It is my pleasure to introduce our guest blogger Dusty Rhoads! Dusty Rhoads is a Brigham Young University graduate, a herpetologist, and is the author of the book, The Complete Suboc (ECO Herpetological Publishing, 2008), which covers all North American ratsnake species west of the Pecos River. Dusty is currently pursuing his PhD in Biology at Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) studying the evolution, ecology, and conservation of reptiles and amphibians.
“Shouts would then pass from camp to camp, “Khabar dar, bhaieon, shaitan ata!” (“Beware, brothers, the devil is coming!”), but the warning cries would prove of no avail, and sooner or later agonizing shrieks would break the silence, and another man would be missing from roll-call next morning.”
– from The Man-Eaters of Tsavo (JH Patterson, 1907)
In March, 1898, two male African Lions (Panthera leo) with an unsavory penchant for man-flesh terrorized the workers of the Uganda Railway camped in Tsavo, Kenya and brought the construction of the railroad to a halt for nearly a month.
The lions eluded hunters, and in less than a year’s time, the two cats had claimed the lives of nearly 135 men. During those distressing months, many of the workers believed the lions to be “devils”. Even the head engineer, Lt.-Col. John Henry Patterson – who took it upon himself to kill the two lions – was not a superstitious man, and yet, notwithstanding, he was chagrined to find that he too started to pay some heed to the ghost tales of the frightened local workers. In his own words:
“Their methods then became so uncanny, and their man-stalking so well-timed and so certain of success, that the workmen firmly believed that they were not real animals at all, but devils in lions’ shape. Many a time the coolies solemnly assured me that it was absolutely useless to attempt to shoot them. They were quite convinced that the angry spirits of two departed native chiefs had taken this form in order to protest against a railway being made through their country, and by stopping its progress to avenge the insult thus shown to them.”
I was naturally very disheartened at being foiled in this way night after night, and was soon at my wits’ end to know what to do; it seemed as if the lions were really “devils” after all and bore a charmed life.”
Members of the camp associated the man-eating lions with two things: darkness (they killed at night by dragging men from their tents and devouring them in the tall grasses) and phantoms. In fact, this true story led to a Hollywood motion picture aptly called The Ghost and the Darkness. (If you have not seen it, you’ll have to find out how it ends yourself!)
The fears of darkness and ghosts that are conjured up in our minds perhaps shed some light on our complex, ancient relationship with African predators like lions and our subject of this article – snakes.
Lions, Ophidiophobia, and Savannahs
So, what does our long, ancestral relationship with lions have to do with snakes? In my opinion, there are several things.
First of all, we humans don’t do well in the dark. And among all of the vertebrate predators – especially predators known to eat humans – snakes are arguably the ones that depend most on concealment in order to catch prey and to avoid being eaten by predators. In fact, of the 3,315 recognized species of snakes as of 1 Jan. 2011, the fastest moving species, the infamous Black Mamba, can reach top speeds in short bursts of up to only 11 miles per hour. Which, of course, isn’t fast at all. Most fit humans could outsprint a mamba. (Not that you would have to. I mean, what would a rodent-eating snake do with you if it caught you?)
Still, when one spots a snake in the wild, unless the snake was buzzing its tail or hissing as a way of saying, “Hey! HEY! Don’t step on me!”, the moment of noticing a snake is usually at a very close range, and seems to have “apparated” — if I may borrow that Harry Potter term – all-of-a-sudden.
As an anecdote, before I was married, I had an 8-foot-long Boa Constrictor named Tiny. She could easily eat a medium-sized rabbit. I would sometimes take Tiny outside, supervised of course, to let her stretch out on the lawn and smell the earthy smells. At her thickest point at mid-body, she was as big around as my leg. And yet, even on fresh-cut grass, I would visually lose her silhouette in the lawn if I allowed her to slither away from me more than 12-15 feet.
And so, as we hominid bipeds blunder along the terrain, snakes seem to appear out of nowhere. Especially big snakes. Especially big snakes that live in tall grass and have been known to not turn their noses up at a human that might appear on the menu. More on this later…
Darkness mystifies our world, especially when coupled with our history. Even when I get up in the middle of the night and try to find my way through the bedroom to the bathroom door, there is an almost unshakeable uneasiness of going from a place of darkness into even more darkness. Even when the logic center of my brain knows there is no reason to worry.
When being asked by a student where our fear of the dark comes from, biologist Joe Daniel of the University of Arkansas responded:
Our predators were much more capable of operating in the dark. When being eaten by predators you can’t see until they attack you, being afraid of the dark is a reasonable precaution. The dark also makes it much harder to detect venomous snakes and the like.
This is likely also the reason that so many religions have incorporated evil as being more comfortable in the dark. It is a throwback to that primal fear of the unseen predator.
Nowadays of course, our chances of being jumped by a lion or running across a venomous snake is vanishingly slim, but there is always the threat of a human predator jumping us (this is, of course, highly variable on where you live). So it makes sense that a fear of the dark is retained. But hopefully we can reason out when and where such fear is warranted.”
If it had been me saying the aforementioned, I would have modified that last paragraph somewhat. In the United States, our chances of having a fatal snake encounter on a regular basis may indeed be slim-to-none (as seen in Figure #1), but not in certain tropical countries where farmers work rice fields and share their workspace with cobras and vipers that make their livings off of the attendant rodents.
Figure 1. West Texas has more species of snakes and lizards than in any other region of the US. With over 25 million people in the State of Texas, there were only 5 deaths from snakebite (most of which were related to young adult males teasing a venomous snake) in a 9-year period. Contrast this to the number of deaths due to lightning strike – 45. You are roughly 9 times more likely to die from a bolt of lightning than a snakebite. Used with permission from Andrew Price’s book “Venomous Snakes of Texas” (University of Texas Press, 2009).
In addition to lions and venomous snakes, there is still another much more proximate reason than homicidal conspecifics that a fear of darkness is retained. As our blog host Steve Peck has commented in a previous post called “The Shrew in My Brain”, there is evidence that we can evolutionarily fast-forward the title to be “The Hunter-Gatherer in My Brain”.
To elucidate, Dr. Harry Greene, a Cornell biologist who is probably the world’s foremost authority on snakes, recently co-presented a paper with anthropologist Thomas Headland on an extant (still living), hunter-gather society called the Agta. During the three decades that Headland had worked with the Agta, he recorded the deaths of six male Agta by pythons. Not only that, but 26% of the 120 male Agta who were surveyed by Headland had survived offensive python attacks (as opposed to defensive attacks, an offensive attack is one in which the predator intended to eat the prey being attacked, i.e. not simply a defensive strike). For an interesting reference, watch this video of Dr. Harry Greene, starting at 36:40 ? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=74c_f-myd3A.
In addition, the Agta also killed and ate the pythons, and in the pythons’ stomachs, the Agta would find deer, monkeys, pigs, and other organisms, which the Agta also hunted. And so, the pythons and Agta people are simultaneously predators, prey, and competitors. Thus, it’s easy to see how being wary of dark places where snakes can hide and killing snakes has conferred the most basic of advantages (survival) for us throughout our species’ history, even through present times.
The Savannah Hypothesis
I recently attended a talk by Douglas Tallamy, evolutionary biologist, entomologist, and author of the award-winning book Bringing Nature Home. His talk was on the premise of his book – using native plants in our gardens to create wildlife corridors by inviting creatures back into our neighborhoods. One interesting point he made was that in wealthy countries, our obsession with manicured lawns with short grass and sparsely planted shade trees neatly lends itself as evidence for the Savannah Hypothesis, which basically predicts that we humans, in general, do not like tall grass. “For one very good reason,” he added, “because our African ancestors who ventured into tall grass often didn’t come out again.” He then showed a slide of some very tall grass with a well-camouflaged lion lurking just behind it (see below).
Of course, the audience laughed, but his point was well-taken. The Savannah hypothesis draws from the knowledge that we humans evolved the longest in African savannahs, where trees are sparse, grass is short, and rock outcrops offer a vantage view to remain on the lookout for predators.
Moving Past the
Shrew Hunter-Gatherer in Our Brain
So, why is a study of the root of a widespread fear of snakes (aka ophidiophobia) or an intense fascination with them, and a fear of darkness needed to understand our relationship to snakes, and ultimately our stewardship over them?
Well, sometimes it helps to know why we act the way we do. I’ve often thought that the reason we LDS have a mandate to do our genealogy is because it helps us to know ourselves better. As I have spent time talking with my parents about their past, I often think, “Oh, that’s where I get that from.” As I learn of my ancestors and relatives, I get a better understanding of their hopes, dreams, fears, strengths, infirmities, and insecurities. I then find an increased measure of empathy, understanding, patience, forgiveness, and acceptance of them and myself. Finding the reasons for why we behave the way we do might help us to abandon the “left-over” traits or vestiges that have become obsolete in our present societal and ecological environment. And if not abandon them outright, then hopefully we can at least realize how silly and overblown they now are.
As Latter-Day Saints, we are asked to put off the natural man, and I believe this means overcoming the “shrew” or maybe even the “hunter-gatherer in our brains”. In spite of our past relationship to them, wild snakes – even venomous ones – are among the most approachable of the vertebrates. Many times, I have approached a copperhead or rattlesnake within three feet in the wild and still elicited no aggressive behavior from the snake while I took photographs. Even at this distance, I was well out of striking range. Have you ever tried approaching a wild raccoon, deer, squirrel, turkey, chipmunk, rabbit, skunk, or songbird, at such a close distance without the animal scurrying off, flying away, or behaving aggressively long before you get that close? You would be hard-pressed to do so successfully.
Joseph Smith had it right:
Kindness to Animals Required of Man?
The following incidents occurred while Zion’s Camp was on the march from Kirtland to Missouri.
In pitching my tent we found three massasaugas or prairie rattlesnakes, which the brethren were about to kill, but I said, “Let them alone-don’t hurt them! How will the serpent ever lose its venom, while the servants of God possess the same disposition, and continue to make war upon it? Men must become harmless before the brute creation, and when men lose their vicious dispositions and cease to destroy the animal race, the lion and the lamb can dwell together, and the sucking child can play with the serpent in safety.” The brethren took the serpents carefully on sticks and carried them across the creek. I exhorted the brethren not to kill a serpent, bird, or an animal of any kind during our journey unless it became necessary in order to preserve ourselves from hunger. (May 26, 1834.)
~Joseph Smith, Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, selected and arranged by Joseph Fielding Smith, p.71
Benjamin Franklin also had it right. In fact, he thought rattlesnakes perfectly embodied the uniqueness, beauty, and spirit of a free America, and in 1775, he made the following motion to use the Timber Rattlesnake, a species that is now endangered throughout most of its range, as the symbol of the USA.
The Rattlesnake as a Symbol of America
The ancients considered the serpent as an emblem of wisdom, and in a certain attitude of endless duration — both which circumstances I suppose may have been had in view. Having gained this intelligence, and recollecting that countries are sometimes represented by animals peculiar to them, it occurred to me that the Rattle-Snake is found in no other quarter of the world besides America, and may therefore have been chosen, on that account, to represent her.
Her eye exceeds in brilliance, that of any other animal…and she has no eye-lids. She may therefore be esteemed an emblem of vigilance. She never begins an attack, nor, when once engaged, ever surrenders. She is therefore an emblem of magnanimity and true courage. As if anxious to prevent all pretensions of quarreling with her, the weapons with which nature has furnished her, she conceals in the roof of her mouth, so that, to those who are unacquainted with her, she appears to be a most defenseless animal; and even when those weapons are shown and extended for her defense, they appear weak and contemptible; but their wounds however small, are decisive… Conscious of this, she never wounds ’till she has generously given notice, even to her enemy, and cautioned him against the danger of treading on her. Was I wrong, Sir, in thinking this a strong picture of the temper and conduct of America?
The poison of her teeth is the necessary means of digesting her food, and at the same time is certain destruction to her enemies… The rattles…[are] just thirteen, exactly the number of the Colonies united in America; and I recollected too that this was the only part of the Snake which increased in numbers.
One of those rattles singly, is incapable of producing sound, but the ringing of thirteen together, is sufficient to alarm the boldest man living….She is beautiful in youth and her beauty increaseth with her age; her tongue also is blue, and forked as the lightning, and her abode is among impenetrable rocks.
Both Benjamin Franklin and Joseph Smith clearly saw snakes as they are. And certainly, Joseph Smith, saw our relationship with them as it should be.
Though I don’t equate myself with either of those aforementioned men, I feel fortunate to have been born without a fear of snakes, but also to have an intense fascination with them. As Joseph Smith implied, seeing them as they are, and not as the shrew or ancient hunter-gatherer in my brain might see them, is attainable by all who have a desire to do so. And is necessary if a more exalted co-existence of man and creation is to ever occur.
Of Velvet Roses, Lilac Trees, and…Python Scales?
My last year as an undergraduate at BYU was a special one for me. It was 2009, and there were great talks on Darwin and evolution all year, because of the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. It was also the year that I took the class Evolutionary Biology and TAed it, which helped me learn how to think like a scientist.
There was one particular evening where the BYU College of Life Sciences held a Family Home Evening with prayer, hymns, talks on evolutionary biology by faculty, and of course – cookies and punch.
In spite of what perhaps many LDS may think of a bunch of Mormon evolutionists getting together for a FHE, we reverenced Heavenly Father as the Creator by opening with the children’s hymn, My Heavenly Father Loves Me. It’s a beautiful hymn that speaks of finding sublimity and divine meaning when sensing all of nature’s wonders around us.
Most of our hymns, lesson manuals, and other church-sponsored materials have creation-centered lessons, songs, or themes. In all of these, there is plenty of mention of having sublime and spiritual experiences when seeing a flower, hearing bird song, and feeling the elements of rain or wind gently touch our skin.
I have often wondered why I have been (seemingly) a minority in wishing that we felt just as much worshipful adoration of non-avian reptiles (technically, birds are now considered reptiles). Perhaps it is because many reptiles can bite if provoked? But that can’t be it, because a bird in the hand…well, along other things, also bites. Some, like parrots, can remove a finger in one fell bite. Could it be because reptiles carry salmonella? Some will remember the legislation that came about in the 1970s that banned the sale of baby turtles as pets, due to a salmonella scare. Well, birds, specifically store-bought poultry and their eggs, not only give us more problems with salmonella poisoning than turtles and other scaly reptiles, but they also harbor more infectious diseases than do all of their non-feathered reptilian counterparts.1 And to be fair, flowers give millions of people problems with allergies and asthma every year, and even those velvet roses have thorns. Finally, all one has to do is utter one word – Katrina – to invoke memories of the not-so-gentle side of wind and rain.
In fact, it’s downright puzzling why we choose to find worshipful meaning in some creations, and others, not so much.2 At least, from a logical standpoint, that is.
And in terms of beauty or aesthetic appeal, I find it difficult to beat the supple body, striking eyes, earthy tones, and color patterns of a copperhead coiled in the cool leaf-litter of a temperate North American forest floor…
…the shimmery verdant and golden hues of Green Tree Python scales…
Diamondbacks Can’t Scream
Besides the frequent stories I get from acquaintances who tell me of the “rattlesnake” they killed at their cabin last weekend (which usually turns out to be a non-venomous snake when I see the photos they took) I, along with most biologists, find the activities at so-called rattlesnake round-ups woefully destructive to wildlife and disturbing. These animals are literally butchered alive in front of a paying crowd. Rattles are cut off, animals are hung by their necks alive and while various organs are being removed, and others are placed on a chopping block and decapitated — and you get to see it all for the price of admission. Rattlesnake Roundup beauty pageants are held, and the local gals put hand-prints on the walls made of…what else…rattlesnake blood, as a token of bravery. (For a very recent video of these pageants, see here). (But shucks, Dusty, what’s more American than a good, ole-fashioned rattlesnake killin’?) Ugghh…
The fact that snakes cannot scream when feeling pain somehow makes doing these things acceptable to many people.
When I have been around groups of people outside and a mouse or rat happened to cross through the same yard or field, the men in the vicinity would all be chasing the rodent and trying to stomp it — I’ve often noted that the women present usually did not scream after initially seeing the animal until it started to squeak and squeal in protest to being stomped to death.
As eluded to above, there was even an anti-roundup campaign and exhibit at the Dallas Zoo years ago called “Diamonbacks Can’t Scream”.
My hope is that no LDS would be involved with these roundups. No matter one’s upbringing, in no way is this activity innocent fun. Rattlesnake populations are only proportionate to the local rodent population. Period. And even then, only if there is suitable habitat available. So, it is ironic that roundup participants claim that it’s the snakes whose numbers are out of control. Rattlesnakes take years to reach maturity, have small and infrequent litters of offspring, and as shown in Figure 1, have near negligible effects on human health and safety.
Surely, we can find it in our hearts, minds, and faith to overcome our outdated and vestigial shrew in our brains. We can come to see the beauty, intrinsic value, and essential interconnectedness of all life on this planet whose space we also share. As the hymn testifies, we can say with conviction:
He gave me my life, my mind, my heart?
I thank him reverently?
For ALL his creations, of which I’m a part
Yes, I know Heavenly Father loves me
1. *About 142,000 (reported) Americans are infected each year with Salmonella Enteritidis from chicken eggs, and about 30 die. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/07/AR2009070702343.html?hpid=topnews
2. For an allegedly fascinating and well-reviewed read on our puzzling relationship with animals, see the recently published book:
Herzog, Hal. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It’s So Hard To Think Straight About Animals. Harper: HarperCollins. Sept. 2010. 336p. ISBN 978-0-06-173086-3.
Copperhead photos by Mike Pingleton.
Green Tree Python scales photo by Thor Hakonsen.
Male Dickerson’s Collared Lizard by Erik Enderson.