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(Note: This tape was transcribed by Vicki Perry. The editors gratefully acknowledge her invaluable assistance.)
Guyanese herpetologist: –through all its structure. The main disadvantage is that the heart, instead of being four chambers like ours, is three chambers. So he cannot control his body temperature as we do. He’s got to stay in places where it’s either warm enough or cool enough for him. We can go to the North Pole or we can go to the Sahara. He can’t. His body temperature is directly related to his immediate environment.
Everybody knows that a snake is cold and slimy? Everybody knows this? (Pause) That’s wrong. Snakes are neither cold nor slimy. The body temperature of the snake is normally about one degree below his immediate environment. This means if he’s out in the sun, and the temperature is about 85 degrees, he should be somewhere around 84 degrees. If you go into an air-conditioned office and I have a snake out in the sun, and you come out, you will be cooler to touch than the snake. So that’s one fallacy, one very popular fallacy that we can get rid of straight away.
The second fallacy that we can destroy right away is that snakes are slimy. Snakes are not slimy. Many of you here have already touched snakes, I think. I know a few people have touched this snake. The snake is dry to the touch. It feels more like touching a piece of leather or leatherette. There is nothing sticky or slimy. The skin glow or– that slimy appearance on the skin, especially in sunlight, is called– because the snake has uh, transparent skin over his normal skin, and this is corrugated. I’m sure you might have noticed the reflection of light on the corner of a mirror, where you get all sorts of colors coming, all greens and blues and so on, right on the bevel on the edge of the mirror? Well, this is the same type of effect you get on a snake’s skin. You’ve got millions of little corrugations, little bevels like the edge of the mirror, and that diffuses the sunlight and causes the snake to glow. But it is not a case of the animal being slimy. And so we know that the snake does not get– or is not cold, and the snake is not slimy.
Most people go around with the idea that just to be in the immediate uh– the immediate uh, vicinity of a snake is to court death. That is another fallacy. Very few snakes – approximately 10– 10 percent of the snakes of the world – have any venom at all. So remember, very few snakes are venomous. And if a non-poisonous snake bites you, you wash it off and go back to work. Personally I’ve been bitten dozens of times, I– I think if you say it was hundreds of times by non-poisonous snakes. Two Sundays back, I had an 11-foot anaconda hang on to my finger and chew. He wrapped around my hand, finger in hi– his mouth, and he’s– he’s wrapped around the same hand with his head. So I couldn’t get my finger out, and I had to wait until he got tired of chewing before I could get my finger out. No damage, at least not much. So there is nothing to fear in the bite of a non-venomous snake. It feels like being cut with razor grass or stung with an elastic band. It’s not particularly painful, and it’s not particularly dangerous.
But that does not say that every time you see a snake, you’re going to run and pick it up. Because we still have that 10 percent to contend with. Here, in this vicinity, you’ll have two types of snakes that are venomous to be particularly careful with. This is the labaria. You might have heard of it at home called the fer-de-lance. Scientific name? Bothrops atrox. This snake is bad medicine in anybody’s language. They kill more people than any other snake in North or South America. That’s the number one killer of the Americas.
On the other hand, this snake has a fatality rate of between two and five percent. Now this is, out of every 100 people that are bitten, between two to five die. So he has a high rate, but this is because he bites a lot more people. And he bites people, because people very often create a situation near to where they live that he would like to live in.
His main food is rats. If you throw your scraps through your back window, rats are going to come to feed on it. You feed rats, and the rats feed him. The best defense for a community from the labaria is, keep your environment clean. No scraps, no rats. No rats, no labarias. Out in the farming areas, you’ll find that some of your tuberous plants are attacked by rats. He’s out there among the farm products trying to catch those rats. So, in a way, he is your friend. This may sort of seem like left-handed friendship, but he does help.
The other snake that I mention is a bushmaster. Lachesis muta. This is the largest venomous snake in the New World. I was told about one that was killed up here that was about seven and a half feet long. People have always told me how savage and aggressive the bushmaster is. Personally, I’ve handled four, and I have spoken to other professional collectors, and we have one overall consensus of opinion: The bushmaster is a pussycat snake. I have handled big ones and small ones quite easily. I find that they’re relatively docile, and while they are capable of giving a pretty massive dose of venom if they want to, in general, they don’t want to.
Recently I did a film on snakes, and in that film, I had the devil’s own job in trying to induce a bushmaster to strike my leg. I put my foot next to him, I did all sorts of things, and he just wouldn’t strike. So, in spite of his bad reputation by the general public, I’m inclined to go along with he is not all that bad.
Now when I say not all that bad, I don’t mean that he’s not capable of doing a lot of damage. He’s got quite a high mortality rate. I think he goes up to about nine percent or something like this. And for snakes, this is high. But it’s just that he doesn’t particularly want to bite anyone. The reason for his mortality rate is that he’s a big snake, he’s got big fangs, and when he bites something, he puts a lot of venom in deep. You don’t lose much venom by having it seep back out through the wound.
So those are the two snakes that you may meet in this region that are dangerous. There is an outside possibility of your running into coral snakes. Those are also dangerous. The coral snakes are very easily identified by the bands on their body. The bands would be right around the body. Now you’ve got true corals, and you’ve got false corals. If you see anything that’s banded, your first rule of thumb is, leave it alone. If by chance somebody decides to be a hero and kills it, then you can identify it by looking at the way the bands run. The North American coral snakes– I think you have a rhyme, “red on yellow, kill a fellow, red on black, venom lack.” I don’t know how many of you know that rhyme. You are not in North America any more. Forget it. It does not work on the South American brand. So, lo– If you see a snake with black, red and yellow rings right around the body, there’s a good chance that you’re looking at a coral snake. He is really bad medicine. He’s not an aggressive snake. As a matter of fact, I have very often free-handed them. I just pick them up by the tail and move them from one cage to the other. It’s not something I’d recommend anybody else to try. And I’ve got 18 years and one snake bite experience behind me. So, just leave him alone. If you get– If you get bitten by one of those, and you do get a really bad bite, then you don’t want a doctor, you want a preacher.
Herpetologist: Okay, so, that’s a very quick run through on the three most common venomous snakes in this area. I mention a fourth one that you might run into. In Guyana, people keep telling me about parrot snakes, and I’ve been handling snakes for over 18 years, and I have yet to really learn what a parrot snake is. We’ve got about a dozen green snakes in this country, and everybody that sees a green snake is going, (Pants) “I saw a parrot snake!” One of those green snakes is venomous. It can give you a nasty bite, but it is not one of the big venomous snakes, in this that we don’t normally think of them as being deadly. You get a bit of swelling, a lot of pain, miss school for a couple of days, you might lose a bit of tissue, but by and large there’s very little chance of you dying from the bite.
This is a first cousin to the first snake I mentioned, the labaria. I might– you might remember I said the labaria, the scientific name is Bothros atrox? This one is Bothriopsis bilineata. And he is found in trees.
The– Except for the coral snakes, the venomous snakes in this region are all pit vipers. They’re– They’re called pit vipers because on the side of their face, they carry a pit. Come to think of it, that’s logical, you know? On ea– If you ever run into a dead snake, and I’m gonna advise you, don’t try to make a snake dead. Don’t try to kill them. If you see him, leave him alone, he’ll go his way and you go yours. But if by chance you do run into a snake that has been killed, or somebody has made himself a hero in his eyes and a fool in mine by killing it, then you can find out if it’s venomous or not by looking at the head. The venomous snakes– and this– this leaves out the coral snake, the coral snake is a different family all together, but the other snakes are pit vipers, and on each side of the face, you’ll have on the tip of the nose, the nostril and then halfway back to the eye, a second pit. So you’ve got two holes on each side of the face.
Another thing that goes along tells the identification of venomous snakes in this part of the world is the fact that uh– again– Well, let’s forget the coral snake. When I speak now, I’m speaking about everything venomous except the coral snake. The venomous snakes here have what we call keel scales. On each scale, there’s a little ridge running along the (unintelligible word). A little keel. So, we have two holes on either side of the face, and we have keeled scales. If you take a bit of stick and you open the jaws, you’ll find that the venomous snakes have fangs. They’ve got big, long teeth that fold up against the roof of the mouth or, with a piece of stick, can be folded out.
Then we go a little bit further. The venomous snakes have– the eyes have elliptical pupils. This is– So a cat-eye thing with a slit. Instead of a round pupil in the eye, he’s got a slit in the eye. You’ve all seen eyes on animals. Some have round pupils in the center and some have slotted pupils. The venomous snakes have slotted pupils. So first of all, we have the hole on the side of the face, second we have the keeled scales, third we have the elliptical pupils.
Then we go a step further. Looking down on the head of a venomous snake, the scales are all what we call granular scales. They’re fine, like grains of sand. You have uh, on either side of the head, one row of large scales, and in the center of the head, lots of little, fine scales. So you’ve got the fine scales, the fangs, the eye, the keels on the main scales.
No– Except for fangs and pits on the face, no other single characteristic is an indication of a snake’s being venomous. There are non-poisonous snakes that also have keeled scales. There’re non-poisonous snakes that have elliptical pupils. There are non-poisonous snakes that have granular scales on the head. Remember you sh– you must have a combination of all of these things before you can say, “Okay, we’ve got a venomous snake.”
Now I don’t want to str– I can go on for half a day on venomous snakes alone, but I’d rather give you a general (unintelligible), so I’m going to leave that family of snakes, and we’ll go across to another family.
A non-very popular family of snakes here are boas. You’ve got the boa constrictor, the Cook’s tree boa and the anaconda and the emerald boa, the boa canina. The emerald boa, I think one of your people had one and danced with it in Georgetown, a green snake, lots of big teeth, when first caught, savage and biting. Now why does that snake have such big teeth? It’s something like Little Red (unintelligible word) Riding Hood, the better to bite you with. That snake lives in trees, and he catches birds for a living. Birds have a thick layer of feathers over them, and if he had short teeth, there’s a chance that many a night he’ll go to bed with a mouth full of feathers for dinner. So what he did is he grew nice long teeth. Now when he grabs, he’s able to penetrate the outer layer of feathers and get into the meat of the matter. This way you get bird for dinner and not just bird feather for dinner.
When you mix with Guyanese here, you’ll hear about the emerald boa sleeping for six months on a branch, being so poisonous that when he comes off the branch rots and drops off the tree, having milk for blood and being used to cure cancer. There’s a particular word that describes this theory: baloney!
Herpetologist: As I mention, this– this snake belongs to the family boidae. It’s a boa. And no boa has poison.
Now let’s got a little bit of surprising on this. All boas have legs. And yeah, I can see eyes open at that. This is true. The boa constrictor has legs, the anaconda has legs, the emerald boa has legs, and the Cook’s tree boa has legs. He doesn’t have nice long legs, he’s got little stumps. If you were to hold one and turn him over, and look at the base of the tail, you’ll see a little slit. And that’s the anus. And on either side of that, there’s a little spike just like a nail, a little pointed nail on either side. Those are what are left of the legs of the snake. Remember reading in your books about these funny little lizards that we had a few million years ago running around on their hind legs? Well, we believe that snakes were involved in that maneuver. They ran around on hind legs, and during a period in the evolution of the snake, the snake went on the ground. When he got under there, he found that he didn’t have any use for legs. So the legs got shorter and shorter and shorter, until many families completely lost their legs. The boas, the pythons, and some other snakes still have a primitive pelvic frame and these little stumps of legs. They’re not obvious, and herpetologists believe that they’re only used during mating for stimulating their mates. It’s just a little stump so he’s not going to run away on them.
While I’m on snakes with legs, here’s another shaker for you. We have snakes with legs, but we also have lizards with no legs. And I’m sure that you got those lizards in this region. You’ve got the amphisbaena which is a legless lizard. If you run into any and you ask any Guyanese to identify it, the chances are about 60 to 1 that he’ll tell you it’s a one-hour snake or a sari sari. If it bites you, you’re supposed to die within a few minutes. Now that lizard is harmless. It has no venom. It feeds on earthworms. It has– it’s also called the two-headed snake. It’s called a two-headed snake because he thinks it best to run instead of to fight. And knowing that he can’t run very fast, he pulls a bit of a bluff before uh, he runs. If he’s cornered, he’ll raise his head and wave it around in a menacing manner while the other head looks for his exit. The one head that is raised is not a head. It’s just a blunt tail that even has dots on it that look like eyes. And then he give us all a (unintelligible word) politician’s bluff. (Laughs)
Herpetologist: Yeah, so, remember that you’ve got snakes with legs and lizards without legs in this region. And you know, let’s get back to boas. I keep getting sidetracked. That’s because, you know, there’s not much in the sawdust and it’s easily shifted.
So back on our boas. The boa constr– the boas on a whole are very useful animals. They feed primarily on rats. I don’t know how many of you know this, but rats have killed more people than all of the wars that man fought among themselves. And rats have gone further than that. They have found a way of joyriding on us. They eat approximately a third of all the food we produce on this planet. Man has waged a war against rats since the days of (unintelligible made-up name) and (unintelligible made-up name) and the rest of the caveman boys, and he has not been able to even dent the population of the rats. The only enemy that the rat has in nature, the only thing that really ta– prevents him from taking over this planet, is a snake. So you see, the snake is our friend. And for this, we have always been duly grateful, and every time we see a snake, we cut his head off. One of the idiosyncrasies of man.
Now I’m not saying everybody is going to want to go straight out and pick snakes up and make pets of them. And that could be a very dangerous habit. But, I am saying that many snakes – most snakes – are beneficial to man. They do more good than harm. So, I go back to what I said in the beginning. If you see a snake, don’t try to make yourself a hero. Leave him alone. He’s not going to come after you. None of the snakes of Guyana will deliberately attack you.
Now I’ve had an anaconda that has done this, but one anaconda in 18 years of handling is a pretty good record. This guy used to come across, and if I went near the cage, he’d leave where he was and come across and try to snap at me. He must have been a schizophrenic.
Crowd: (scattered laughter)
Herpetologist: Then we have the other large family, the Colubridae. This is the largest family of snakes, and they account for probably, what, sixty percent of the snakes you find here. Most of them are not venomous. And in Guyana, none of them are dangerous. You might notice that I said most of them are not venomous. In general, most of this family are considered to be non-venomous. But, in actual fact, some of them do have venom-producing glands and do have fangs. But if they have venom and they have fangs, why are they called non-venomous? And this is a question I’m sure everybody starts to think right away. They are called non-venomous because they’re not really dangerous. They have their fangs, instead at the front of their jaws, right at the back of their jaws. Now when they bite, they bite with the front of their jaws. So except you that’re going to open his mouth and stick your finger in, he cannot use his fangs on you. And if you do open up his mouth and stick your finger in, you deserve to get bitten.
Herpetologist: So– And anyhow, on those, except for a few exceptions, the bite is no worse than the sting of a wasp or something like that. There’s a good chance you wouldn’t even know that you have been envenomated. I have been bitten by a few of them. I remember about six months ago, getting uh, one of the green snakes that we have here – (unintelligible name) – and getting bitten by it. And I know that he got me with a fang, because you had clear fang marks and he had– we were doing a film, so I had to let him take a good bite so that the camera boys could have their kicks.
So, we’ve had a quick run-through on– just on general families. Now let’s get a little deeper into it.
We know that snakes eat primarily rats. Many other things that they eat will be birds, lizards, frogs, toads. Some eat snails, and many snakes eat other snakes. There’s a snake that you’ll find around here called the fire snake. It’s a red snake. He’s very fast, and if cornered, he can be quite rough to deal with. Now the fire snake lives on venomous snakes. This is his first choice of dinner. He will– Although he doesn’t have any venom, he will attack a venomous labaria and swallow it.
How do snakes eat? Do they bite bits and pieces off of their food and chew it?
Crowd: (scattered voices in background answering “no”)
Herpetologist: No, they don’t. That’s right. This young man in front tells me they swallow it, and he’s quite correct. A snake cannot bite bits off and chew. For this reason, when he looks at something, he decides, “Can he– can I get this into me?” If he can’t get it into him, then it has no food value to him. I cannot imagine a snake swallowing any adults in this room. Huh? Do we have any dwarves around? Maybe a very big anaconda can swallow a small child. It’s possible but highly improbable.
There’s another thing that takes us off the priority list for snakes. If you took any other animal and hung it up by its nose so that the legs fell down, you would find that the animal immediately becomes streamlined. Head, shoulders, body. Somewhere along the line, Mother Nature went a little wrong when she designed us. and we come head, horizontal flange into shoulders. Now remember that snake is going to have to swallow his food whole. Now when he gets past the head, he’s going to stick on the shoulders. So this is another thing that’s uh, a come back. This– So it takes us off the priority list. We are not shaped right to make a good dinner.
Crowd: (scattered laughter)
Herpetologist: Where it comes to the big snakes again, uh, like the big anacondas, in my 18 years of collecting, I have only seen about two or three snakes big enough to swallow a child. Nearly every bushman that I have come across, every prospector or diamond seeker has told me of the forty- and fifty-foot anacondas that they have killed. Now if you listen to the tales, these things are very, very common in the forest. Forty- and fifty-foot anacondas. Oh, while I’m on that point, a little note: the world record is 35 feet. (Laughs) So, when you hear– when you hear of these really big, massive animals, forget it. Whoever tells you about it is handing you a bit of a line.
Well, the big snakes have one enemy in captivity and that is the inch tape. I have had fifteen-foot snakes brought in to me, and people swear that they’ve measured them and they’re fifteen feet long, and not an inch less. And I say, “I’ll just put a tape on it.” And that snake gets scared, so scared, he shrinks right down and this – this has happened. They were eight feet. Well, to me that’s good going.
Where do you find snakes? On a worldwide picture we can say– we can say that you find them on the ground, under the ground, in rivers and trenches, in the ocean. (Unintelligible word) in the Pacific Ocean –
Crowd: (male voice talking to speaker in background; unintelligible)
Herpetologist: Okay. Yeah. And believe it or not, even in the air. There are one or two species of snakes that fly. I see a few expressions of surprise. Snake doesn’t actually fly. What it does though, is it flattens its body and springs off of a tree and glides. (tape edit) In Guyana, we do not have flying snakes, and we do not have snakes in the sea. We do have snakes in the river. The coral snake is– or the one species of coral snake in particular is very aquatic. We do have snakes in trees, we do have snakes on the ground and under the ground. We in Guyana have the largest snake in the world: the anaconda. And we have the smallest snakes in the world. We have some worm snakes that, fully grown, are no longer than about four inches. They (unintelligible word) live on ant eggs and are quite harmless. Most people who even find them do not know that they are snakes. They think that– they mistake them for worms. The anaconda (unintelligible word) is not the longest snake in the world. The python is. The python, the world record on the python, I think, is 42 feet while the anaconda is 35. But the python is a slender-bodied animal in comparison, so a 35-foot anaconda will be a lot heavier than a 42-foot python.
Another interesting facet in snakes is many of you will know the theory of the con–
(Break in recording)
Herpetologist: –snakes is many of you will know of the theory of the continents drifting apart. There is this school of thought that the continents were all together, and as the world cooled, they separated. Mountain ranges have been traced, say in Africa that are found in the Americas – sorry, in Africa – and found in America, in South America. The snakes also very, very strongly support this theory. You have the python family in Africa that is almost identical to the boa family in South America. So much so, that last year, a visiting serpentarium in the states – my wife who has been collecting snakes with me for, as I say, nearly 18 years, mistook a python for a– a boa constrictor. The resemblance is that close. I have also seen an African tree python, which is a green snake with identical to uh, emerald boa of Guy–
(break in recording)
Herpetologist: –when I saw it there was just– just enough difference to make you wonder what’s wrong. Uh, you know, the kind of thing where you can’t pinpoint it straight off. Then I saw that the marks on the back– The python has marks on the back, and the boa has marks on the back, but the boa has slightly larger marks. It’s the kind of thing that an amateur could easily mistake. But what makes it funny about them is that the pythons lay eggs, and the boas, in this part of the world, bring their young alive. So here you have an interesting parallel development. One lives in one place and he does it one way, and the other guy lives somewhere else and he’s got his own way of doing it.
Another thing that you’ll find interesting is the development of the venom-producing gland. This gland has not evolved evenly in all snakes, and because of this, a herpetologist can have six snakes on a dissecting table, and he can trace from the non-poisonous snake to the poisonous snake, the development of the glands. The gland that gives the venom is a form of salivary gland. And the first thing that happened is the gland which was round started to become elongated, with the front end making a slightly more toxic saliva than the back end. And then that elongation began to pinch. Then you got this type of effect. And finally they separated. And you had one gland producing the normal digestive saliva and one gland producing venom. I– Just now I said something wrong. I said the front end. In more– In the dangerous snakes, it’s the front end. But I also mentioned snakes that have a rear fang. So it’s not even a case of all developing in the same direction. Some grew back, some went forward. But what it does boil down to is that that gland started off as one big salivary gland, and it developed into a salivary gland at one end and a venom-producing gland at the other.
Which makes it that venom is a form of saliva. The venom of the snake is a part of the digestive system of the snake. When a snake bites someone, he injects it with some of his digestive juices. And a per– let’s say a person bitten by a labaria may run away from the snake. But if you want to stretch a point, you wouldn’t be too far wrong saying that a snake is digesting his food while you are running away from him. This has actually happened. The– the– the venom begins to eat the tissue. It’s what we call enzymes. I don’t know how many of you have done enzymes among the juniors. I’m sure the seniors will have a pretty good idea on this. The enzymes –
Crowd: (male voice, unintelligible)
Herpetologist: –said, the plane has come. Okay, so the digestive juices work after the victim has been separated. Now this can be called part one. In a couple of weeks time, I (unintelligible word) you back with a batch of snakes, and we’ll have part two, (unintelligible word) a full lecture with demonstrations. I’ll show you a couple of snakes and let some of you handle them. So don’t sort of feel like you’ve missed it all because the plane has come. Bye, folks.
Herpetologist: –show you one of the snakes. This is a boa constrictor. This is harmless and this is a pet.
Crowd: (groans, moans from audience)
Herpetologist: (unintelligible word) just keep your seats, keep your seats. There’s a good chance, if you can hear me, you can see me.
Crowd: (talking and movement in background, laughter)
(End of tape)
Tape originally posted January 2013