THE UNOFFICIAL SNAKE WEBPAGE

COBRA

  • INTRODUCTION
  • WHAT IS A SNAKE?
  • HOW SNAKES AROSE
  • MOVING AROUND

    INTRODUCTION

    Snakes are the most splendid of animals, though their alien form, so different from that of human beings, is loathsome to many people. They are successful predators who have pioneered elegant strategies to turn leglessness to their advantage. Some of them can catch a bat in mid air, even in the pitch dark. Others can climb among the thinnest of twigs, stretching and contorting their bodies into superb, geometric designs. There are some that are so strong that it takes three men or more to unwind their coils from around the trunk of a tree.

    Being "snake fans" we also marvel at the diversity of their exquisite patterns and colours. There are over 2,700 species ranging in size from 10mm to 10 metres.

    WHAT IS A SNAKE?

    Snakes are members of the class Reptilia together with lizards, crocodilians and turtles. All these reptiles have water proof skins covered in scales or horny plates that can be modified to make elaborate crests or spines, or transformed into toughened armour or protective shells.

    Snakes show the most conservative of reptilian designs. Their streamlined bodies are stripped to the bare essentials and only a few have any adornments at all; some vipers have a horn on their snout and there is a water snake with tentacles, but as snake accoutrements go, that is about it. To identify one from another it is necessary to look at the marvellous patterns and colours of the skin, as well as subtle differences in shape and size. There are some species of snake so similar, that to tell them apart one must count the exact number of scales at specific points on the body.

    Outside appearances may vary; a turtle is very different from a snake, for example, but on the inside all reptiles have an important feature in common. Unlike mammals and birds they do not have an internal heating system that allows them to maintain a constant body temperature. To keep active reptiles must rely on external sources of warmth, so if air temperatures are not high enough to keep them up to speed, they must bask in the sun. Under these conditions if you can watch a snake or lizard for long enough you will see it shuttling between sun and shade to keep its body at just the right temperature.

    In the tropics it is so warm that reptiles can function for much of the time, but in temperate climates cool weather forces them to remain torpid in their retreats and they must hibernate during the winter.

    Another feature that defines a reptile is that their embryos are enclosed within eggs, although snakes and lizards may seem to give birth. Those able to do this retain their eggs within their bodies - becoming a sort of mobile incubator, until development is complete and they produce a litter of babies.

    GARTER SNAKE

    HOW SNAKES AROSE

    When it comes to legless reptiles the snakes are not an exclusive club. Many lizards, some skinks, slowworms and the Australian Flap Footed lizards have lost or nearly lost their limbs. But why? These lizards are either burrowers or denizens of confined space. In a tunnel anything that sticks out from the body can snag and hinder movement, so it is much easier to a "smoothie" and do without legs. In all probability the first snakes evolved as legless creatures to be efficient burrowers.

    Snakes have also lost their external ears and the ability to hear most airborne sounds. Instead the bones in their head are modified to detect vibrations, vitally important underground. A burrowingorigin also led to snakes have their glassy unblinking stare. They do not have eyelids, so can never shut their eyes, even when they are sleeping, but there is a tough transparent spectacle that protects the eye from damage when the snake is pushing through soil or dense vegetation. The prototype snake designed for a subterranean lifestyle probably arose from a lizard-like reptile. There are even some snakes that show direct evidence of an ancestor with limbs; the giant boas and pythons have tiny spurs at the base of the tails, the vestiges of legs. Many scientists think monitor lizards are the closest living relatives of snakes. Like them they have a deeply forked tongue for sampling odours in the air and the ability to swallow large items of food. The ancestral stock of snakes may have looked very similar to these giant lizards. Whatever may have happened 120 million years ago, the first snakes soon expanded their empire above ground and set about colonizing the world, using skills unique to themselves.

    MOVING AROUND

    At the surface snakes had to find effective ways of locomotion without the use of legs. They do this in three main ways:

    1) Squirming or Serpantine movement

    Muscular waves undulate the snake's body in a series of S shaped curves and it propels itself forwards by levering the hind part of each curve against the irregularities in the ground. Snakes swim by pushing the curves against the resistance of the water.

    2) Caterpillar Crawl or Rectilinear Creeping

    A technique used by stout, heavy snakes such as pythons and vipers. They move slowly forwards by pushing groups of belly scalesagainst the ground while sliding others forwards, giving the general impression of the whole body glidingin a straight line.

    3) Sidewinding

    Some snakes that live on shifting sand have a spectacular mode of travel. The snake throws out a lateral arc with its head and the front part of its body; while transferring the rest of its bulk to this forward purchase, it throws out another loop, and by repeating this process it moves sideways in a series of steps.


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