If you’re afraid of snakes, no doubt you’ve wondered why we can’t just get rid of them entirely. Well, as it happens, there are many uses of snakes that mean we should keep them around.
Using snake venom is the only way to make antivenoms that work. Snake venom is also used extensively in medical research. Snakeskin is a highly prized material used in high-end fashion. Snakes also play a crucial role in the ecosystem, killing pests like mice and rats. And, of course, you can keep snakes as pets.
Most important is the role that snakes play in nature. Of course, they kill pests, which does make them useful. By killing all snakes, not only would most places be overrun with vermin, but the numbers of birds of prey and similar animals would decline because they couldn’t hunt snakes.
Why Do We Need Snakes?
Anybody with a phobia of snakes will, at some point, have thought: why can’t we get rid of them? What good do snakes do except scaring people?
Snakes are useful for many reasons. They’re a vital part of the ecosystem across the U.S., and they’re used in various industries. But perhaps the best example of people and snakes co-existing is in rural areas, where snakes help farmers. The vast majority of snakes eat rodents small and large: mice, rats, shrews and similar. Many also eat small insects like crickets, grasshoppers and the like.
So, how does that help farmers? Well, mice and rats love to eat crops. They especially love to eat harvested grain, nuts, seeds and similar. That’s why you’ll find so many rodents near grain silos and in fields. But where there are lots of rodents, you’ll also find lots of snakes. That’s how ‘corn snakes’ got their name—because they were always found near stores of corn and grains, where there were plenty of rats to feed on.
Of course, modern farmers use pesticides to keep pests away. But in other parts of the world that are less developed, snakes are one of the only things that people have to protect their crops. In places like India, Southeast Asia, and Africa, farmers realize that snakes do a whole lot of good.
Are Snakes Important for The Ecosystem?
All animals play a role in the ecosystem. If you’ve never thought about the ‘ecosystem’ before, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a nice spiritual idea—everything being in ‘harmony’ and playing a role in nature—but that this doesn’t mean anything in practice.
When people talk about the balance of the ecosystem, this is a genuine phenomenon. If just one species in an area becomes extinct, this can have very far-reaching effects.
Snakes and The Food Chain
Snakes are part of the food chain. The food chain is a familiar idea to almost everyone—but it’s more complicated than most people realize. At the bottom are ‘producer organisms,’ which create energy from their natural surroundings. Plants that generate energy from sunlight are the most common.
Next in the food chain are herbivores, like cows and squirrels, which eat plants. These animals, in turn, are preyed on by primary predators, which are themselves eaten by secondary predators.
The final animals in the chain are apex predators, which aren’t hunted by any other animal. That being said, they are ‘eaten’ in the end by animals that eat carrion like worms and flies, and by fungi and bacteria too.
If you were to remove all of the snakes from a food chain, that would have irreversible effects. An example might be:
- Grasses that produce grains (producer organisms)
- Mice and rats (which eat grains)
- Snakes (which eat the mice and rats)
- Brown snake eagles (which eat snakes)
If you were to remove snakes from this food chain, very quickly, mice and rats would explode in number. Not only that, but larger animals like birds of prey would no longer be able to hunt and eat snakes, and they would decline in number. So, by removing even just one species, other species could take over the environment and other species could die out too.
Effects on the Environment
Unfortunately, this isn’t just bad for the animals in that particular food chain. It’s bad for the entire environment. It’s like deer. Currently, one of the few things stopping deer numbers from getting out of control is the fact that people hunt for them during the open season.
If there were too many deer, they would strip vast areas of woodland of grass and sapling trees, which would cause certain species to die off, and others to become more common too. That’s what people mean when they talk about keeping balance in the ecosystem.
But why would deer numbers be ‘out of control’? Their most common natural predator is almost gone. Before the U.S. population grew during colonization, wolves were common across practically the entire continent. But with the expansion of the country, the wilderness had to be ‘tamed,’ and wolves were a major threat to early colonists. So, we killed the wolves we came across, and now there’s only a fraction of their number left. This has allowed deer to become far more common than they ever were.
The same applies in reverse, too. According to NBC News, for example, brown tree snakes have been disrupting the environment in Guam. After they were introduced to the island, local birds and lizards declined in number. Because these animals are the most common pollinators on the island, Guam’s plant life began to die out too. Conservationists are trying their best to get rid of the snakes, but the damage is already done.
Economic Importance of Snakes
Snakes are also economically important. As we mentioned above, they help farmers by killing common pest animals. But they’re even important in other industries too. The first and most obvious is in the pet trade. Not many people sell wild-caught snakes anymore, because captive-bred snakes are easier to care for and are more docile.
Some snakes can fetch tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the morph (appearance) of the snake. And normal, more common snakes are very common stock-in-trade at pet stores.
Besides that, snakes are farmed or hunted for their skins. Snakeskin is very popular in designer products, including:
- Handbags and tote bags
- Shoes and boots
- Purses and wallets
And compounds from snakeskin are used in cosmetics, too. This stems from Chinese medicine, which is generally ineffective, but is still used by millions of people across the world. Snakeskin is used in Chinese medicine for the treatment of skin conditions like psoriasis, itching, abscesses, and boils, as well as infections, sore throats, hemorrhoids and more.
To be clear, there is no evidence that snakeskin works in combating these conditions. But this is nonetheless an important industry.
Medicinal Importance of Snakes
Snakes are also important in Western medicine, not just Chinese medicine. The most obvious way that they’re useful in Western medicine is through antivenom. Antivenom is created using real snake venom. Snakes have to be ‘milked’ to produce venom in a non-dangerous way.
To milk a snake, you have to encourage the snake to strike at something, such as a vial or glass with a cover stretched over it. A snake milker will hold their head in place from behind while the snake continually shoots venom from their fangs.
You aren’t wrong if you think that sounds like a time consuming and even cruel method of collecting snake venom. But, unfortunately, it’s the only way that works. It’s only possible to get a tiny amount of venom each time you ‘milk’ a snake. That’s why antivenom is so expensive.
Once the venom is collected, it’s then injected into an animal like a horse, a sheep or a goat. You can then collect the antibodies that the animal creates in their bloodstream. That’s what antivenom is, and the only way we currently have of making it is through this time-consuming process. And not only that, but nothing works like real antivenom. So without snakes, there would be no antivenom.
Other Uses for Snake Venom
There are also many experimental uses for snake venom. One example is that it might be useful as a kind of cancer treatment. Crotoxin, specifically, is a chemical in rattlesnake venom. It damages cells in the body, in particular, those in the blood and your muscles.
However, scientists were able to harness crotoxin to make it specifically attack tumor cells. According to a paper published by the American Association for Cancer Research, the treatment was successful (although they only assessed a very small test group).
Snake venom was also of great importance in scientists’ mission to tackle increased blood pressure. Back in the 1970s, researchers found that Brazilian pit viper venom contained proteins that disrupt the angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE), which is one of the main causes of high blood pressure.
From this research, they realized that if they could synthesize these same chemicals in higher quantities rather than getting them from the venom, they could be used as medicine—and they did. That’s what ACE-blockers are, which are the most common medicine for high blood pressure today.
Aside from that, scientists have also used black mamba venom to try and better understand the nervous system. Black mamba venom is a neurotoxin, which means that it attacks the nervous system to stop it from working. That’s why they’re using it to try and better understand conditions that attack the nervous system and the brain, like Alzheimer’s disease or Parkinson’s.
Are Snakes Useful Pets?
You can, of course, keep snakes as pets. They’re low maintenance and are easy to care for. They only require infrequent feeding (i.e., not every day), and they don’t need walks or regular vet or groomer visits. In return, you get an interesting pet. Snakes are like no other animal in the world, and once you’re used to them, they’re fascinating to handle and watch.
While snakes are no doubt useful to humans, that isn’t the reason why we should keep them around. Over thousands of years, we’ve continually shaped our environment to make it more comfortable for us—and this has resulted in the extinction of many thousands of species. It’s time that we learned to live with our neighbors, whether they’re useful to us or not.