Be Careful, Snakes!
By “Awake!” correspondent in the Philippines
RECENTLY, while workers were excavating an ancient walled city in Manila, they found an old cannon still loaded with live ammunition. Suddenly, the workers scrambled out of the excavation. Because of the cannon? No, because they had found a pile of snakes’ eggs, and parent snakes sometimes stay near their eggs until they hatch. The cry went out, “Be careful, snakes!” The workers feared the snakes more than the loaded cannon.
Unless you live in Ireland, New Zealand, some isolated islands, or areas of permanently frozen subsoil like the Arctic, there are snakes in your country. But the greatest profusion is in the tropics, and in the Philippines they are very common. However, of the almost 3,000 known varieties fewer than 200 are dangerous to man.
Examination reveals snakes to be a valuable part of the creation, albeit one to be treated with caution. They come in all sizes, from a slim six inches (15 cm) long to a bulky 40 feet (12 m). They are cold-blooded, meaning that their body temperature changes with the temperature of their surroundings. They are not slimy to the touch. Rather, their shiny scales feel dry and tough.
Watching a gymnast, you may be impressed with the suppleness of the human body. But, while our backbone may have 33 or 34 vertebrae, a snake may have over 300. One snake had 565! Hence, it can twist itself into amazing positions. Each vertebra has a pair of long, movable ribs attached. The snake moves along by the concerted action of these ribs and its scales. Usually its speed is about two to three miles an hour (3 to 5 km/h), but running men can be hard pressed to stay ahead of some snakes known as “racers.”
The snake’s diet does not sound appealing: earthworms, insects, fishes, frogs, birds, other snakes or mammals—especially rats and mice. But that is what they like. Because of the way their jaws are joined together by elastic ligaments, snakes can swallow whole objects wider than their mouths. Like us, they like to eat regularly, but unlike us, they can get along on just three or four big meals a year. In fact, some snakes can fast for a whole year and survive.
The Snake’s Senses
Our impressions of the world depend largely on what we see, hear, taste, smell and touch. What about the snake? Well, it can see also, but not too clearly at a distance. It quickly notices sudden movement, however. Some question whether it can hear, since it has no external ears. Researchers stimulating the snake’s auditory nerve were able to detect electrical impulses, indicating that it can. Also, it is sensitive to ground vibrations.
Can a snake smell? Yes. In fact, male snakes recognize females by means of smell. Additionally, the snake’s forked tongue is a remarkable piece of equipment. This flicks around picking up minute particles from the environment, which go into tiny cavities in its mouth. These cavities are linked to the smell organs. By this means, the snake can follow a cold trail where the scent would be too faint even for a bloodhound.
The pit viper has another remarkable ability. The “pit,” which is a peculiar depression between the eye and the nostril in this snake’s head, is highly sensitive to heat radiation and air vibrations. With it, the viper can trail and strike a warm-blooded prey even at night. The pit viper is also unusual in that its fangs are not permanently erect. Normally, they fold into its mouth, but when the snake strikes, it moves them into an attacking position and strikes with a stabbing motion that enables it to penetrate clothing. These two characteristics make the pit viper one of the Philippines’ more dangerous snakes.
Most people living in tropical countries have had experiences with snakes. In the Philippines, the most dangerous is probably the cobra, because it often lives near people and is ill-tempered.
For example, one morning a 14-year-old boy came downstairs to his father’s store and stepped on a Luzon cobra! The snake reared up to strike. Its mate rushed from a nearby crate of bottles to join the attack. With the snakes chasing, the boy ran behind some sacks of rice and finally escaped outside. Eventually, the cobras were cornered. In furious defense, one spat and hit a pursuer on the forehead with its venom. It was aiming for the eyes. Cobra venom in the eyes is very painful and can damage the eyesight unless washed out immediately. Finally, both snakes were killed.
Another time, a Samar cobra visited an assembly of Jehovah’s Witnesses. It was doubtless attracted by the cool, shaded grass under the speaker’s platform. After the assembly, many delegates crowded around the platform to take photographs of one another. They were still there when workers began to dismantle the platform. The cobra was disturbed and angrily reared to strike. One of the delegates, a Mansaka tribesman, on hearing the movement, quickly seized a piece of wood and killed the snake.
We have another, less common cobra in this country: the king cobra. This has the dubious distinction of being the world’s largest poisonous snake. This cobra, too, is fierce and aggressive.
On the other hand, the sea snake, although poisonous, is usually gentle and inoffensive. Once, while on a trip to Samal Island, some vacationers found one swimming along with them. It was put in a jar and shown around to everyone. Then it was released. These gentler snakes, often gold and black, live in shallow coastal waters.
Snakes usually do not attack unless provoked. Hence, a sensible person can generally avoid them. It is good not to walk without protective clothing through areas known to have snakes. Many are bitten when they tread with bare or sandaled feet on snakes hidden in the grass, or when they pick up a snake along with an armful of grass.
But what happens if, in spite of being careful, someone gets bitten? Well, first of all, don’t panic. Remember, most snakes are not poisonous. And even if someone is bitten by a venomous snake, all is not lost.
There are two basic ingredients in snake venom. One, called hemolytic, attacks the lining of blood vessels and breaks up blood corpuscles. The other, neurotoxic, attacks the nerve centers, especially those connected with breathing. Of those bitten by predominantly neurotoxic snakes—like the cobra—three out of five have no significant poisoning at all, and it is by no means inevitable that the other two will die. Even in the case of snakes with the more dangerous hemolytic poisons predominating, one out of five victims bitten is not severely poisoned.
How should a snakebite be handled? Well, first lay the patient down. Give him no alcohol and keep him as still as possible. If the bite is near an extremity, tie a band firmly on the side of the bite nearest the trunk of the body. This band should be tight enough to retard the blood flowing back through the veins to the body, but not so tight as to block the deep-lying vessels. Loosen the band for a minute and a half every 15 minutes.
Then get the patient to a doctor immediately, especially if you see large prominent teeth marks beside the circle or circles of small dents. This usually betrays a venomous snakebite. If possible, kill the snake and take it with you to help the doctor identify it.
Snakes Are Not All Bad
The few poisonous varieties of snakes tend to make people overlook the good qualities of these reptiles. For many, they are a source of food. Their skin can be useful for leather, and snake venom is used to produce anticoagulants and pain relievers. Possibly their greatest contribution is in rodent control. Rats and mice—which damage vast amounts of foodstuffs—are a prominent part of their diet.
Meanwhile, excavations continue at the ancient city of Intramuros. The diggers have uncovered many ancient chambers and tunnels. But you can be sure that, as they penetrate these links with the past, they remember the warning: Be careful, snakes!