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11 Snake Myths, Debunked

These reptiles are the subject of many an urban legend, some of which aren’t too far removed from reality. Others—like the widely-believed myths listed below—are off by a mile. 

1. They Dislocate Their Lower Jaws While Feeding.

Watch this huge African rock python gulp down an entire antelope (unless you’re squeamish and/or a hoofed mammal). How could any animal engulf something that’s bigger than its own head? Popular wisdom holds that serpents can do so by detaching their jaws. The truth is easier to swallow. 

Flexibility, not dislocation, is the name of the game. A snake’s lower jaw is split into two halves called “mandibles.” At rest, their tips touch to form the snaky equivalent of a chin. Yet, these bones aren’t fused together like ours are. Instead, a stretchy ligament connects the mandibles and enables them to separate once dinner starts. Similar equipment enhances the upper jaw’s maneuverability as well. 

2. You Can Tell a Rattlesnake’s Age by Counting its Rattles.

This premise makes two false assumptions: A) the critters get exactly one new rattle each year and B) existing rattles are never lost. Let’s start with the first claim. After each shedding of the skin, rattlesnakes obtain another tail bulb. But, for babies and juveniles, that event can take place as often as every few weeks. In contrast, elderly specimens might only shed on a bi-annual basis. Moreover, rattles don’t last forever—over time, they become prone to breaking off. 

3. Certain Snakes Are “Poisonous.”

Though people tend to use them interchangeably, "poisonous" and "venomous" aren't synonyms. Poisons work by getting eaten, inhaled, or absorbed through the skin. Venom, on the other hand, is any toxic substance that gets injected into its target via fang, stinger, etc. Poisonous snakes are incredibly rare, with the Asian tiger keelback (Rhabdophis tigrinus)—which stores toxins in special glands on its neck—being among the few documented examples. On the other hand, more than 600 venomous species are currently at large.   

4. Snakes Are Slimy.

Amphibians secrete mucous all over their skin. Ergo, most frogs and toads have wet, slippery hides. Snakes, being reptiles, do nothing of the sort. Instead, they’re covered with dry scales, and can feel like smooth sand running through your fingers when held. 

5. Cottonmouths Can’t Bite Underwater.

When your scientific name (Agkistrodon piscivorus) literally means “hooked-toothed fish-eater,” people naturally assume that you spend a lot of time in and around water. This assumption isn't wrong: throughout the American southeast, these semiaquatic predators are a common sight. However, familiarity doesn’t always breed understanding. Despite their knack for hunting prey while submerged, one dangerous myth claims that cottonmouths can’t strike underwater. They can and do. So, whether you’re out hiking or going for a dip, please exercise caution around them. 

6. They’re Mostly Tail.

Here’s an inside look at a generalized snake. As you can see, serpentine survival depends on numerous vital organs (housed between two rows of ribs). Notice that empty, white area near the end? That’s the tail, which usually doesn’t even take up a fifth of the snake’s total body length. Regardless, it can still take on important functions. Consider the aptly-named spider-tailed viper, whose tail tip apparently lures over arachnid-eating birds because it comes with long, skinny scales that resemble spider legs.    

7. Snakes are deaf.

Since they lack eardrums, naturalists once thought that our serpentine friends couldn't hear airborne noises. Fairly new research disproves this. Snakes still possess inner ears, which connect to their jawbones. While resting or slithering, they can sense vibrations in the ground (such as footsteps). Once vibrations are picked up by the jaw, the soundwaves are sent to the brain and processed.

So what about vibrations that pass through the air? In 2011, biologist Christian Christensen monitored the brains of a few ball pythons (Python regius). As he discovered, his test subjects had no trouble hearing low-frequency airborne sounds because their skulls vibrated in accordance with them. However, Christensen’s pythons weren’t as sensitive to higher-pitched noises. 

While further research may disprove this theory, it is generally believed that cobras sway to the music of snake charmers not because of the sounds emanating from their instruments, but because the animals interpret the flute in motion as a potential threat.  

8. Milk Snakes Drink … Well, Milk.

One can find folks who genuinely believe that these harmless little guys will grab onto cow udders and start chugging milk (hence their common name). Obviously, this doesn’t happen. For starters, reptiles can’t digest dairy products. Also, a typical bovine wouldn’t blithely stand still as needle-like teeth dug into a rather sensitive area.

9. Rattlesnakes Always Rattle Before Lashing Out.

Snakes may not be the spiteful villains you see in cartoons, but when danger strikes, they sometimes can’t help but strike back. Rattlers warn potential attackers by vibrating their trademark tails. But here’s the thing: they don’t have to sound the alarm. On occasion, they’ll just skip the rattling entirely. Always tread carefully through rattler country. 

10. Baby Snakes Inject More Venom Than Adults Do. 

Technically, the jury’s still out on this one, but scientists lack any compelling evidence to support it. Old-school rumors assert that, among venomous species, babies deliver more potent bites because they haven’t yet learned self-control and will inject far more venom than necessary. Seasoned adults, meanwhile, are said to use more conservative doses. 

No study has yet verified that snakes consciously dictate how much venom they dish out. Furthermore, even a small nip from a full-sized specimen probably expels more of the stuff than the biggest bites from hatchlings of the same species ever could. 

11. Constrictors asphyxiate their prey.

Last week, a new paper—published in The Journal of Experimental Biology—put the strangulation theory to rest for good. Boas and pythons have long been accused of fatally choking their victims. But it turns out that they actually kill by halting blood flow. Dr. Scott Boback and his colleagues deduced as much by measuring constriction’s effects on the heart rate, blood iron balance, blood gasses, and blood pressure of anesthetized rats. Within seconds, the team learned, an ordinary boa can wrap tightly enough around its next meal to stop circulation altogether. 

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NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
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Researchers in Singapore Deploy Robot Swans to Test Water Quality
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

There's something peculiar about the new swans floating around reservoirs in Singapore. They drift across the water like normal birds, but upon closer inspection, onlookers will find they're not birds at all: They're cleverly disguised robots designed to test the quality of the city's water.

As Dezeen reports, the high-tech waterfowl, dubbed NUSwan (New Smart Water Assessment Network), are the work of researchers at the National University of Singapore [PDF]. The team invented the devices as a way to tackle the challenges of maintaining an urban water source. "Water bodies are exposed to varying sources of pollutants from urban run-offs and industries," they write in a statement. "Several methods and protocols in monitoring pollutants are already in place. However, the boundaries of extensive assessment for the water bodies are limited by labor intensive and resource exhaustive methods."

By building water assessment technology into a plastic swan, they're able to analyze the quality of the reservoirs cheaply and discreetly. Sensors on the robots' undersides measure factors like dissolved oxygen and chlorophyll levels. The swans wirelessly transmit whatever data they collect to the command center on land, and based on what they send, human pilots can remotely tweak the robots' performance in real time. The hope is that the simple, adaptable technology will allow researchers to take smarter samples and better understand the impact of the reservoir's micro-ecosystem on water quality.

Man placing robotic swan in water.
NUS Environmental Research Institute, Subnero

This isn't the first time humans have used robots disguised as animals as tools for studying nature. Check out this clip from the BBC series Spy in the Wild for an idea of just how realistic these robots can get.

[h/t Dezeen]

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There May Be an Ancient Reason Why Your Dog Eats Poop
iStock
iStock

Dogs aren't known for their picky taste in food, but some pups go beyond the normal trash hunting and start rooting around in poop, whether it be their own or a friend's. Just why dogs exhibit this behavior is a scientific mystery. Only some dogs do it, and researchers aren't quite sure where the impulse comes from. But if your dog is a poop eater, it's nearly impossible to steer them away from their favorite feces.

A new study in the journal Veterinary Medicine and Science, spotted by The Washington Post, presents a new theory for what scientists call "canine conspecific coprophagy," or dogs eating dog poop.

In online surveys about domestic dogs' poop-eating habits completed by thousands of pet owners, the researchers found no link between eating poop and a dog's sex, house training, compulsive behavior, or the style of mothering they received as puppies. However, they did find one common link between the poop eaters. Most tended to eat only poop that was less than two days old. According to their data, 85 percent of poop-eaters only go for the fresh stuff.

That timeline is important because it tracks with the lifespan of parasites. And this led the researchers to the following hypothesis: that eating poop is a holdover behavior from domestic dogs' ancestors, who may have had a decent reason to tuck into their friends' poop.

Since their poop has a high chance of containing intestinal parasites, wolves poop far from their dens. But if a sick wolf doesn't quite make it out of the den in time, they might do their business too close to home. A healthier wolf might eat this poop, but the parasite eggs wouldn't have hatched within the first day or two of the feces being dropped. Thus, the healthy wolf would carry the risk of infection away from the den, depositing the eggs they had consumed away in their own, subsequent bowel movements at an appropriate distance before the eggs had the chance to hatch into larvae and transmit the parasite to the pack.

Domestic dogs may just be enacting this behavior instinctively—only for them, there isn't as much danger of them picking up a parasite at home. However, the theory isn't foolproof. The surveys also found that so-called "greedy eaters" were more likely to eat feces than dogs who aren't quite so intense about food. So yes, it could still be about a poop-loving palate.

But really, it's much more pleasant to think about the behavior as a parasite-protection measure than our best pals foraging for a delicious fecal snack. 

[h/t The Washington Post]

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