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Myths and Truths About Reptiles
Myth: Snakes chase people.
Truth: Many people who have spent time outdoors have a story about being chased by snakes. But herpetologists, people who study reptiles and amphibians, never seem to have this experience. They find that snakes are always trying to escape. To understand this perceived behavior of a snake chasing someone, one must first realize that a snake has nothing to gain by chasing a person. A snake obviously could not eat a person and so is not looking for food. They are not vengeful and do not chase people out of sheer hate.
Myth: Rattlesnakes always add one rattle a year.
Truth: A rattlesnake adds one rattle every time it sheds its skin. Snakes may shed several times in the course of a year, each time adding a new rattle. Rattles also may break off. Determining a snake's age by counting rattles usually results in an inaccurate estimate of the snake's age.
Myth: Snakes travel in pairs, the survivor seeking revenge if one is killed.
Truth: Snakes do not travel in groups or pairs. They do not have any social bonds and would feel in no way vengeful if one of their number were to be killed. One possible explanation for this myth is that in a prime habitat situation, multiple snakes of the same species could be encountered in a relatively small area. Another explanation could be related to typical reproductive behavior. During the mating season a male snake will trail a female snake much as a buck deer trails a doe during the rut.
Myth: A snake must coil before it can strike.
Truth: Snakes can bite or strike in any direction from any position. Coiling does, however, increase the distance that a snake can strike.
Myth: Snakes go blind during the dog days of August.
Truth: Snakes must shed their skin in order to grow. To help the old skin slide off, a gray-white lubricant is secreted under the old skin. This liquid is visible under the clear scale that protects the eye, making it look clouded over. This does, in fact, impair a snake's vision. Although snakes are not known to shed any more in August than in any other summer month, shedding blindness is the probable origin of this myth.
Common Myths Concerning Specific Snakes
Many years ago this myth circulated commonly among rural farmers in the southeast. The story, something of an urban legend, had it that this snake, when disturbed, would chase down the offender, wrap its body around him, whip him to death, and then ensure he was dead by sticking its tail up the person's nose to check for breathing. This is, of course, a false story. There are no North American snakes that guard territory or who will chase human beings. While this snake is the fastest snake in North America (it can move at an impressive 8 mph) it can certainly not outrun a man, who can run about 14 mph on the average when not frightened.
Another snake chaser hoax. In this this myth, the snake (the swamp-dwelling Mud Snake no less) is sunning itself on a hill (often on a farmer's field) when it is disturbed by someone. The person (of course) begins to run down the hill and the angry snake forms itself into a hoop and rolls down the hill after the person. At the bottom of the hill, there is always a tree and the person hides behind it while the the snake hits the tree with the stinger on the end of the tail (snakes don't have stingers, though the mud snake uses the tip of his tail, which is rather sharp, to disturb the mud where it lives to find food). The snake gets stuck and the person gets away, but the ending is always the same. The person comes back the next season to find the tree dead. No such snake as the Hoop Snake exists of course, but it was once believed that they did
This is another myth that has circulated for many years among rural farmers. The farmer would, according to the myth, run over a snake with his plow, cutting it to pieces. He could also use a hoe or a shovel. The farmer would go away for a while, then come back to find the snake's body gone. Later, as he was plowing or weeding, he would come across the very same snake, whole once more. There are two probable causes for this myth, both equally likely.
The first is that the farmer encountered not a snake, but a very common legless lizard called a "glass snake." Glass snakes are common throughout the Southeast and have an unusual method of defense. This lizard has an extremely long tail, sometimes twice the length of its body, and when threatened, it will twitch its body violently, breaking off a portion of the tail. The tail is very fragile and can also easily be cut with a shovel, hoe or the blade of a plow. The broken portion wriggles erratically and will usually distract a predator such as a hawk, raccoon or even a disgruntled farmer long enough for the lizard to make its escape. The lizard will then regenerate the portion of the tail it lost over a period of weeks.
The second scenario includes several snakes (or even glass lizards) of similar size. Farms are excellent places for rodents and insects to find food. Thus they are excellent places for snakes and lizards to find food as well. It is not uncommon for several snakes of similar size and age to set up housekeeping at a single farm, or even in a single barn or other outbuilding, like a granary. The farmer may, indeed, kill one and see what seems to be exactly the same animal the very next day. It is simply a very similar animal taking advantage of a plentiful food supply.