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19july-jpw06Everything you wanted to know about Turks & Caicos snakes.

By Bryan Naqqi Manco, Senior Conservation Officer, Turks & Caicos National Trust

Although animals have coexisted with humans on the planet since we first met, only certain animals have made such an impact on the minds of humans that they are known around the world as a symbol of mystical or religious power. One such animal is the snake.

Almost every culture of the world whose range overlaps with the range of a species of snake has elevated snakes to special symbolic status. In Native American cultures they are known as symbols of rebirth and resurrection. Chinese culture holds the snake as such an important symbol of compassion, clairvoyance, charm and vanity that it was awarded a position on the 12 year Chinese Zodiac Calendar. Ancient Egypt saw snakes as the symbol of esteemed wisdom. The Greek Empire regarded snakes as the symbol of healing and to this day, the Caduceus, a winged staff bearing two intertwined snakes, remains the symbol of modern medicine.

Biblically, snakes have acquired a dreaded reputation as the form in which the devil manifested himself in Eden. Often, people ignore that the devil chose the form of a snake and was not in truth a snake – hence, this impression of undeserved evil is often projected to all snakes. The snake in Biblical times was also seen as a symbol of wisdom, appeared in the tree representing knowledge rather than evil.

Due to their history of negative press from this allegory, snakes have long suffered from persecution by people all over the world. Much of this ill treatment is due to a lack of knowledge about snakes – they are very different from us and humans often reject and fear what they can not comprehend. Now though, science has produced a number of amazing discoveries about these fascinating animals.

Snakes are reptiles. Their skin is covered in scales and they are ectothermic or “cold blooded” – meaning that they do not produce their own body heat, but rely on the temperature of their environment to control their body temperature. Most reptiles lay eggs (unlike bird eggs, they are leathery and do not require a constant incubation temperature), but some snakes hold their eggs inside their body until they hatch, giving birth to live young. Reptiles are vertebrates, and all snakes have a skeleton complete with a skull, ribs and a backbone with up to 400 vertebrae.

There are approximately 2,500 species of snakes in the world on every continent besides Antarctica and they range in adult size from the four-inch Thread Snake to the Green Anaconda, which can measure 33 feet in length and weigh up to 500 pounds. Only about 200 species of snakes (less than 10%) are venomous – and the Turks & Caicos Islands have no venomous snakes. All snakes are carnivores and actively hunt live prey, except for a handful of species that feed exclusively on the eggs of birds, reptiles or fish.

So far, three species of snakes are known from the Turks & Caicos Islands. The two most commonly encountered by humans are both in the Boa Constrictor family. The third, rarely seen, is in the Worm Snake family and lives exclusively underground and out of sight.

snake-bellyThe largest snake in the Turks & Caicos Islands is the Bahama Cat Boa or Bahama Rainbow Boa, (Epicrates chrysogaster). This snake lives only on the Caicos Islands and Inagua and Crooked and Acklins Islands in the Bahamas. They reach an adult length of about five feet, but can get slightly larger. Usually the color is a gray background with irregular brown-gray rings and spots, but sometimes specimens with a few brown stripes from head to tail show up. A brick-red color can appear on the feisty juveniles. The name “Rainbow Boa” comes from the reflective quality of the scales – they produce a sheen similar to the spectrum of colors reflected by a puddle of oil in the sunlight.

Epicrates are non-venomous and subdue prey by constriction. They typically hunt at night and the favored prey of the younger set are lizards. The larger adults prefer small mammals such as mice and rats and will occasionally hunt birds. Their habit of eating rats and mice makes these snakes an excellent form of pest control!

Rainbow Boas, like most snakes, do not see particularly well, especially during the night when they hunt. Their eyes do not blink to wipe away dust (they have no eyelids), which is why they always look as though they are staring. It is not true that snakes can hypnotize prey – the reason animals “freeze” when they see a snake is because they are having a normal reaction to a predator and are trying not to be noticed.

Snakes find their prey in a most fascinating way. Most people are aware that snakes constantly flick their tongues in and out. A common misconception is that the tongue can sting or inject venom – but a snake’s tongue is no more dangerous than a human’s tongue. The fork at the end of a snake’s tongue fits into a special pit on the roof of its mouth called the Jacobson’s Organ. This organ is like a supercomputer. As the tongue flicks in and out, it picks up dust particles from the air and ground. Via the Jacobson’s Organ, the snake’s brain can “read” the smells and tastes from the tongue and learn a great deal about its surroundings. A human could never smell the footprints of a tiny lizard or mouse, but the snake’s sense of smell will pick it up immediately. The snake can then follow the scent trail to the lizard or mouse.

Snakes are often thought to be deaf. While it is true that they have no external ears, they can perceive sounds as vibrations through the ground, water or air. A snake’s jawbone, just like a human’s, comes very close to its inner ear and can transmit sound vibrations into the inner ear where they can be perceived. However, sound is not used in hunting prey – the amazing sense of smell will lead the snake to its food.

A hunting Rainbow Boa will curve its neck into an S shape to provide a sort of “spring” effect and strike at the prey animal, grabbing it with 100 tiny teeth. The snake will then wrap two or three coils of its neck and body around the animal and begin to squeeze. Muscles running the length of the snake’s body act together to hold tightly, and every time the prey animal exhales, the snake can squeeze tighter. (You can get a feeling for how this works by squeezing your abdomen and exhaling, then trying to inhale again.) Eventually, the snake’s action causes the prey to stop breathing. The snake will search out the head and begin to swallow its prey.

tropefrogThe TCI’s second smallest snake species is the Caicos Islands Pygmy Boa (Tropidophis greenwayi), locally called the Chicken Snake. This boa is endemic to the Caicos Islands, which means the entire species occurs only here and nowhere else on Earth. At a typical length of under one foot, they are probably the smallest Boa Constrictor in the world, which may help in making them famous. (A nature documentary film crew came to North Caicos to film these tiny snakes.)

The main food source for the Caicos Islands’ Pygmy Boa is the smallest lizards we have – the tiny reef geckos, small lizards usually seen under piles of wood or leaves. These snakes range in color from deep red brown to gray and black speckled, with a white and black checkerboard pattern on the belly. The head is usually black and the tail tip is often bright orange. Our Pygmy Boas are too small to bite in defense – instead they curl up in a ball and wave the bright orange tail tip in hope of attracting the enemy’s attention away from their vulnerable head.

Although Pygmy Boas eat tiny lizards, the lizards are still bigger than the boas’ heads. Snakes can not bite pieces of food off and they do not chew it. They swallow it whole, accomplishing this by having a jawbone made of two halves able to separate from the skull bone. Their cheek skin is extremely flexible and by stretching their mouth over the prey animal, most snakes can swallow something four times the size of their head. That would be like an adult human swallowing an entire watermelon whole, in one gulp!

All Boa Constrictors are different from most snakes in that they are live-bearing. The Bahama Rainbow Boa will give birth to 10 to 30 young at a time, but all we yet know about the breeding habits of the Pygmy Boa is that its young are very tiny – less than three inches long! After young Boa Constrictors are born, they are on their own and the mother takes no further notice of her offspring.

Baby snakes grow quickly if they have plenty to eat and instead of shedding their skin as humans do (we lose thousands of individual skin cells daily, most of it ending up as household dust!), a snake will shed its skin in one piece. The old skin will die, loosen and be torn open at the nose by the snake, who will then crawl out of the skin, usually turning it inside-out in the process, much like a person taking off a sock. Everything on the skin surface, including the clear eye-cap scales, is shed.

Snakes grow throughout their lives and their growth rate depends on how much they eat. Being cold- blooded, snakes do not need to expend energy on heating their bodies, so do not need to eat often (upwards of 60% of the calories humans eat are burned just to keep our bodies at 98.6¼F). A meal can last a Boa Constrictor up to a month. Some snakes have been known to go well over a year without eating anything!

Our smallest snake, the Richard’s Worm Snake, is one that must eat quite often. Typhlops richardi, locally known as the Thread Snake or Worm Snake, is a burrowing species that grows to just under a foot long and looks like a pink earthworm. Like all snakes, it is not slimy but clean, smooth and dry. They prefer to inhabit areas with deep, moist, loose soil and are sometimes turned up in gardens. Their unusual food preference is the eggs of ants and termites, making them very beneficial to humans, although we rarely see them. Because insect eggs are not especially nutritious, Worm Snakes must feed almost constantly to keep in good condition. Sometimes known as “Flowerpot Snakes,” Worm Snakes occasionally end up living in the moist soil of potted plants without the owner ever knowing they are there, protecting the plant from ants. This habit has led to their accidental introduction to new habitats via the potted plant trade.

The Worm Snake does not give birth to live babies. They lay eggs underground, but due to their secretive habits, the rest of their breeding cycle is a mystery.

Our three snake species are unique, special and, most importantly, harmless. In fact, they benefit us by eating pest species such as mice, rats, ants and termites. It is important to remember that when you encounter a snake in the Turks & Caicos Islands, it is just doing its natural job. It can not hurt you, nor does it want to (unless life-threatened, when it will logically defend itself). Having a snake around does not mean you will see it often, or even ever. They exist in their silent, private lives as part of the natural cycle of life in the Turks & Caicos Islands.

The Turks & Caicos National Trust has an Education Animal Collection that includes Bahama Rainbow Boas and Pygmy Boas. We will gladly make an educational visit to your school, organization or social group about snakes if you would like to learn more.

References:

Andrews, Ted. Animal-Speak: The Spiritual and Magical Powers of Creatures Great and Small. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications, 1994. ISBN #0-87542-028-1.

Schwartz, Albert and Henderson, Robert W. Amphibians and Reptiles of the West Indies: Descriptions, Distributions and Natural History. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 1991.

Shine, Richard. Australian Snakes: A Natural History. Sydney: Reed Books Pty Ltd., 1991. ISBN# 0-7301-0349-8.

Shine, Richard. “Snakes” in Reptiles and Amphibians. Eds. Dr. Harold G. Cogger and Dr. Richard G. Zweifel. New York: Smithmark Publishers, 1992. ISBN #0-8317-2786-1.



3 Comments

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sue
Oct 25, 2011 7:34

i’m terrified of snakes, are the chances pretty low that i won’t run into one of these things on the turks? in a hotel that is 15 min away from the airport?? thanks!!

B Naqqi Manco
Jun 6, 2013 23:15

All of TCI’s snakes are harmless and they are also quite cryptic — only very rarely are they out in the open or visible. They prefer to remain in dense native vegetation and are mostly active at night. Chance encounters in tourism areas are very rare — not only because their preferred habitat is typically destroyed by human development, but also because they are often killed by misinformed or fearful resort staff members.

Brad
Apr 3, 2015 16:27

Thank you for publishing such an informative article.

We discovered TCI three years ago and have travelled there twice a year since as our favourite vacation destination. Even in such a short time I have noticed that the island of Providenciales has become extremely busy with tourism.

Unfortunately not all visitors respect the islands, the reef and the habitat of indigenous wildlife. Let’s hope this beautiful paradise isn’t destroyed by commercial resorts and tourists.

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