Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
Venomous Serpents
THE LITTLE SOUTH TEXAS CEMETERY FEELS melancholic despite limpid blue skies, its somber mood
reinforced by a windmill's creaking dirge somewhere off in the thorn-scrub. I've come to
check out a lichen-smudged tombstone, weathered by more than a century of sun, wind,
and occasional rain, that reads “John D. Sweeten, born in Denton Co. Nov 14, 1862, was
bitten by a snake July 16 in Atascosa Co., died in San Antonio July 24, 1880.” Ecologist
Larry Gilbert, who grew up near here and alerted me to the grave marker, reckons it
was a two-day wagon ride to the nearest doctor—where remedies might have included
mind-numbing doses of whiskey, incision and suction, kerosene, and a fresh-killed chick-
en split over the wound. Unrelenting, excruciating pain was a given, gangrene likely, so
the teenager's death from the bite of a western diamond-backed rattler would have been
traumatic for all concerned. No wonder keeping ranch yards well swept was all about
scaring away six-foot buzz-tails, as was having vigilant pets and tolerating rattler-eating
indigo snakes around houses and schools.
Constrictors launched our fear of serpents in the late Mesozoic, almost eighty million
years ago, but venomous species such as the one that killed Sweeten have surely posed
greater risks during the second half of primate history. 1 For one thing, the seventy-
four extant species of boas and pythons generally inhabit tropical regions, and usually
strike at prey rather than in self-defense. By contrast, nearly ten times that many dan-
gerouslyvenomous species—defined as those that might kill humans—range from Scand-
inavia to Patagonia, from Death Valley to the high Himalayas, and although most are
too small to swallow anything larger than a squirrel monkey, their biochemical arsen-
als can incapacitate a gorilla. Furthermore, when venomous snakes feel put upon, they
flagrantly challenge our supremacy. Boas and pythons rely on camouflage, biting only
when closely threatened, whereas coralsnakes flash bright colors and cobras elevate
spectacled hoods, adders hiss loudly and pitvipers rattle their tails, all as if to say, “Are
you feeling lucky, primate? Get bitten and make my day!”
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