With blog carnival, Utah State snake buff hopes to repair reptiles' rep

Published December 9, 2013 5:26 pm

Eight bloggers from around the world explain why snakes make the world a better place.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

While they coil up in dark winter lairs, barely alive by most measures, Andrew Durso works to ensure snakes get a fair shake.

The Utah State University graduate student and seven other herpetology buffs are teaming up Monday for a daylong "blog carnival," #SnakesAtYourService, to give the reviled reptiles a much-needed infusion of good pub. They aim to show that snakes provide a bunch of essential services for Earth's ecosystems, and unlike the snakes in government, they do it for free.

Durso has felt serpent sympathy since he volunteered at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in middle school, drawn by their beauty and ability to do all the life-supporting activities that most breathing things need limbs for.

"I realized how frightened people were of them and how baseless some of those fears are," he says. "Like with anything, the more knowledge you have about it, the less reason you have to be afraid of it."

He's since devoted his life to furthering our understanding of snakes, including putting radios in them to find out what they do all day (conclusion: a whole lot of sitting around, waiting for prey) and analyzing chemical signatures to find out what's on their menu (surprisingly tricky, since some females dine just a few times every other year.)

He was doing field work in Florida last year when he was struck by the way a former high school teacher was using social media to engage with layfolk back home. Remarkably, he thought, they actually seemed to care. At the ex-teacher's urging, he started his own blog, "Life is Short but Snakes are Long," to share daily observations.

It really took off when he wrote about trying to identify a shed snake skin/snake shed in Florida. Turns out, lots of people on Google wanted to know how to do that. So Durso followed the post up with a broader how-to on identifying snake sheds throughout the U.S. and Canada.

Grand total, he says he can conservatively estimate 50,000 visitors to his blog. A woman in Virginia asked him for help identifying a shed skin that turned out to be from somebody's pet anaconda. A Canadian woman sought Durso's help vetting a murder mystery novel in which a snake was the murder weapon. And a Spanish doctor working in Ghana offered to translate his posts to Spanish at no cost, just to practice his English with material he enjoyed.

Now, inspired by Partner in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation's Year of the Snake, Durso is putting the PR back in reptile. Five #SnakesatYourService bloggers live in America, one in Germany, one in Australia and one in Madagascar. All eight will link to each others' posts, so if you're interested, simply check out Durso's blog. You can also see the box at left for Durso's take on five common misconceptions about snakes.

mpiper@sltrib.com

Twitter: @matthew_piper —

Snake myths

Snakes are really dangerous/out to get you • Many people are afraid of snakes. While it's true that some snakes are dangerous, most snakes aren't, and even the ones that are really don't want to bite you. Snakes don't chase people or attack them. In experiments, most venomous snakes that were harassed by humans just ran (OK, slithered) away. Less than 1 in 5 responded by striking, and of those that did strike, most don't inject any venom. Most venomous snakebites in the U.S. take place when the person is trying to kill the snake. The best way to protect yourself from snakebite is to learn to identify the snakes in your area, and not to interact with venomous snakes on purpose.

Snakes are slimy • Snakes' skin is smooth and dry. It is covered in scales made of keratin, the same thing as your hair and fingernails. Snakes shed their skin every few months, and the shed skins have been used in research to help understand how cell membranes work.

Snakes are always cold • Although the term "cold blooded" might lead you to believe that snakes are always cold, they are the same temperature as their environment. This means that if it is 100 degrees out, they are 100 degrees, unless they can find a place to cool off in the shade. Snakes and other reptiles regulate their body temperature with behavior rather than metabolism, and as a result they can devote more of the energy they get from their food to growth and reproduction. Humans and other warm-blooded animals burn almost 99 percent of the calories we eat keeping our body temperatures high and constant. Snakes and other cold-blooded animals can use more than half of the calories they eat for other purposes.

Snakes can reach enormous sizes • Although it's true that some snakes can grow to great lengths (the largest Burmese pythons can reach over 30 feet), the size of snakes is frequently exaggerated by 30 to 40 percent, even by experts. The largest rattlesnakes found in northern Utah may reach 5 feet in length, but most are between 2 and 4 feet. The number of rattle segments indicates the number of times a rattlesnake has shed, not how many years old it is. Because rattle segments can break off, rattlesnakes with longer rattles are not necessarily older.

Snakes are not important • Snake venom has inspired medical research and led to drugs that help treat stroke, hypertension, heart disease, cancer, arthritis, and hemophilia. Snakes interact with their prey, predators, and other parts of the environment to help maintain healthy ecosystems. Some evidence suggests that snakes might play a role in helping regulate Lyme disease in the eastern United States, by preying on the mice that host the ticks that spread the disease.