Biology Reference
In-Depth Information
Loose Ends
EARLIER I MARSHALED EVIDENCE THAT our dislike for snakes has roots in ancient predator-prey
relationships. The advent of science surely didn't eliminate such prejudice. In 1758, Carl
Linnaeus, the Swede who first assigned named species to larger categories called gen-
era, famously maligned amphibians and reptiles in Systema Naturae as “foul and loath-
some animals, distinguished by a heart with single ventricle and single auricle, doubt-
ful lungs, and double penis. Most are abhorrent because of cold body, pale color, car-
tilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice,
squalid habitation, and terrible venom; and so their Creator has not exerted his powers
to make many of them.” 1 Thanks to 250-odd years of vertebrate biology, we now know
that most of those claims are false, although male lizards and snakes do have two sex
Charles Darwin got off to a better start, reporting in 1839 from his voyage on the
H.M.S. Beagle that the Patagonian lancehead pitviper's tail “is terminated by a point,
which is very slightly enlarged; and as the animal glided along, it constantly vibrated the
last inch; and this part striking against the dry grass and brushwood, produced a rattling
noise which could be distinctly heard at the distance of six feet. As often as the animal
was irritated or surprised, its tail was shaken; and the vibration was extremely rapid. . .
. [It] has in some respects the structure of a Vipera [Eurasian viper] and the habits of a
Crotalus [rattlesnake]; the noise, however, being produced by a simpler device.” 2 Darwin
had presciently implied that the rattle evolved from a sound-making structure present in
ancestral pitvipers and lacking in their close relatives, 3 but then he sank back into wide-
spread prejudice, declaring that the lancehead's “face was hideous and fierce; the pupil
consisting of a vertical slit in a mottled and coppery iris; the jaws were broad at the base,
and the nose terminated in a triangular projection. I do not think I ever saw any thing
more ugly.”
Two years later, James De Kay's Zoology of New York was more accurate than Lin-
naeus and more complimentary than Darwin: “So general is the repugnance to reptiles
that their study has been overlooked, and they have been usually considered as beings
which it is not only necessary but meritorious to destroy. A part of this vulgar prejudice
is derived from education, and perhaps some of it originates from the fact that sever-
al of them are furnished with venomous fangs, capable of causing intolerable sufferings
and death. To the naturalist and physiologist, however, those who study nature's modi-
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