Never wound a snake; kill it.
The key skill to farming snakes is to survive being bitten. Snake-handling showman and venom-farmer Bill Haast did this by injecting himself daily for over 60 years with a cocktail of venoms from 32 species. His blood became so rich in snake-venom antibodies that he travelled the world giving transfusions to snakebite victims. In the late 1970s, Venezuela gave him an honorary citizenship after he trekked deep into a jungle to give blood to a bitten child. He is credited with saving 21 lives this way.
Fascinated with poisonous snakes since boyhood, Haast was a pioneer venom farmer – who also made a fortune charging tourists in Miami to watch him manually milking about 100 snakes a day.
His mangled hands showed the price he paid. He claimed to have been bitten by poisonous snakes 173 times, the first when he was 12 years old, 20 times ‘almost fatally.’ A great believer in the potential medical benefits of snake venom, he suspected that his exposure to venom might explain his youthfulness and remarkably good health. But he said he would only make that claim if he lived to be 100. He died of natural causes, aged 100, in 2011.
Snakes don’t dislocate their jaws. They use cranial kinesis and their quadrate bone. A snake’s head contains few bones but lots of hinge joints. Most of the bones - including the two halves of the jaw - are not fused together, as in mammals, but are attached only by a ligament making the whole head very flexible.
Snakes hear with their jaws. They have a quadrate bone that links the lower jaw to the upper jaw and works like a double-jointed hinge. Mammals have this bone too but it is no longer attached to the jaw and has, instead, migrated up to the middle ear where it has become the incus, or anvil, bone. That, along with the malleus, or hammer (another wandering jaw bone) has produced our familiar three-bone middle ear system. This amplifies sound and is capable of much more acute hearing than the reptile system where the eardrum is connected directly to the inner ear by just the single ‘stapes’, or stirrup, bone. So whilst we can’t swallow our prey whole like a snake we can at least hear much better than they can.
Sometimes snakes bite off more than they can chew. In 2005 the remains of a 6 ft alligator protruding from the stomach of a 13 ft Burmese Python were found in the Florida Everglades National Park. The Burmese python had tried to swallow the alligator whole but had then exploded. The alligator is thought to have clawed at the python's stomach from the inside, leading it to burst. Burmese pythons - many of whom have been dumped by their owners - have thrived in the wet and hot climate of Florida's swamps over the past 20 years.
Both snakes and lizards evolved from ancestors with legs and some snakes have still have vestigial pelvises and back leg bones. Snakes do not have eyelids or earholes. They can detect sound by resting their head on the ground and feeling the vibrations: in snake charming shows, the snake responds to the movement of the flute rather than its sound.
It turns out all snakes have venom-producing glands. In 2013, Professor Bryan Fry of the University of Queensland showed that even snakes that kill by constriction have them, but they’ve been ‘repurposed’ by evolution to make mucus to lubricate the passage of the prey they swallow. But the mucus still contains small amounts of venom. Fry comments: ‘Their toxins are the equivalent of a kiwi’s wing or the sightless eyes of blind cavefish—defunct remnants of a functional past.’
In 2009, Fry showed that the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo dragon, kills its prey with venom. As many species of lizard (and all snakes) produce venom, Fry believes venom is the legacy of a common ancestor he calls Toxicofera. He thinks the original purpose of this toxic secretion was defence rather than attack; early snakes were similar to large constrictors and used venom as an antibiotic – to kill bacteria that multiplied during the long, slow digestion of prey. Later, the chance discovery of neatly injecting victims (rather than laboriously squeezing them to death) allowed smaller, faster snakes to evolve, which could prey on rodents and amphibians.
But time strips our illusions of their hue,
And one by one in turn, some grand mistake
Casts off its bright skin yearly like the snake.
Snakes have hemi-penises, but some species have deep forks on each hemi-penis making it look like they have four.
Despite sharing a stomach, two-headed snakes will fight each other for food.
Female adders can go 18 months without eating.
No one is born with a fear of snakes; it has to be learned.
In Florida, which is home to more than 70 different types of snake, 500 times as many people are bitten by dogs as by snakes.
Far more people die from both bee stings and lightning strikes than from snakebites.
The grass snake is immune to the bite of the adder.
The Hemeroplanes triptolemus caterpillar (left) can disguise its backside as a snake's head.
Grass snakes mimic cobras when annoyed. Their bite can sting and the mild venom they deliver leaves raised and itchy puncture wounds.