opus

herpetology :     That part of zoology which treats reptiles
--Compact Oxford English Dictionary
So the Lord God said to the serpent:
"Because you have done this,
You are cursed more than all cattle,
And more than every beast of the field;
On your belly you shall go,
And you shall eat dust
All the days of your life.
And I will put enmity
Between you and the woman,
And between your seed and her Seed;
He shall bruise your head,
And you shall bruise His heel."
--The Holy Bible, New King James Version, Genesis 3:14-3:15
ophiophilism :     love of snakes
--Compact Oxford English Dictionary
That's not a big snake.   This is a big snake!     --Dan Murphy

As an avowed ophiophile, I have made it (one of) my missions to educate people about reptiles in general and snakes in particular.   The number of misunderstandings about snakes is a source of continual amazement to me, thus I have created the following Snake FAQ.   If you find that your question isn't answered here, email it to herp(at)opus.dabney.caltech.edu and I'll try to answer it as soon as possible.

Do snakes have bones?

Yes.   They are vertebrates and as such have a spine, skull, and ribs.   Their spinal columns may have over 200 individual vertebrae, thus allowing for their flexibility.   Their upper and lower jaws have the ability to separate, and their lower jaw can separate at the chin, thus allowing them to eat prey up to three times their own circumference.

Do snakes regurgitate the bones and hair of their food?

No.   While some egg-eating snakes will swallow an egg whole, then crush it and regugitate the shell, snakes in general do not regurgutate anything unless they are sick.   Snake stomachs are extremely powerful and efficient, dissolving everything from hair to bones to teeth.

Do all snakes have fangs?

No.   While all snakes have teeth, only poisonous snakes have fangs.   Snake teeth are quite small and needlelike, and are just used for holding on to their prey.

Do snakebites hurt?

Not really, unless the snake is poisonous or extremely large.   Speaking as someone who has had a 6 foot Burmese Python chomp on his face, I can tell you that I've had worse papercuts.

Once I saw this 60-foot snake...

No, you didn't.   The world record is 33 feet for a Reticulated Python, and though it has been surmised that longer snakes exist in the wild they probably don't get any bigger than 40 feet.

...who ate his owner.

It really is amazing how many people are under the misconception that people are eaten by snakes all the time.   In fact, there is only one record that I know of for a snake actually eating a grown human, and that was the case of a Reticulated Python in a zoo eating a zookeeper who was not taking appropriate precautions while feeding.   There have been reports of large pet snakes escaping and eating small children, but these are dubious and generally sound like examples of poor owners.

Aren't you afraid that he'll choke you to death?

Rule No. 1 about owning a large snake is never let it form a full circle around your neck.   A well-kept snake would not actually try to strangle a human, but they are extremely strong and may try to grab your neck for stability, exerting more than enough pressure to cut off the blood supply to your brain and choke you out.

Are snakes mean?

The temperament of a snake, like nearly every other animal, is usually a reflection on the owner, not the snake (I'll reserve my rant on poor pet owners for another page).   A snake which is handled often, especially when it is young, will probably learn that humans are neither a threat nor prey and respond at worst indifferently to people.   Snakes will only attack something which is seen as a threat or food (snake train of thought: Can I eat it? No. Can it eat me? No. Move on.).   You may have noticed that I mentioned that I have been bitten by a snake (actually, more than one).   That happened to be a case of neglect by it's former owner, a pet store, where he was fed a starvation diet and everyone who worked there was too scared to handle him.   After getting him home, we fed him a rather large meal of chicken wings and drumsticks and have fed him regularly since, and haven't had any more problems whatsoever.

Why do they stick their tongue out all the time?

Snakes have very poor eyesight, so they rely on their sense of "smell" to guide them to prey.   When a snake flicks out its tongue, it picks up molecules from the air.   The snake then inserts its tongue into the Jacobsen's organ in the the roof of its mouth where the molecules are detected, much like our nose detects smells.

What is a snake's skin made of?

Snake skin has two layers--an outer layer of scales and an inner layer containing the nerve endings and color pigment cells.   The scales are made of keratin, the same protein from which human fingernails are made.

How/Why does a snake shed?

Since the outer layer of a snake's skin is dead, it needs to remove it in order to grow.   When it comes time to shed it's outer skin, the snake will secrete a fluid between the two layers of its skin and grow a new layer of scales under the old ones.   It will then rub its nose on a rough surface and slither out of its old skin.

Snakes are evil.   The Bible says so.

Don't make me smack you.

What's the difference between a python and a boa?

Pythons lay eggs, while boas give birth to live young.

What's the difference between heavy-bodied and thin-bodied snakes

Heavy-bodied snakes are just that--they're generally heavier and thicker than thin bodied snakes.   Heavy-bodied snakes include all pythons and boas, which are generally found in tropical regions.   Thin-bodied snakes include corn snakes, rat snakes, king snakes, racers, and most any wild snake you'll see in a non-tropical environment.

Do snakes need a lot of space?

Not really.   Heavy-bodied snakes generally find a nice warm place to curl up in and stay there for a few weeks at a time.   Thin-bodied snakes are more active and probably need more room than a heavy-bodied snake of the same size, but they are generally smaller so that isn't really a problem.

Where can I get a snake?

More and more pet stores are carrying snakes these days, but I am somewhat reluctant to recommend any major pet store chain as the snakes they carry are generally neglected and often have problems with parasites.   Stores that specialize in reptiles will generally have a wider selection and more well-kept animals.   The employees are also usually more knowledgeable about the animals and can give you advice on how to care for your snake.   You can also purchase snakes directly from a breeder through the mail or internet, but they generally sell the rarer breeds which are significantly more expensive than, say, a ball python or red-tail boa.

Aren't they cramped in that cage?

Contrary to popular belief, even large heavy-bodied snakes do not require that much room to live in.   While most sources I've seen recommend an enclosure 1 1/2 time the length of the snake, that really isn't practical for the larger varieties.   Heavy-bodied snakes spend most of their time curled up in a warm place sleeping, especially after eating, so if the snake can coil without being squashed, the cage is probably big enough.   Thin-bodied snakes on the other hand are significantly more active and require more space to move around in.

How often do snakes eat?

Heavy-bodied snakes can get by just fine eating once or twice a month, depending on the size of the meal and the age of the snake.   Thin-bodied snakes generally need to eat more often, sometimes once a week or more.   How often you feed your snake is usually a matter of personal preference, with some people saying that snakes should be fed small meals weekly and others saying that one big meal a month is just fine.   I happen to fall into the second group.