Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Reptiles by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Reptiles by  Anna Botsford Comstock

Reptile Study

Yet when a child and barefoot; I more than once, at morn,

Have passed, I thought, a whiplash unbraided in the sun,

When, stooping to secure it, it wrinkled, and was gone.

—Emily Dickinson.

dropcap image F the teacher could bring herself to take as much interest as did Mother Eve in that "subtile animal," as the Bible calls the serpent, she might, through such interest, enter the paradise of the boyish heart instead of losing a paradise of her own. How many teachers, who have an aversion for snakes, are obliged to teach small boys whose pet diversion is capturing these living ribbons and bringing them into the schoolroom stowed away not too securely in pockets! In one of the suburban Brooklyn schools, boys of this ilk sought to frighten their teacher with their weird prisoners. But she was equal to the occasion, and surprised them by declaring that there were many interesting things to be studied about snakes, and forthwith sent to the library for books which discussed these reptiles; and this was the beginning of a nature-study club of rare efficiency and enterprise.

There are abroad in the land, many errors concerning snakes. Most people believe that they are all venomous, which is far from true. The rattlesnake still holds its own in rocky, mountainous places and the moccasin haunts the bayous of the southern coast; however, in most localities, snakes are not only harmless but are beneficial to the farmer. The superstition that if a snake is killed, its tail will live until sun-down, is general and has but slender foundation in the fact that snakes, being lower in their nerve-organization than mammals, the process of death is a slow one. Some people firmly believe that snakes spring or jump from the ground to seize their prey, which is quite false since no snake jumps clear of the ground as it strikes, nor does it spring from a perfect coil. Nor are snakes slimy, quite to the contrary, they are covered with perfectly dry scales. But the most general superstition of all is that, when a snake thrusts out its tongue, it is an act of animosity; the fact is, the tongue is a sense organ and is used as an insect uses its feelers or antennae, and the act is also supposed to aid the creature in hearing; thus when a snake thrusts out its tongue, it is simply trying to find out about its surroundings and what is going on.

Snakes are the only creatures able to swallow objects larger than themselves. This is rendered possible by the elasticity of the body walls, and the fact that snakes have an extra bone hinging the upper to the lower jaw, allowing them to spread widely; the lower jaw also separates at the middle of its front edge and spreads apart sidewise. In order to force a creature into a "bag" so manifestly too small, a special mechanism is needed; the teeth supply this by pointing backward, and thus assist in the swallowing. The snake moves by literally walking on the ends of its ribs, which are connected with the crosswise plates on its lower side; each of these crosswise plates has the hind edge projecting down so that it can hold to an object. Thus, the graceful, noiseless progress of the snake, is brought about by many of these crosswise plates worked by the movement of the ribs.

Some species of snakes simply chase their prey, striking at it and catching it in the open mouth, while others, like the black snake, wind themselves about their victims crushing them to death. Snakes can live a long time without food; many instances on record show that they have been able to exist a year or more without anything to eat. In our northern climate they hibernate in winter, going to sleep as soon as the weather becomes cold and not waking up until spring. As snakes grow, they shed their skins; this occurs only two or three times a year. The crested fly-catcher adorns its nest with these phantom snakes.

References—The Reptile Book, by Ditmars, gives interesting accounts of our common snakes; Mathew's Familiar Life of Field and Forest is also valuable. To add interest to the snake lessons let the children read "Kaa's Hunting" and "Rikki Tikki Tavi" from Kipling's Jungle Books.

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