For many people, snakes are far from their favorite animals. Ophidiophobia, or the fear of snakes, is common, and many humans would rather never encounter a snake. For these people, snakes do not seem to have any value to humans, but that’s not really the case.
Across the world, snakes are also used as a source of food or clothing. Snakes are a vital part of any ecosystem as a form of pest control, keeping down the populations of harmful rodents and insects. Scientists also take inspiration from snakes when creating medicine and robots to improve our lives. Many people also keep snakes as pets, deriving companionship and a sense of responsibility.
If you are not yet convinced of the usefulness of snakes, then let’s take some time to learn about the many ways in which snakes are beneficial to people.
In What Ways Are Snakes Useful?
Snakes serve a wide range of functions for humans, alive or dead. These purposes range from the material to the symbolic.
While many people see snakes as pests, they are a useful part of any ecosystem. Snakes keep rodent populations in check, including mice and rats. When snake populations go down, rodent populations tend to go up.
Other animals eaten by snakes include birds, lizards, and worms. Small snakes, such as garter snakes, green snakes, and ring-necked snakes, hunt insects and arachnids. All of these are animals harm crops.
The garter snake, in particular, is a welcome presence in any backyard. Garter snakes eat amphibians, including toads. This is remarkable because many species of toads are avoided by snakes. These toads secrete a strong toxic substance that will harm most snakes and also can affect human skin. However, garter snakes are immune to the chemical defenses of toads.
Some species of snakes also eat other snakes. This can include harmless snakes eating venomous snakes, which reduces the chance of humans coming to harm from a deadly bite. Eastern Indigo snakes and Kingsnakes have a protein in their blood which renders them immune to the venom from vipers’ fangs, and so they actively seek out venomous snakes to eat.
Snakes also help human scientists and researchers explore and understand the world around us. Let’s explore for ourselves some of the ways snakes move the scientific world into the future.
Snakes are a valuable subject of medical research in many areas. For example, the venom of a snake often proves to be part of the cure for that same snake’s bite.
The first antivenoms were created in the late 1800s. In this process, an animal such as a horse is injected with the venom of a snake. Then, the plasma from the blood of the envenomed animal is extracted and used to create antivenom.
The process of extracting venom from a snake is known as “milking.” Snakes must be milked several times in order to generate enough venom to create a useful amount of antivenom.
Horses are a durable animal that serves well during the injection process for creating an antivenom. Other animals used during the antivenom creation process include sheep, goats, donkeys, chickens, rodents, rabbits, and even sharks.
Additionally, researchers at the Queensland University of Technology report that snake venom toxins are an invaluable part of developing tools to assist with hemostasis (preventing bleeding).
Depending on the species of snake, the materials that make up snake venoms include coagulants, which help the blood to clot, and other materials which inhibit platelets from stopping up wounds. Potentially, this knowledge could assist with the creation of treatment of disorders such as hemophilia, a condition in which a human’s wounds will not heal properly.
Of course, the venom of a snake is not the only part that has helped medical science. A study performed at the University of Kansas examined the use of shed snakeskin as a model membrane. Despite their many differences, snakeskin and human skin have similar levels of permeability.
This means that if scientists were trying to perform research regarding human skin, such as drug absorption through the skin and the viability of skin transplants, they could use snakeskin for their tests instead of human skin. Since snakeskin is readily available through shedding processes, cheaper and less harmful to obtain than samples of human skin, and easy to store and handle, this is another way in which snakes become a useful tool for medical research.
Since snakes don’t have legs, snakes move their bodies in a very different way than humans do. They can even climb on walls. One notable form of snake movement is the rectilinear movement pattern, often referred to as “creeping.” This movement allows the snake to move its body in a straight line, rather than swerving from side to side in a serpentine movement.
Researchers at Ibaraki University in Japan studied the rectilinear movement pattern of snakes and figured out how to replicate this motion through robotics. They created a snake-like robot that was able to move without legs in a straight line. This enabled the robot to enter small, confined spaces, just like a snake would use this movement pattern to enter a tiny burrow.
A robot that can easily enter small spaces like this one could prove to be an essential part of search and rescue efforts in the wake of natural disasters. A snake-like robot does not have legs that could be potentially impacted by debris or stuck in holes, enabling the robot to more easily navigate rough or uneven terrain.
These robots could also enter tunnels too narrow for humans to crawl through in order to find survivors buried in the rubble. If these robots were used to climb vertical surfaces in similar ways to living snakes, this could expand the reach of these vital searches to new heights.
This is just one of the ways that scientists have taken inspiration from snakes to create better technology. Researchers at Columbia University used the movement of a snake’s backbone as a model for developing a telerobotic system for throat surgery. Snakes are vertebrates with a remarkably flexible backbone, in which each segment of bone can shift and rotate separately.
This snake-like piece of surgical equipment is flexible, with actuation redundancy that minimizes the load on each individual piece of the backbone, much like the shifting, flexible parts of a snake’s backbone. Because of how flexible and durable it is, this equipment could be made much smaller and less invasive than previous designs.
Researchers at Arkansas State University discovered that some species of birds use snake skins as a material for building nests. These snakeskin nests are much less likely to be attacked by a mammalian predator, such as a squirrel, than nests made with other materials. These animals may be driven away by the sight or the smell of the snakeskin, which a squirrel would associate with danger.
Like birds, humans have looked to snakes as a source of protection. One example of this is the use of venomous snakes to build up a tolerance for poisons. Mithridates VI, the ancient King of Pontus, made this process famous by having himself bitten by snakes in an attempt to evade any future attempts by enemies to poison him.
To this day, the practice of gradually self-administering non-lethal amounts of poison in order to render yourself immune to that poison is known as “mithridatism.”
Source of Food
While this might sound strange to people in many parts of the United States, snakes serve as a source of food in many parts of the world.
Snake soup is considered a delicacy in southern China, particularly during the winter. It is a warm food, historically believed to have medicinal properties. It is said to ease arthritis symptoms, cure chest coughs, and improve blood circulation.
While these curative properties may be a myth, the popularity of this soup is clear, especially in the province of Guangdong. Water snake and python are the most common types of snake used in this soup, while often another meat such as chicken is added to the soup for additional depth of flavor.
All kinds of snake have been used in Chinese dishes throughout history, including rat snake, boa constrictors, rattlesnakes, sea snakes, common garden snakes, and even cobras. Often the snake is referred to on the menu as a “brushwood eel.”
Snake wine is another Chinese product, in which the meat is distilled in a high proof liquor.
In some parts of Vietnam, snake is considered a delicacy. Restaurants cater to both locals and tourists, some of which even allow you to select not only the type of snake you wish to eat, but the specific live snake in their stores that you want.
A meal made from a smaller snake is usually cheaper than one made from a larger snake. All parts of the snake are used to cook, including organs, bones, and even the heart. Here are some of the many kinds of foods made from snakes:
- Grilled snake ribs
- Snake egg soup
- Snake spring rolls
- Snake meat wraps
- Sautéed snake intestines, including the stomach and liver
- Sautéed snake meat
- Fried snake bones
- Fried snakeskin
- Snake porridge
- Snake broth
- Rice steamed in snake fat
While most modern American restaurants are unlikely to serve snake, various indigenous North American tribes were known to eat snake.
For example, the Onondaga Iroquois ate timber rattlesnake, often preparing it in a manner similar to cooked fish. The Manhousat tribes also ate common garter snakes, cutting off the tail and sucking out the snake’s fat.
Tourists to Hong Kong often report that snake soup tastes like chicken. However, that may be because chicken meat has been combined with the snake meat in the soup for extra flavor.
According to The New York Times, breaded, fried rattlesnake is rather bland and tastes like tilapia.
Clothing And Accessories
According to Biodiversity & Conservation, snakes, especially large snakes, are less likely to be hunted as a source of food as they are hunted for their skins. The commercial skin trade is one of the greater threats to endangered snake populations in the wild.
The European Union is the world’s largest importer of reptile skins, which are often used to create purses or other bags. Snake leather has been used to make belts, coats, shoes, boots, hats, vests, and fashion accessories such as wallets. Snakeskin has even been used to create cigarette cases.
Craftspeople use snakeskin for its pliable quality. The skin is also waterproof, which makes it a useful covering for boots. Of course, humans are also drawn to the striking, beautiful colors and patterns of snakeskins of all kinds of snake species. The natural patterns of snakes rival the designs created by professional fashion designers.
Today, snakeskin clothing in the United States is often another type of leather with a snakeskin-style pattern decorated on it, rather than actual snakeskin. This allows for the preservation of snake populations. Unfortunately, the skin shed by snakes is much too thin to be used as fabric for clothing or bags, so the only way to make a snakeskin outfit is to kill snakes.
Snakes are frequently found at reptile shows and local pet stores, and many people choose a snake as their first pet. While snakes are not domesticated like dogs and cats are, they are a part of the exotic pet trade.
Snakes might not seem as cuddly as a fluffy cat or dog, especially since they usually avoid humans in the wild. However, depending on the species of snake, you may find a more timid or outgoing pet among them. Snakes can be socialized to trust their owners and to enjoy being handled, having fun exploring their owners’ arms and shoulders.
Snakes are relatively easy to care for compared to other animals. They usually do not need to be fed more than once per week, and they do not require extensive walks or grooming.
Taking care of a snake can give a human a sense of responsibility and purpose. When an animal depends on you for care and sustenance, you feel important. Many reptile keepers find that their snakes grow to recognize their voice and smell, responding to their presence in a trusting, friendly way. Snakes can become a valuable companion.
Humans have been fascinated by snakes forever. Snakes feature heavily in mythology in cultures all across the world. You may already be familiar with the serpent in the Christian Bible, which tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden to eat the forbidden fruit.
However, Christianity is not the only cultural context to use the symbol of a snake. Let’s take a moment to explore these other symbolic uses of snakes.
According to Flavor and Fortune, a magazine of the Institute for the Advancement of the Science and Art of Chinese Culture, the Chinese have a historical respect for snakes. Snakes are often depicted in a supernatural light, as the manifestation of river gods.
The snake is one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, as well, often referred to as the Serpent. However, snakes were also seen as the representation of demons and negative qualities, with a reputation of being both clever and wicket.
Egyptians also held a certain reverence for snakes. Serpentine-shaped jewelry was common, and the image of a snake was placed on a pharaoh’s crown.
Across the Mediterranean sea, the ancient Greeks revered snakes as a symbol of healing, leading through history to the depiction of a snake on the caduceus symbol often seen in hospitals. This symbol, the traditional symbol of the Greek god Hermes, depicts a rod with wings and two snakes wrapped around it.
For many Native American cultures, snakes were seen as a symbol of the earth, and consequently a symbol of nature or fertility. This is because of the snake’s closeness to the ground.
In India, there are many Hindu temples still dedicated to cobras. These snakes are often depicted in paintings and statues of the deities Shiva and Vishnu, the reptiles draped around the gods’ necks. The annual Hindu festival Nag Panchami celebrates the snake.
Wherever you go in the world, you will find humans who see the usefulness of snakes. Snakes are revered symbols and beloved companions They are a source of food, clothing, and protection. Snakes even serve as the inspiration for the technologies of the future. Whatever you may think of snakes, they have been a valuable part of the world ecosystem for thousands of years, and they are not going anywhere.