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Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

Posted August 03, 2009 12:01 AM by Vi Pham

There are over 2900 known species of snakes in the world, and they make up fifteen families. To keep this blog-entry short and relatively simple, I will only discuss families containing more than 50 species.

Slithering Spaghetti

First is the family Leptotyphlopidae, which contains over 80 species. Commonly called Blind Snakes or Thread Snakes, all members of Leptotyphlopidae are fossorial and eat ants and termites. They are relatively small snakes. Very few species reach over 30 cm in length. Most grow to about 10 cm. These snakes are distinguished not only by their size, but also by the fact that they have immovable top jaws and teeth only on the bottom jaw.

One species, Leptotyphlops dulcis, is found both in the ground and high up in the trees. These snakes were brought into the trees by predatory birds as food for their young. The snakes escaped by burrowing down into the nests and were able to sustain themselves on the insects living within the nests.

The smallest known snake in the world belongs to this family. Leptotyphlops carlae, discovered in June 2006, is said to be as thin as spaghetti. The largest recorded specimen is just over 10 cm (4 inches).

Big Boys

Next is the family Boidae, which contains over 60 species. Popular members of Boidae are boas, pythons and sand boas. In contrast to Leptotyphlopidae, Boidae includes the largest living snakes. Boid lengths range from under 50 cm (Exiliboa) to over 10 meters (Python reticulatus). They can be found in rain forests and dry tropical forests, mountain cloud forests and temperate coniferous forests, and in both sandy and rocky deserts. Boids may be terrestrial, arboreal, aquatic and semi-fossorial.

Many Boids have specialized infrared-sensitive pits. These pits are located near the mouth. They allow the snakes to accurately sense the radiant heat from surrounding objects and other animals.

Venomous Vipers

The Viperidae family has over 215 species. All vipers are venomous, and most have heat pits. They are also characterized by their hinged fangs. Most vipers can be identified by their stocky build and relatively short tail. Their scales are keeled (which means they have a ridge down the middle) and their heads, due to the location of the venom glands, have a very triangular shape. The pupils are vertically elliptical or slit-shaped and can be opened wide or closed almost completely, giving vipers the ability to see in a large range of light.

For many people, the most familiar viper is the rattlesnake (genus Crotalus or Sistrurus). Its most distinguishing feature is its rattle, which consists of a modified tail tip called the button. The button is surrounded by other, modified scale segments that are added each time the snake sheds. This means that when a rattlesnake first comes out of its egg, it does not have a working rattle.

When a baby rattlesnake sheds for the first time, it gains its first additional rattle segment. A segment is added each time the snake sheds, which may be several times a year. Rattlesnakes will occasionally lose some or all of their rattles, but they can re-grow a rattle after a few sheds. Because the rattles are made of keratin (the material that comprises the external portion of the snake's scales, and human nails and hair), these rattles become softer and don't make any sound when they get too moist.

Editor's Note: Part 2 of this two-part series will run next week.

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Snakes: They're All Around
Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 2)
Snakes: Clever And Deadly Behaviors
Snakes: Do The Locomotion (Part 1)
Snakes: Do The Locomotion (Part 2)

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#1

Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/03/2009 3:39 AM

Snakes are cool
Del

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#2
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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/03/2009 5:44 AM
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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/03/2009 6:11 AM
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#6
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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/04/2009 1:02 AM

That depends on the weather, now doesn't it Del?

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#4

Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/03/2009 8:48 AM

Speaking of heat sensors/pits; I have heard that a rattlesnake can 'catch' a sub-sonic bullet from a few feet away. Any truth to this?

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#5
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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/03/2009 12:30 PM

Well that's where most people aim. Define your definition of catch.

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#7
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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/04/2009 8:17 AM

I'm not exactly sure what you mean. Could you please clarify?

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#10
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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/04/2009 12:55 PM

Since they go for a heat source, like a hot bullet, probably alerted by the detonation sound and gasses from a pistol, I've heard that if you can shoot close enough, they will move fast enough to try to bite the threat. Thus decapitation and consequent barbeque. Eh?

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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/04/2009 2:17 PM

Well, this is what I've found...

Heat pit sensitivity is less than .001 degress Celsius and can sense temperature differences in a few milliseconds.
Reaction time is also a few milliseconds.

This suggests that a rattlesnakes may be able to "catch" a bullet. There are a few important missing factors though.

First of all, does the snake realize the bullet is travelling towards it?
Although the snake can register the heat source and focus on it in milliseconds, if the bullet is fired from close range, milliseconds might not be enough time.

Also, does the rattlesnake realize the bullet is a threat?
Even if the snake can "see" the bullet coming towards it, I think it is more likely to stay focused on the large heat signature of the human holding the gun. (that's my opinion, anyways)

My guess is that the "bullet-catching" is a combination of the human aiming at the head and the snake turning towards the bullet in order to asses the object and its threat level

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#13
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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/04/2009 2:27 PM

Probably the dramatic muzzle flash rather than the small signature of the bullet itself tips the snake's brain a warning. Will this be enough time to permit muscles to leap away far enough is certainly another issue of proximity and muzzle velocity.

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#8

Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/04/2009 11:12 AM

Out of curiosity... did Rattlesnakes evolve to have rattles? Why do rattlesnakes have them but (seemingly) no other species does? Maybe that could be a whole different blog entry.

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#9
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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/04/2009 11:47 AM

hmm...this will take some looking into...

Like most unique animal characteristics it was probably a weird mutation that just happened to increase chances for survival and therefore kept being passed on from generation to generation...but that's just my guess

I'll do some research and get back to you in either comment or blog entry form.

Thanks for the suggestion!

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#11
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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/04/2009 1:11 PM

My guess on the survival advantage of a rattler's rattle is that of literally being able to warn creatures that are larger than suitable prey. This will conserve venom and surely can reduce extraneous efforts. But I certainly don't know enough about rattler nor their surrounding fauna behavior to make a valid educated guess.

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Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/04/2009 2:52 PM

You're pretty right on! The rattle serves as a warning device when they feel threatened. Provided that the threat moves away, it certainly does reduce the likelihood of the snake having to try to escape or defend itself.

As far as venom conservation goes, venomous snakes already have the ability to control the amount of venom used with each bite. For obvious reasons, more venom is used on prey than predators (a small amount of venom is enough to cause a significant amount of damage, even to us humans). The rattle does conserve venom, but not as much as you'd think.

Hopefully with some research I can find out about the origin of the rattle and its genetic significance and consequences.

Thanks for reading!

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#15

Re: Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)

08/24/2009 10:36 PM

nice info bro , definitely would be useful when goin to woods .........keep posting

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