrew Durso of Life is Short but Snakes are Long has written a very interesting article on the value of snake sheds.


He worked out that in the United States alone snake sheds might account for up to 1.6 billion pounds of shed snake skin each year. Roughly 3.6 trillion calories of energy which would be enough to feed the state of Alabama for an entire year. That’s some serious energy being poured back into the ecosystem.


And importantly – these sheds contain nutrients.


Inorganic nutrients occur in limited quantities and their loss to an ecosystem or retention and re-use is of great importance.


Burmese python shedding its old skin. In the United States, snake skins may return up to 3.6 trillion calories of energy back into their ecosystems.

Nutrients are ‘cycled’ through an ecosystem via food webs and eventually returned to the earth by the decomposers. This frees up the nutrients for use by other organisms and the cycle continues.


It is unknown exactly how much impact snake sheds have on the environment, but from Andrew’s figures the effects are likely to be significant.


Did you know that other animals use the shed skins as well?


Shed snake skins have a pungent smell – a smell which is exploited by certain animals such as ground squirrels in California. The squirrels mask their own scent to limit rattlesnake predation by chewing up rattlesnake skins and then licking their own fur.


Some bird species use snake skins in their nests. One study concluded that flying squirrels, avid nest predators, avoid nests with snakes skins in them most likely because they are vulnerable to predation by snakes themselves.


Fascinating stuff right? For a more detailed account on the use of snake skins in nature see this post by Andrew Durso.


5. Snake Venom: A Cure for Cancer?


Venom from the green mamba has been used to create centertide – a medicine which lowers blood pressure, reduces heart fibrosis and protects the kidneys from an overload of salt and water.

Venom – the stuff of nightmares for some, the light at the end of the tunnel for others.


Venom is nature’s most efficient killer. This highly modified saliva consists of a complex cocktail of proteins and peptides. Some of the proteins are toxic while the peptides play a supporting role – they aid in digestion and some add to the venom’s toxicity.


The toxins in the venom start out as harmless molecules which previously performed other functions elsewhere in the body. And as they started out as harmless molecules the toxins can be changed back.


Why change toxins from venom back into harmless molecules?


The ability for scientists to return the toxins to their harmless counterparts is increasing the potential scope to create disease-combating medicine.


The processes of the toxins in venom have always been important for medical discoveries. However, the venom’s lethal nature has been a major hurdle. Until now. The latest finding suggests that nontoxic versions of the toxins may exist in the snakes body, increasing the likelihood and potential for the venom to offer us new state-of-the-art medicine.


Dr Wolfgang Wüster from Bangor University explains:


Many snake venom toxins target the same physiological pathways that doctors would like to target to treat a variety of medical conditions. Understanding how toxins can be tamed into harmless physiological proteins may aid development of cures from venom.


The Killer, The Saviour


Venom has evolved to target vital processes in the body with deadly efficiency. Some venoms target the nervous system by blocking messages between the nerves and the muscle. Others destroy cells and tissue. Venom kills in various ways: by clotting blood, causing respiratory failure or by blood haemmorhage.


Ironically, it is the killer properties which currently make venom medically valuable.


Venoms are fast acting and highly specific. Just as medicines target molecules by fitting them like lock-and-key, venoms can be used in the same way – targeting disease with life-saving effect.


A peptide fused from the venom of the green mamba (Dendroaspis aungusticeps) has been used to create centertide, which not only lowers blood pressure and reduces fibrosis in a failing heart but shields the kidneys from an overload of salt and water. It’s close relation, the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis), has venom which could potentially be used to synthesize a new painkiller – more powerful than morphine.


And if that’s not enough there is potential on the horizon for stroke, diabetes and even cancer cures. Researchers have found a component of snake venom which successfully inhibits the migration of cancer cells.


And we’re only just scratching the surface. Venom may just prove to one the most medically valuable natural commodities available at our disposal. Snakes are valuable carriers of this resource. A resource which could very well save your life.


Is Getting Rid of Snakes the Answer?


Snakes are simply predators like any other. There is nothing supernatural about them, nothing unnatural and certainly nothing evil. But this alone doesn’t appear to be enough for many people to want to keep them alive. An egocentric approach is needed.


This approach allows us to see that snakes are far more similar to us than we think. It allows us to see that snakes are an integral part of the ecosystems that we need to survive.


Snakes fill multiple trophic levels as both predator and prey. They are the ultimate recyclers, returning incredible amounts of energy back into the natural world.


And their venom, the killer protein-peptide compound humans are both afraid of and amazed by, could hold the key to ground breaking medical discoveries. It could save your life.


What do you think? Do snakes have an equal role on this earth or is getting rid of them the answer?


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