Snake Myths and Facts
By Phil Purser
Baby Venomous Snakes Are More Dangerous Than Adults.
This myth is roughly two-thirds nonsense and one-third truth. I believe this myth was born out of the human fascination with irony. For some reason we like to think it’s the one we don’t see coming that always gets us. We like to root for the underdog, and we simply like the notion of the tiny one being the deadly one. But the fact of the matter is that baby venomous snakes are not more venomous than their parents. In fact, quite the opposite is true in a great many snake species; adults have far more virulent venom than the young snakes. For example, both adult and juvenile timber rattlesnakes (Crotalus horridus) have venom that is “strongly hemolytic,” which means it causes the breakdown of red blood cells, in prey (Ernst 116). Yet venom studies in older adults demonstrate that the “activity level of some venom enzymes tends to increase with the size and age of the snake” (Ernst 116). So an older timber rattlesnake has venom more virulent than a younger one. Similarly, an adult snake is capable of delivering a much larger venom dose than a smaller snake. Consider the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus adamanteus). Juveniles of the species typically deliver less than 70 milligrams of venom, whereas a healthy adult specimen may deliver 492 to 666 milligrams of venom (Ernst 90). The known maximum is 848 milligrams in a single bite (Ernst 90). Roughly 100 milligrams of venom is considered a lethal dose for an adult human. So if the venom toxicity of a young snake is not as potent as an adult, and the total venom yield of a juvenile is not nearly as great as an adult’s, what part of this myth is one-third true? The answer lies in the venomous snake’s experience level. Adults are veterans of life. They have successfully avoided or driven back predators and attackers, and they have full control over all muscular functions. Adults recognize the need to conserve their precious venom. It takes time to produce it, and a snake that empties its venom reserves in an attacker has nothing left to subdue prey. They have learned that a venomous snake without venom doesn’t eat. It’s a different story for neonate venomous snakes. They generally are not as in control of their muscular functions as are adult snakes, and they are at their most vulnerable point in life. Defensive strikes are fast and thorough. When these snakes bite, they typically bite hard, pumping the attacker full of every last bit of venom. If a young venomous snake’s bite were to be more dangerous than an adult’s, this would be the only way. I suppose there are far more myths about snakes than I can dispel in one article. Education is the key. Snakes are interesting and unusual animals, so it only seems natural that people have attributed to them unique or even supernatural properties and powers. Sadly, too many of these untruths are passed down from one generation of reptile lovers to the next. I can only hope those kids I saw at that Alabama reptile expo so long ago come to figure out that juvenile copperheads are not more virulent than their adult counterparts. Because for every snake myth we bust, we get closer to allowing the truth behind these intriguing animals to prevail. References Ernst, Carl H. 1992. Venomous Reptiles of North America. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C. Mehrtens, John M. 1987. Living Snakes of the World in Color. Sterling Press, New York, New York.
Another read on being bit by a baby rattlesnake