Homer Simpson and Predator Snakes

In this science blog we investigate the two principal ways in which snakes kill their prey which include poisoning and ‘constricting’.  We also confront Homer Simpson’s negative attitude about snakes.This article follows on from Evolution-from Lizards to Snakes

Springfield’s Whacking Day

Every year on May 11th the citizens of Springfield hold a snake ‘whacking day’ when rattlesnakes are hunted down and killed with sticks.

In preparation for this annual event Homer Simpson practices his whacking skills.

Homer lifts whacking stick above his head to practise whacking snakes.

He even buys a shiny new ‘whacking stick’….

Homer Simpson holding whacking stick which he will use to whack snakes

…much to the disgust of Lisa who pleads with Homer not to join this barbaric event. Homer does not listen to Lisa’s pleas.

Lisa looks horrified and implores Homer not to whack any snakes

On May 11th the people of Springfield, in a carnival atmosphere, meet up in the Town Square. The people listen to the town choir singing the ‘whacking day’ song.

springfield choir whacking day

The Beauty Queen declares the event ‘open’ and invites the people of Springfield to start ‘whacking.’

Beauty Queen launches whacking day

Banging their ‘whacking sticks’ on saucepan lids, the citizens set off in pursuit of Springfield’s rattle snakes.

citizens of springfield with drums and sticks

Terrified, the snakes slither in the opposite direction and jump over a man sitting on a park bench.

snakes running away from whacking day slither across a man sitting on a park bench

Bart and Lisa Simpson are horrified at the prospect of this needless slaughter. Can they save the snakes? To be continued….!!!

Bart and Lisa look worried about prospect of snakes being clubbed to death

  • Why does Homer Simpson (and other citizens of Springfield) want to kill snakes? If Homer knew more about these amazing reptiles he might change his mind!

Let’s educate Homer about snakes!

Homer Simpson insert brain here

1) Snakes only attack when they are hungry or feel threatened

When Homer is hungry he can buy food from his local supermarket. When snakes feel hungry they have to catch their own food.

All snakes are carnivorous and only eat meat; there are no vegetarian snakes!

snake and homer simpson gorging themselves

If you don’t want to be a tasty ‘snake snack’ don’t get too close! If you do get too close snakes might think you are a predator and attack you.

snake-bites-man-in-face-

It’s common sense!

Rattle snake warning sign pinned to a post Julias Mexico City.typepad.com

Gaboon vipers from West Africa have among the longest fangs of any venomous snake and can look quite scary.

Gaboon viper showing fangs© snakesarelong.blogspot.co.uk

  •  Can you spot a Gaboon viper hiding on this forest floor?

forest floor in west africa showing habitat of gaboon vipersnakesarelongblogspot.co.uk

Gaboon vipers wait silently on the forest floor to ambush their prey. The truth is that they are very timid and shy snakes; they do not seek to bite passing mammals that they are not intent on eating.

In fact, they are sometimes killed after being accidentally trodden on by leopards, hippos and elephants ( and even humans!)

Gaboon vipers can wait…wait.. wait…for several weeks before they have the opportunity to bite and inject venom into passing prey; this prey may include birds, rats, rabbits, monkeys, porcupines and small antelope. They can go several weeks without a meal because they have such low metabolism; as they wait to ambush a passing animal they expend very little energy.

Lying camouflaged in wait for prey to ambush is safer than slithering around in search of prey. If they did slither around in search of prey they might be heard and their intended prey could easily escape.

Ambushing as a way of catching prey also means that Gaboon vipers can kill prey than can move faster than they can.

Bitis gabonica rhinoceros slithering© snakesarelong.blogspot.co.uk

2) Other strategies snakes use to stay alive

The Black Mamba from Southern Africa, one of the fastest of all snakes, uses its lightening speed to escape predators. Black mamba predators include eagles and badgers.

It is one of the most feared, venomous and aggressive of all snakes but it will still try to escape if it hears humans approaching.

Black Mamba Dendroaspis polylepis rearing up ready to strike

The venomous, marine Yellow Lipped Sea krait has developed an ingenious way of not being eaten. When this snake forages for food its head is often hidden inside holes and crevices of coral reefs.

With its head hidden it leaves its long body and tail very exposed; it has no means of defending itself and is vulnerable to attack by sharks and snake eating fish.

Yellow lipped sea krait© Elias Levy

The Yellow Lipped Sea krait has evolved an ingenious solution to make it less vulnerable to attack as it forages.

Its has evolved a tail that resembles its head. (Sharks can see the similarities even if the similarities are less obvious to us humans!)

Passing sharks avoid attacking the snake because they fear a venomous bite! Two heads are better than one!

The venomous Spectacled Cobra from India rises up and displays a spectacled hood when it feels threatened.

Spectacled cobra naja naja नाग , નાગ काला साँप, कालो rises up and displays its hood© Indiansnakes.org 

This display tricks predators into thinking that the snake is much bigger than it really is; this strategy often deters predators from attacking.

Stay away! I’m bigger than you are!

When threatened the Cuban Dwarf Boa Constrictor releases an incredibly smelly white slime from its anus.

It is able to burst tiny blood vessels (capillaries) in its eyes and mouth which results in its eyes and mouth turning red. This behavior is called ‘auto haemorrhaging.’

Dwarf Cuban Boa ConstrictorTropidophis melanurusManuel Iturriaga Herpetology Notes Volume 7:339-341(2014)

As the snake wriggles around, blood becomes smeared all over its body. Finally the snake coils into a tight ball with its head completely hidden.

This behavior gives predators the impression that the snake is somehow sick and diseased and would not make a good meal.

If you were a predator you would not wish to make yourself ill by eating a diseased snake, would you!?

(After photos were taken by the scientist this snake was released unharmed.)

3) Snakes perform a vital role in any eco system

Many species depend on snakes for food and in some eco systems snakes themselves are top predators.

foodweb showing snakes as top predators

Image a world without snakes! Where would we be? Plagued with rats?

Rats sitting in a bowl at Karni Mata Temple, India

4) Snakes protect bird eggs

Strange but sometimes true! Snakes not only eat bird eggs but also indirectly protect the eggs of some species.

Great Crested Flycatchers…..

Great Crested Flycatcher

…actively look for shed snake skins with which to line their nests.

Great crested fly catcher nest containing snake shedssnakesarelong.blogspot.co.uk

Any nest lined with snake skins would smell disgusting to some animals. However the smell to us humans is barely detectable.

Like all birds Great Crested Flycatchers have no sense of smell; it is believed that Great Crested Flycatchers line their nests with snake skin to deter flying squirrels….

northern flying squirrel 'flying' with limbs outstretched© Cy Hampson Canadian Museum of Nature

…. from entering their nests and stealing their eggs.

Flying squirrels are themselves are prey for rattlesnakes; flying squirrels avoid the smell of rattlesnake and so steer clear of any bird’s nest lined with shed skins.

4) Snake venom helps save lives!

Scientists are using snake venom to help find better drugs for treating heart disease, strokes, Alzheimer’s disease and cancer. Strange but true!

Milking a snake showing venom flowing onto a teaspoontusentakk2.com/wordpress

Snake venom is a form of modified saliva. Is Homer Simpson’s saliva venomous!?

Homer Simpson drooling with saliva coming out of his mouth

The following diagram summarizes the symptoms people can suffer after being bitten by a venomous snake.

symptoms of snake bites summarised on a torso of a human body Wikipedia: Medical Gallery of Mikael Häggström

Snakes have been slithering on our planet for a l-o-o-o-o-n-g time; more than 120 000 000 years to be precise!

In contrast Homo sapiens, the species to which Homer Simpson thinks he belongs, has only been around for 195 000 years.

Show more respect to snakes, Homer!

Homer Simpson's brain showing a compartment for respecting snakes

We now develop Homer’s understanding of the main differences between venomous and constricting snakes.

Evolution of venomous snakes

The ability to produce venomous saliva evolved 200 million years ago in common ancestors of snakes and lizards. These common ancestors were able to produce venomous saliva in their mouths which could enter victims’ blood after they were bitten.

Distant cousins of snakes are alive today which still kill their prey using venomous saliva. These distant cousins include Mexican beaded lizards with those impressive beads on their bodies….

Mexican Beaded lizard at Pittsburgh zooPittsburgh Zoo, Pennsylvania, USA

….. and Komodo Dragons.

Komodo dragon sticks out tongue at Cincinnati zooCincinnati Zoo, Ohio, USA

The Komodo Dragon bites its prey and then tracks the wounded creature using its sense of smell. It will then wait for its prey to die before eating it. Using venom to kill prey gives a Kimodo Dragon the remarkable ability to kill far larger mammals.

komodo dragon circles wallowing water buffalo

Sophisticated fangs. as found in vipers and cobras, evolved 80 million years ago.

snake family tree showing branching of venomous and non venomous snakesImage source: universe-review.ca

Early vipers and cobras evolved rear fangs with grooves along which venom could flow. Over millions of years these rear fangs moved forwards from the back to the front of snakes’ mouths. These front fangs eventually evolved into hollow teeth through which snakes could pump venom….

diagram showing venom gland, protective sheath, compressor muscle and venom canalbiology-forums.com

…just like a hypodermic syringe injects liquid medicines.

hypodermic syringe with vial of bottle of liquid medicineScience Museum / Science & Society Picture Library

Spitting cobras inject their prey with poisonous venom but when they feel threatened they will blind any predator by spitting venom into its eyes.

spitting cobra© dongettywildlifephotography.com

Snake venom contains a mixture of up to 100 different poisons, depending on the species. If snake venom only contained one or two poisons it would be easier for any prey to evolve resistance to being bitten. There are few organisms that have developed resistance to snake venom.

One such organism that has developed resistance to snake venom is the King Cobra!

 the King Cobra Ophiophagus hannah eating a snake

Evolution of constrictors

Constrictors, which include boas and pythons, branched off from their venomous cousins 80 million years ago.

boy with his pet pythonthe chobble.com

Constrictor’s teeth point backwards and have no venom-injecting front fangs.

Eastern Rat Snake skull John White at Virginia Herpetological Society

Using lightening fast speed, a constrictor will grab hold of its prey using its teeth; backwards facing teeth means that it is more difficult for any prey to struggle free.

person holding open mouth of carpet python exposing rear facing teethgoldcoastsnakecatcher.com.au

Having taken hold of its prey, a constrictor will wrap its body around its prey and will squeeze (‘constrict’) until its prey can no longer breathe. It will then swallow the animal whole.

It’s a bit gruesome showing a constrictor snake squeezing another animal so instead we see one constricting a tree !

boa constrictor climbing a tree

How Lisa and Bart saved the rattlesnakes of Springfield

With the citizens of Springfield chasing after the rattlesnakes Lisa and Bart happen to see Barry White walking past their house. They persuade the famous singer with the deep voice to sing outside their house. The snakes are attracted by Barry White’s singing….

Snakes hear Barry White singing in Whacking day episode

They all slither into the Simpsons’ house to escape the approaching mob.

Bart and Lisa show snakes into house

After all the snakes have entered his house Bart shuts the door leaving the angry mob waiting outside. Bart tells the mob about the origins of the 11th May ‘Whacking Day’ event.

He explains how the event originated in 1922 as an excuse to beat up Irish people; somehow beating up the Irish changed over the years to whacking snakes instead.

People of Springfield standing with whacking sticks in front of Simpson's house.

Bart’s explanation was verified by an old Irishman who said,”Tis true, I took many a lump, but ’twas all in fun!”

Irishman explains how he used to be whacked on whacking day

In light of Bart’s explanation the mob changed its mind and decided not to whack any more snakes. They allowed all the snakes to leave the Simpson’s house unharmed and they all slithered off into the sunset.

n road back into Springfield after whacking day event was cancelled

 Awesome videos

  • Slow motion puff adder attack

  • Confronting a King Cobra.

  • Being squeezed by a boa constrictor.

Science Fair Projects Information

Interesting science fair projects could include:

  • Researching the venomous and constrictor snakes in your area.( if you have any!)
  • Investigating the differences between venomous and constrictor snakes including how how each different type kills its prey.
  • Researching venomous lizards such as the amazing Komodo Dragon.

 

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