Monday, June 12, 2017

Tinder (for Herps)

The creative projects that mark the end of my herpetology class each spring bring me a lot of joy. They are creative, informative, artistic, and everyone, me included, learns new things. Some of them make me laugh, too. This year's laugh award, which literally made my face hurt, goes to Paula, who created Tinder profiles for herps.

Of course, these contain lots of interesting info from class, especially of the- ahem- reproductive nature. They are all hilariously creative, too. Here are a few of my favorites. Enjoy!

By Paula Eberle

Nice move, Paula. Nice move.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

How the Plethodont Got His Tongue

It's the end of spring quarter here at Cal Poly, which means that my herpetology students have turned in their projects. Instead of term papers that no one wants to write or read, my students do creative projects that they share with the rest of the class.

This quarter, as always, I taught the students how plethodontid salamanders lost their lungs over evolutionary time, and the how space in the chest is filled with an elaborate musculo-skeletal structure allowing them to project their tongues to capture prey, sometimes great distances. (read more about this here)

A plethodontid salamander projects its tongue to capture prey. Image

Wren's project blew me away. She wrote a Just-So story in the style of Rudyard Kipling on how the plethodontid salamander got its tongue. It is witty and lovely, and I am pleased to share Wren's work here as a guest blog. Enjoy!

How the Plethodont Got His Tongue

By Wren Thompson

Not long after the High and Far-Off times when the world began, O’ Best Beloved, the Plethodont did not have a Long Tongue. He had only a small little pad, a ‘scule little tongue that would wag to and would wag fro but never—never, Best Beloved—both to and fro.

It was not long after the world began that a new Plethodont made friends: the Chameleon and the Tree Frog, both Agile and Formidable Predators. The three friends could oft be found hunting on the shores of some-such grey-green pond or some-another chuckling brook, hunting for Agile Prey. The friends would blend with their speckle-spotted hides and quiet toes among the mosses and branches and ferns, hunting the Fly, the Moth; the Cricket, the Grasshopper, all from their most various perches and hides.

To carry this tale any further, however, I must first describe to you just how the Chameleon and Frog were such Wondrous Hunters with Long Tongues of Agile Prey:

Chameleon had been given—back in the High and Far-Off times when the world began, but that is a tale for another time—a tongue to be envied, a great muscly contraption with twists and turns and folds and flaps, all with her sticky tongue pad at the tip, poised to snatch Agile Prey from branch, stone, air, and leaf.

Tree Frog in his turn had a far less impressive arsenal, yet when tempted with the fattest and tastiest Cricket could flip-flap-flop forward his tongue in his jump, catching the most rollicking Cricket with both tongue and tooth. The insects hardly knew where to jump, for wherever they turned was the threat of Unenviable Digestion.

While they hunted on the springy moss and winding branches, Chameleon and Tree Frog often tried to help the new Plethodont to become yet another Formidable Predator. Every which way an ant would gallop, the Plethodont’s ‘scule little tongue could never reach, leaving him Hungry and Grumbly. His friends looked on, hinting and hoping for the little Plethodont to learn Formidable Predator skills.

“Perhaps if you were to jump a little further, or a little faster?” Tree Frog would say, as his lean legs launched him towards his next prey.

“Or perhaps if you blended with branches, and kept an eye out for slower prey?” Chameleon would follow, her odd eyes darting to watch a wayward wasp.

The new Plethodont was not encouraged, and his thin skin—remember that skin, Best Beloved! — itched and scratched and rankled and wriggled with their suggestions. It simply wasn’t fair that he had such ‘scule little tongue, that his legs were too short and his eyes pointed only one way. With every hint and hope his friends handed to him, the Plethodont fumed more; for he was not a Calm and Tranquil animal, nor was he one of Infinite Wisdom and Veracity. The Plethodont steamed and grumbled all the way home, his stomach full only of hunger and resentment.

The new Plethodont then had an idea: He could not hear their stinging hints and hopes if the only words he could hear were his own! He would fill the air around him with Meaningless Chatter that would stop the hints and the hopes, and his friends would have to realize that he simply would never be a Formidable Predator.

The next day as the friends went a’hunting beside some-another chuckling creek, the new Plethodont brought along his Shining Idea. All afternoon, the Shining Idea bobbed behind his long tail like a wayward balloon, forever glimmering and tempting the new Plethodont. After failing to catch yet another acrimonious ant, Chameleon and Tree Frog stepped and hopped over to help their friend find a meal.

“Perhaps this time you could—”, started Chameleon.

As soon as the words were off her impressive tongue, the new Plethodont unleashed a torrent of words. His Shining Idea was released, and from his ‘scule little mouth spilled forth Meaningless Chatter. He chattered and chittered; babbled and burbled; proselytized and preached; ranted and raved; and he shouted words of origins both High and Low, in the Old Tongue and in spite for his friends’ Long Tongues.

As he pronounced and denounced so loudly and incessantly, all the flies and crickets and worms and ants went away, hoping to escape the lambasted litany. As he prattled and rattled on, Chameleon’s odd eyes met those of Tree Frog’s wet head, and they exchanged The Look—Best Beloved, you know the kind—that said all things while no things were said on their parts. And in the moments after The Look, Chameleon and Frog parted ways from the Plethodont, heading up, up into the trees where the breeze whispered away the Plethodont’s words.

Through all this the new Plethodont followed his Shining Idea, vocalizing and verbalizing, his ‘scule little tongue wagging now both to and fro. His ‘scule little tongue grew and grew the more he used it, swelling out of his mouth so that it was no longer ‘scule or even miniscule, and pressing back down his throat so it was no longer little, past his heart that so boiled with envy for Chameleon’s tongue, down to his little legs that Tree Frog had so wished he would use well.

With triumph, the new Plethodont pressed on with his oration to show his friends—now long gone, little to his knowledge—just how fine his new tongue could be. He pressed and pressed until finally— with a small pop and an even smaller wheeze—he could press no more.

Despite his now eloquent, elegant tongue that attached down to his pelvis, he had no lungs to murmur, let alone shout. His great tongue—so long hoped-for by the Plethodont—had destroyed his lungs, taking forever his power of speech.

Over and over the new Plethodont tried to call to his friends up in the trees for help, help that he had long shunned and rankled over, but they could not hear his breathless cries up, up in the trees with the whispering breeze that drowned out his tirade so well.

He squeezed and pushed his Long Tongue that so quickly felt cursed, and it shot from his body to the one ant left beside the chuckling creek. The new Plethodont pulled the ant closer to hear his whispered calls, but his Long Tongue shot back into his body so quick that the little ant was gone before it knew. After such long resistance and repugnance, the Plethodont had become a Formidable Predator…

But his friends were nowhere near to see.

The new Plethodont sat beside the babbling, rollicking, chuckling creek, and breeze tickled his Thin Skin—did you remember that skin, O’ Best Beloved? — that had taken his friends from him. The tiniest breath of air filled the new Plethodont’s body through that Thin Skin, and in that moment the Plethodont was filled with another flood of eloquence of love for his friends. The Plethodont pushed, wishing this time to unleash a soaking monsoon of apology…but could only manage a single quiet word that the chuckling creek erased from the World’s Memory.

And this, Best Beloved, is why the Plethodont has such a very long tongue and must live beside chuckling creeks for company, breathing through the Thin Skin that doomed him to be without Chameleon and Tree Frog and words. He is most certainly a Formidable Predator, and his Long Tongue will keep him alive for eons to come.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Herp Haikus

Every time I teach Herpetology, I ask the students to make a haiku on their final exam that encompasses something they've learned. It needs to include both reptiles and amphibians, and follow haiku rules (3 lines only, with first and last having 5 syllables and second having 7). I thought it was time to start immortalizing these gems. Here, in no particular order, are the haikus of the fabulous and talented herpers of the Cal Poly class of summer 2016!

Frog’s feet greatly webbed
Draco’s skin flap opens wide
They glide in the sky

Snake is a noodle
Salamander is slimy
Slimy noodle fun!

Garter in water
The bullfrog fails its escape
Vengeance of locals

Treefrogs have toe pads
Snakes’ ventral scales overlap
They have better grip

Vipers have venom
Newts can carry a toxin
Let’s leave them alone

Some Caudata swim
Some cool snakes can also swim
Lat. undulation

Order Squamata
Order Gymnophiona
Know taxonomy

Snakes do a tongue flick
But salamanders shoot it

Aves soar high up
Caecilians burrow deep
Herps rule the world

Treefrogs are so small
Crocodilians are huge
What a crazy range

Rattlesnakes rattle
Amphibians have short ribs
Herping is so fun

Ensatina swim
Aspidoscelis are fast
They are hard to catch

Snake’s prehensile tail
Anura’s permeable skin
Pollution in bad

Bullfrogs are spreading
And so are red-eared sliders
Causing extinctions

Golden toads are dead
Tuataras are alive
Humans are evil

Snake strikes naïve mouse
Mama python warms her babies
Golden frog waves bye

And last but not least, my favorite!
Images from

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Snakebite in Dogs

Snakebite happens. Our inquisitive canine friends love to run through thick grass and stick their noses down holes in search of squirrels and other delights.   

Ghost got a painful and potentially life-threatening bite to the snout from a Northern Pacific rattlesnake. He was treated with two vials of antivenom and made a full recovery. Photo: Ashley Ventimiglia

I’m giving a presentation on local rattlesnakes to SLO Search & Rescue today, so I thought I’d look up some info on snakebite in dogs. I found four relevant and recent (within the past five years) scientific publications on snakebite prevention and treatment. I found some of the information really interesting, so I am posting to share.

1. Most dogs survive snakebite, but most of these dogs treated were with antivenom.
A retrospective study (4) on 272 rattlesnake envenomations in the Phoenix, Arizona area found that 97% of envenomated dogs survived the bite, but most had been treated with antivenom, so it is hard to determine how much the antivenom improves outcomes. Younger dogs were more likely to survive, and few dogs had allergic reactions to antivenom. Another study (3) found that antivenom stabilized or terminated the effects of the venom.

2. There is little evidence that the “rattlesnake vaccine” works.
A vaccine made against Western Diamondback rattlesnake venom can be obtained from a veterinarian. Although the manufacturer states that it has evidence that the vaccine works, no experimental studies on its efficacy in dogs have been performed. One study (4) found no difference in outcome in dogs who had the vaccines and those that did not. Another study (2) vaccinated mice with the vaccine and found some protection against venom from Western Diamondbacks but little protection against venoms from Northern and Southern Pacific rattlesnakes.

3. No data are available on the efficacy of rattlesnake avoidance training.
Given how efficacious dog training can be, it seems that rattlesnake avoidance training could work very well. However, dogs could still be bitten accidentally (e.g., when running through tall grass), even if they have been trained to avoid the scent and/or warning defensive behavior of a rattlesnake. There have not been any studies on this (admittedly, this would be very logistically difficult). One paper mentions that this training is “overall unreliable and may provide a false security for snakebite prevention but may be efficacious in a well-trained dog. The only preventative measures are leash walking and avoiding possible snake habitats that have poor visibility” (1).  

Summary: Outcomes for envenomated dogs are good if dogs are brought to the veterinarian for antivenom treatment right away. If possible, try to prevent your dog from exercising, which could speed up dispersal of venom through the body. Vaccines may work against Western Diamondback bites, but we do not have any data on this. Rattlesnake avoidance training could help, but keeping dogs on leash is the best way to prevent bites.

Disclaimer: I am not a veterinarian. Always seek medical advice from your veterinarian.


(1) Armentano and Schaer. 2011. Overview and controversies in the medical management of pit viper envenomation in the dog. Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care 21:461-470.

(2) Cates et al. 2015. Comparison of the protective effect of a commercially available western diamondback rattlesnake toxoid vaccine for dogs against envenomation of mice with western diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus atrox), northern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus oreganus), and southern Pacific rattlesnake (Crotalus oreganus helleri) venom. American Journal of Veterinary Research 76:272-279.

(3) Peterson et al. 2011. A randomized multicenter trial of Crotalidae polyvalent immune Fab antivenom for the treatment of rattlesnake envenomation in dogs. Journal of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care 21:335-345.

(4) Witsil et al. 2015. 272 cases of rattlesnake envenomation in dogs: Demographics and treatment including safety of F(ab’)2 antivenom use in 236 patients. Toxicon 105:19-26.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Keep Your Students Engaged in a Large Lecture

Good morning, educators. Who among you has worked for hours to create a stimulating and informative lecture, and halfway through delivering said lecture has looked up to see this?

Students get easily bored in a one-way lecture, when nothing is asked of them.

Wouldn't you rather see something more like this?

Students working together to solve problems stay engaged and enjoy better learning outcomes.
Image from

Me, too. As my class sizes get larger and larger, it gets more and more challenging to engage students in their own learning. However, the days of one-way flow of information from a "sage-on-stage" to students are over. Active learning increases student performance, and plain and simple, as educators we should be promoting pedagogy that allows students to thrive. Harvard Physics Professor Eric Mazur founded Learning Catalytics due to his belief that research into the effects of teaching styles on student learning shows that it is "unethical to lecture exclusively."

Lest you get your hackles up, Mazur does not have a problem with lecturing. He has a problem with only lecturing

Enter Learning Catalytics, an in-class response system that will keep your students' attention and help them achieve their learning outcomes.

I had used clickers since their inception. But when Pearson bought Learning Catalytics in 2014, I got on board. As a Pearson textbook author, I attend an annual conference where I was able to see Learning Catalytics in action, and I was blown away.

So what is this Learning Catalytics I speak of? The quick answer is that it is a sophisticated program that allows students to use their own web-enabled devices to answer questions during your lecture.

Learning Catalytics has many question types, not just multiple choice. Image from

Here is a quick summary of why Learning Catalytics is my choice for engaging my students in the large lecture.
1. Because they use their own phones or laptops, students always come to class prepared. (When I used to use clickers, students would constantly forget them, or they would break or run out of batteries.)
2. Learning Catalytics has many question types, not just multiple choice. I can do everything from asking anatomy students to identify a specific bone by clicking it on an image, to collecting data from hundreds of students conducting an in-class experiment. You can choose from thousands of pre-loaded questions from Pearson products, or you can create your own.
3. Learning Catalytics is very economical. It is free with Pearson book packages, or costs $12 per semester or $20 per year.
4. Learning Catalytics makes my life easier by its flexibility. I use a simple toggle bar to choose the point values of modules (e.g., a class meeting) based on participation and performance. Scores can be uploaded directly into a course management system (Moodle, Blackboard, etc.). I can easily review all aspects of performance, by the entire class or by individual student.

Basically, Learning Catalytics allows me to customize how I use active learning in my course, makes it high-tech, and reduces my workload substantially.

Learning Catalytics has a high-tech yet user friendly interface that students enjoy and faculty can easily employ.
Image from

When I discuss Learning Catalytics with other educators, they express reluctance to try it based on three main issues:
1. Concern about wireless capacity. Students need to be online to use Learning Catalytics, and if your campus's wireless capacity is insufficient, then you will have a problem. Talk to your IT Department before adopting the technology. (Hint: I advise students to use their smartphones instead of computers so that they log in using their data in the event the wireless is overloaded. Learning Catalytics uses very little data).
2. Concern that not all students have a web-enabled device. I have taught thousands of students using Learning Catalytics and I have not had a single student who did not own a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. This will vary by student population. If a large proportion of your students do not have devices, then Learning Catalytics is not for you. (Hint: If you are concerned that some of your students lack devices, talk to your university's media center about a tablet rental or borrow program).
3. Concern about allowing (in fact requiring) computer and phone use in the classroom. Many educators are worried that this will cause distraction and negatively impact student learning. This is valid considering study after study showing that note-taking with electronic devices reduces learning and performance compared to handwriting notes. However, I find that a short and frank discussion at the beginning of the class solves this. I tell students that handwritten notes are best, and obviously using social media during lecture will impact their learning and performance. Many students take this to heart and use their devices solely to answer questions. Also, many students successfully take high-tech, high quality notes on their devices. The fact is that we are in the electronic age, and students are using devices more and more, and in my personal opinion, banning electronic note-taking is out-of-date and out-of-touch. Finally, if students are on social media during a significant portion of lecture, then I would take responsibility for this as an instructor. If you keep them engaged, they will not have time to snapchat.

With proper pedagogy, students can stay engaged in lecture even when they use computers. Image:

Here are some best practices for using Learning Catalytics based on my experience. All classes are different, so your style will be, too.
1. Give some points for performance, not just participation. Students try harder and take the exercises more seriously when their points depend on getting the answer correct. On the other hand, scores based entirely on performance can discourage students who get many answers wrong. I use 50-50 participation and performance.
2. Make the point values significant enough that they can affect students' grades. This encourages attendance and effort, and rewards students for trying very hard (which will hopefully improve their learning and exam performance, too). Points in my classes are worth 5-10% of the final course grade.
3. Deploy many questions during a lecture. If you only ask a couple of questions, you might as well be giving a one-way, traditional lecture. This also helps maintain students' attention span. I try to ask at least 10 questions in a 80-minute lecture.
4. Deploy meaningful questions that ask students to apply their knowledge. I once attended a lecture where the instructor taught a concept then asked students to vomit that concept right back using clickers. I sat in the back and watched as comatose students barely roused their index fingers to answer these questions. This is not effective pedagogy. Instead, ask students questions that involve applying their knowledge to new situations. Tell them to think about it, talk to their neighbor, and then answer. In my opinion, this is the key to helping students learn the material and develop as critical thinkers.

One more thing- Learning Catalytics has an awesome Team-Based Learning mode that I use for certain classes. Click here to learn more about this 100% active learning mode of instruction.

How do you get started? Go to the Learning Catalytics website and register for an account. For more information and technical assistance, contact your Pearson representative.

This blog post was stimulated by my participation in a Reinventing the Large Lecture learning community organized by the Cal Poly Center for Teaching, Learning, and Technology.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Converting Ophidiophobes to Ophidiophiles, One Kid at a Time

"You study snakes? On purpose?? Why???"

I am a scientist. I lead a team of developing scientists (graduate students). One of the most important lessons to teach your graduate students is how to justify your research to the people who ask questions like this.

So we often find ourselves asking of the snakes: What's in it for us?

We can scream, "Biodiversity is important!" We can pontificate about the moral responsibility to respect all life. But the public wants to hear practical reasons why snakes are important.

Enter ecosystem services.

Ecosystem services is the idea that humans benefit from ecosystems and their myriad components. Obvious examples of ecosystem services of wildlife include honeybees that pollinate 100% of California's almond crop. Everybody loves almonds, so everybody (whether they know it or not) loves honeybees!

Honeybees pollinate many crops, including almonds. From

With snakes it is sometimes be a little harder. The classic go-to is this: Snakes eat mice, and keep their numbers under control. Without snakes, we could be overrun with mice.

A world without snakes might look something like this image from the 1979 film Nosferatu.

But there are a lot more ecosystem services provided by snakes. All you have to do is think outside the box a bit.

My hypothesis involves snakes and kids. When kids learn to love and appreciate snakes, it can have a dramatic and long-lasting positive impact on their attitudes toward nature and wildlife in general, promoting environmental stewardship.

I hypothesize that snake lovers grow up to be nature lovers, and all of nature benefits.

First, most people don't like snakes. Maybe even hate them. Definitely fear them.

Indiana Jones is a classic ophidiophobe. From Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

In fact, ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) is one of the most common animal phobias.

So how does this repulsion and fear develop? Is it innate, or is it learned? I have had lots of healthy arguments with people on this one.


Some argue that our sensitivity to snakes is innate. Lynne Isbell, an anthropologist at UC Davis, has proposed that certain neural and visual abilities of primates are the results of coevolution with venomous snakes. Basically, the idea is that the strong selective pressure to recognize a potentially deadly snake helped mold the neural connections between areas of the brain responsible for vision and for fear, learning, and memory.


Fascinatingly, some cognitive psychology research appears to support this idea. When presented with a collage of images and asked to find a target image (either snake, frog, caterpillar, or flower), people honed in on the snake way faster than any of the other three "non-threatening" stimuli. Even very young children located the snake more quickly. This suggests that visual and neural sensitivity to snakes may be innate.

Lobue and DeLouche. 2008. Psychological Science 19:284-89. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-9280.2008.02081.x

Side-note: A very enterprising advertising technique has emerged based on this study. One day last summer while checking the forecast on, my eyes were rapidly drawn to an advertisement at the bottom of the screen for The culprit for distracting me from my daydream of sunshine and a cool breeze? Snakes! The ad featured two sinewy serpents undulating across the banner.

Kudos to this ad agency for using cognitive psychology research to inform what is most likely to immediately draw people's eye. Now, as for whether most people would appreciate snakes crawling across their computer screen? That's another debate.

So maybe we have an innate ability to pick snakes out of a crowd. But is fear of snakes innate, or is it learned?


This is a question that has not been tested well. One study on ophidiophobes suggested that their fear was learned, but this was survey-based and can hardly distinguish between innate and learned.

In the absence of much scientific data, then, let's look at some qualitative evidence.

Samantha Brown, host of Cash Attack, meets a large python at Reptile Gardens in South Dakota. Photo retrieved from Samantha Brown's Facebook page.

The expression on her face reveals some of the emotions she is likely experiencing: fear and disgust chief among them.

But what about the kids? Look at those smiles!

I can tell you that the kid+snake=smile is practically universal. One of the pleasures of being a herpetologist is taking snakes and other reptiles to schools or hosting field trips where children get to meet snakes. With few exceptions, children are not afraid of snakes. Rather, they love snakes.

They are ophidiophiles.

So let's just assume for a while that fear of snakes is a learned phenomenon. Then love of snakes can be learned instead, if kids are exposed to snakes in the right setting. Where they learn about snakes in a positive light, rather than the sensationalist fear-mongering that goes on in so many Animal Planet shows and Hollywood movies.

Me showing off a rosy boa at a local school

I propose that kids who have positive, educational, hands-on experience with snakes become ophidiophiles, and that these ophidiophiles are more likely to make future life choices that benefit nature.

Snakes are a gateway drug for naturalists.

Ohio State graduate student Matt Holding introduces a young girl to a rattlesnake. This positive, safe experience with a snake could stimulate an appreciation of nature and wildlife in this child.

Holding a snake is not something easy to forget. I remember all the details of the first snake I held. That smooth black and white banded body, that tickly tongue. Birds? Mostly glimpses of tail feathers escaping into a bush. Mammals? The closest I could get was coyote poop on the trail in the morning.

But snakes? I got to hold them. That sunk deep.

Show a kid a picture of a beautiful animal, they'll say "Neat." Let them watch one through binoculars, they'll say "Wow." But let them hold one, and they might not say anything at all. They will be spellbound, smiles cracking their faces open. It changes their lives.

An ophidiophile in the making

They might go home and ask their parents for a pet snake. They might start catching garter snakes in the creek. They might pay lots of attention in high school biology so they can learn more about snakes.

They might become biologists and inspire countless future kids to love nature.

They might not. They might become accountants. But those accountants will be nature lovers. Because they took the snake-drug as a kid. Snakes made them fall in love with nature.

They'll be more likely to make environmentally friendly choices. They'll keep the environment in mind when they vote. Their kids will be snake lovers, too, having grown up in a family that does not sensationalize snakes and contribute to learned phobias.

Maybe coevolving with venomous snakes made our vision more keen. Maybe communing with a snake as a child makes our mind more keen.


Now that is an ecosystem service.

This post is part of a blog carnival in honor of the 2013 Year of the Snake. A blog carnival is the concept of a whole bunch of bloggers blogging on the same prompt on the same day. Our prompt is #SnakesatYourService, and focuses on the ecosystem services of snakes. Here are links to the other blogs:

Good Neighbors Make a Greater Impact by Melissa Amarello (Social Snakes, @SocialSnakes)

Brown Tree Snakes of Guam by Brian Barczyk (@SnakeBytesTV)

Ecology of Snake Sheds by Andrew Durso (Life is Short but Snakes are Long, @am_durso)

Pythons as Model Organisms by Heidi Smith Parker (; @heidikaydeidi )

Snakes and the Ecology of Fear by Bree Putman (Strike, Rattle, & Roll, @breeput)

When the Frogs Go, the Snakes Follow by Jodi Rowley (Australian Museum blogs, @jodirowley)

Madagascar Snake Ecology by Mark Scherz (The Travelling Taxonomist - @MarkScherz &

Kingsnakes Keep Copperheads in Check by David Steen (; @Alongsidewild)

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Legendary Reptiles

(Guest post by Ashley Ventimiglia, a student in my spring 2013 herpetology class)

There has always been something magical and mysterious about reptiles. They occur throughout cultures in ancient stories and tales about creationism. The dueling images of good and evil always have some sort of connection to reptiles, especially when it comes to scary or evil depictions. However, in the lore of Asian and Middle Eastern cultures, reptiles are symbols of prosperity, wealth and power. Some are even considered good luck and even seen as gods of the elements. Through research of mythology, history and folklore I was able to compile anecdotes that reveal how various reptiles enlightened different cultures throughout the world. Their presence in legends inspires ceremony and indulges the engrained perspective in many of these cultures; and you can see why.

Egypt: Apep the Serpent-Devil

Sir Ernest Alfred Wallis Budge’s 1969 book surrounding gods and mythological theories in Egypt ca. 3000BC describes accounts of the spiritual role of reptiles: “The spirits which were always hostile or unfriendly towards man and were regarded by the Egyptians as evil spirits were identified with certain animals and reptiles…” He goes on to describe a great serpent-devil who was the arch nemesis of the sun god RA, whose name was Apep. This record of the enormous serpent was preserved and recently found to be more than just a theory. Found in Fayyum, the remains of such a serpent were discovered: “The vertebrae are said to indicate that the creature to which they belonged was longer than the largest python known." In the footnote, the longest known at the time the book was written was 30 feet. 

It seems that the serpents and reptiles of evil only held positions of evil power. Apep was said to be the conjurer of darkness, storm, and mist of the night, leading to the fear of all reptiles (but especially snakes) in early and modern day Egypt (Budge, 1969). There is also reference to “serpents of the underworld,” where heroes’ souls were ripped out by angels and carried down to hell on the backs of black horses. After this, the souls were thrown into 200 foot pits of snakes – “in this place were several other terrible serpents, and to one of these, which had teeth like iron stakes, the poor soul was given to be devoured; this monster crushed the soul for five days of each week, but on Saturday and Sunday it had respite." This to many historians hinted that the evil respected the Sabbath of the Jews and the Christian Sunday. These allusions to the great serpent of the Egyptian underworld are seen many times throughout historical documentation of the time, and are known by many names; always being the terror of those worshippers of the sun-god. And, being the well-known demons of hell and associated with evil spirits and bad omens, snakes were feared, killed, even repelled from the dead by Egyptians then and today.

Native American Lore and the Origins of Reptiles and Amphibians

The Egyptians may have seen reptiles as a source of fear and evil, but in Native American culture legends of the origins of reptiles gave a sense of inquiry and fascination about them. In 1852 a Christian chief named David Cusick of the North American tribe Tuscarora recorded a legend; he called it the legend of his people (Tylor, 1871). In this legend, there were two worlds – the lower world that was shroud in darkness and occupied by monsters and the upper world that resembled Earth and was occupied by mankind. The legend begins with a woman, later called the celestial mother, descending from the upper world to the lower world on the back of a tortoise who took with him some earth on his back. 

Once in the lower world, the tortoise becomes an island on which the woman gives birth to twin boys before dying. The boys were called Enigorio meaning “Good Mind,” and Enigonhahetgea meaning “Bad Mind,” and are the depiction of good and evil among Tuscarora religion. As the boys grew along with the tortoise island, Enigorio also grew wary of being in darkness and used his mother’s head to create the sun, her body to create the moon, and with her also created small balls of light, which became the stars. Enigonhahetgea, wishing to keep the dark world as it were, saw that the monsters of the dark disliked the light and hid in crevices so that the mankind of the upper world would not find them. Being spiteful of his brother’s creation of light, and later his creation of “real people” and mammal like creatures, Enigonhahetgea created obstacles for the beings of high mountains and waterfalls. Then Enigonhahetgae also created reptiles, which were injurious to mankind. Of course these legends were before the time it was actually written down, and were in fact the belief of the Tuscarora before the coming of Christian Europeans in the colonial era of North America.

In the Journal of American Folklore, Speck (1923) wrote an article entitled "Reptile Lore of the Northern Indians" where he speaks often of the Wabanaki and Penobscot Indian tribes and their herpetological myths. Speck describes numerous legends involving the origin of rattlesnakes, frogs, toads and turtles. The legends are short, but filled with lessons and characteristics akin to our reptilian counterparts. In one such Penobscot legend, a transformer by the name of Gluskabe came across a 
village full of Indians who danced so vigorously and so often that he turned them all to snakes. In a similar Wabanaki legend, the leader of such dance carried a rattle, which he used to accompany the songs of the dance. Because of the rattles’ presence, the dancers were transformed to rattlesnakes and thus were the origin of the species.

Another transformative legend of the Penobscot and Gluskabe is the “conquest of the monster frog,” in which Gluskabe becomes a hero and replenishes the world of its water supply after defeating a giant monster frog who held the water of all the world in its stomach (Speck, 1923). After returning the water to the thirsty human inhabitants of earth, some humans were so eager to get the water that they plunged in and turned to fish. Modern day frogs are said to be descendants of this monster frog and thus are treated with respect by the North American natives, and are also said to cause floods and drought when upset with their human servants.

Gluskabe returns in the legend of the origin of toads (Speck, 1923). Two beautiful girls apparently ridiculed Gluskabe while dancing at a ritual; this turned out to be a big mistake! The transformer turned the two girls to the most repulsive creates he could imagine, and thus emerged the toad. It seems as though we owe Gluskabe a lot when it comes to all of our herp species in North America, but man does the guy have issues! 

Speck describes his last and final folk tail in reference to the origin of turtles and tortoises, when Penobscot legend tells of a handsome suitor of the Auk (meaning bird) Chief’s daughter. The handsome suitor who lacked speed and sense of humor tried to win the daughter's hand by jumping over and clearing the top of the chief’s wigwam pole. The suitor fell short and impaled himself on the wigwam, where beneath was a roaring fire. The chief allowed the suitor to be scorched until he was encysted and cracked because of the heat – which is how the tortoise got his shell. Because the suitor was slow and lacked a humorous demeanor, the tortoise who is said to have the same characteristics according to the Penobscot tribe, originated from that suitor specifically.

The Ambivalent Bible 

Of course, there is the classic evil represented by the serpents in the Bible; however, surprising as it seems, not all serpents in the Bible represent evil. In the Book of Numbers, Moses is inculcated by God to erect a statue in the shape of a snake and put it on a pole (Murison, 1905; Stanley, 2008). According to the book, anyone who was bitten by a venomous snake and then traveled to look upon the pole would be saved. It was realized by and the comparison made by Jesus himself, that this was an allusion and an instance of foreshadowing - representing how Jesus was crucified on a pole for the sake of saving people (Murison, 1905; Stanley, 2008; Tenney, 1997). Several other references to the snake can be found in the Bible, with the snake representing wisdom, evil, and an agent of the vengeance for God (Stanley, 2008; Murison, 1905; Jeffrey, 1955). 

But the most well known is that of the serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden to eat of the forbidden fruit she was told by God never to consume. The serpent, who represented the devil and was under his influence, convinced Eve to eat the fruit, and she and Adam gained the knowledge of God. He then punished them by bestowing the pain of childbirth to Eve and the burden of working the land for resources no longer handed to him, to Adam. Although the serpent in most lore around the world is a representation of evil and death, it is refreshing to see also the representation of snakes as good omens as in the Book of Numbers.

Hinduism: In Celebration of Snakes 

In Hindu culture, snakes are revered and celebrated as being divine, representing gods, and are central symbols of Hindu holidays and ceremonies. In B.A. Gupte’s (1994) book Hindu Holidays and Ceremonials: With Dissertations on Origin, Folklore and Symbols, he explains the origin of the holidays and ceremonies through legends and anecdotes. From what I could gather, Nagas are cobra rattlesnakes, and in the Hindu religion they represent 9 powerful gods, one of which is the chief the Nagas (hooded cobras) named Ananat. Another is the deity of Bengal and presides over all the Nagas. There are several stories that Gupte describes surrounding how Nagas came to be celebrated and worshiped. The first tells the story of a daughter in law ordered to cook veal for her father in law - in order to make sure it was cooked and palatable, she asked a servant to taste it. The servant, being lowly, ate all of the veil; the girl then asked for the servant to replace it, who replaced it with flesh of a dead calf. The girl, unable to cook the flesh in time for dinner, asked to the servant to pour water on the floor, making the girl slip and drop the curry so that it could not be served. This fiasco caused the snake brooding under the house to give birth, and the reptilian litter emerged and undulated all about the house. Being frightened, the girl who had been holding a brass lamp dropped it and caused several of the baby snakes to lose their tales. Time passed until there came the month of Shravan, which is July-August. On the 5th of the month the girl drew snakes in a stool and began worshipping them, having felt bad for harming the snakes of the house. She prayed to the god of Nagas to protect her reptilian brothers, as she called them. On the same day, the young snakes asked their mother how they came to be deformed; their mother explained to them that the girl of the house had accidently dropped a lamp on them, causing them to lose their tales. Angry, the infant snakes found the girl and went inside of a body (I assume this means they embodied the form of a single snake collectively) in order to avenge their shame through biting her. Coming upon the girl, the snakes realized that she was praying to a stool of serpents and asking for protection over them. Now feeling guilty, the snakes waited until she had left before returning to their individual snake forms, and eating of the parched grain and milk set under the stool as offering. After receiving the offering, they left a jeweled necklace as a token of thanks and made the girl prosperous and happy. 

A second Hindu story specifically surrounding the deity Manasa from Gupte’s book on Hindu holidays and ceremonies explains another reason why snakes are revered. In this story, a rich man or Bania had seven married sons whose wives all brought gifts to his wife- all except the youngest of the daughters-in-law; the young girl was therefore disliked by the mother-in-law. One night while collecting water, the girl thought she saw fish in the pond and stowed some away in her pot. In the morning she was surprised to find her pot full of snakes that had escaped into her pot as a safe retreat from a forest fire the night before. The girl fed the snakes plantain meal and milk, after which the cobras felt much indebted to her. They asked the Goddess Manasa if the girl could be transcended to Manasa’s celestial palace and treated like a princess who would care for them. Manasa agreed and, after taking the form of a mortal and acting as the girls' maternal aunt, delivered the girl to the celestial palace where she was adorned in jewels and riches as long as she boiled milk for the cobras each morning and as long as she never looked South. Tempted one day, the mortal girl looked to the south and witnessed Manasa dancing, an uncommon practice for women of the time. Entranced by the movements, the girl forgot about the milk on the stove. When it was given to the hungry snakes for breakfast, they were scalded. Angry, the snakes threatened to swallow the girl whole until Manasa appeased them, promising to deliver her back to Earth since she always knew having a mortal in the celestial palace would be cause for error. However, since the Naga were known to be a vindictive species, she told the girl to praise the Naga to her people in order to appease them from harming mankind. The girl, still doused in the gifts of the Naga and their deity, was retuned to the Bania and told her mother-in-law of the generosity of the Naga. The Naga, who had secretly followed her, heard her praise them - the cobras adorned the mother-in-law and fellow daughters-in-laws with riches and jewels and they were happy. Manasa then told the family that rice, soaked overnight and made into Khichadi (which happened to be the youngest daughter-in-law’s favorite dish) would protect them from snakebites. After the goddess had gone, and the daughter relayed her stories of the Naga further, she became a favorite of the household. The neighbors adopted this worship of the Naga, and there is still a ceremony celebrated today in India with hopes of gaining good luck and avoiding harm from the Naga.

Because of legends like these, snakes are both feared and loved in India; “…thousands die every year of a snake bite, and there are millions in India who have sometime or other just escaped from being bitten. [But] A chat about snakes is as absorbing and as interesting and thrillgiving, as a tale about spirits, ghosts and thieves" (Lall, 2004). Many farmers avoid plowing their fields to keep from harming snakes, and during festivals people pay professional snake catchers, who have (allegedly) become immune to the venom, to catch cobras for rituals and worship. The festival of the Nagas called Nag Panchami is celebrated on the fifth day of July each summer, at the time of Shravan. At these festivals, cobras are offered milk and crystalized sugar in worship and hope not to get bitten in the year to come, as the legends convey (Sanford, 1988). Many stories surround these festivals, and the mystique of snakes collected for the ceremonies is embellished.

An eighty-year-old Hindu man told Lall (2004), the author of Among Hindus – A Study of Hindi 
Festivals, that the older snakes who remain undisturbed in the thick jungles of India have a manka, which is a precious stone stored in their heads. Late at night, the snake will eject the stone from the head via its mouth onto a clear patch of ground. The snake will dance around the stone, adoring its beauty in the night as it glows in the dark. Lall then goes on to describe how, after the snake is satisfied, it will pull the stone back into its head through its mouth where it is then encrusted like a jewel. The Hindu people often conjure up stories on how to capture these jewels.

Here There Be Dragons

Of course, no compilation of reptile lore can go without mention of dragons. Dragons have been the objects of fantasy and center of curiosity for many people throughout history and culture. According to Ingersol (1999), the avid writer of Dragons and Dragon Lore, dragon myth is mainly concentrated in China and probably originated there. Many who were interviewed by Ingersol believe that old bones and teeth of reptilian descent hold strong medicinal powers, as if they came from dragons. Much of the dragon lore surrounding Asian culture and other cultures embody a sense of evil and malice: large, flying reptiles breathing fire and terrorizing villages, stealing virgins and fighting brave knights with swords. 

However, one of the more prominent images and famous dragons in Chinese culture is a shen or god, and in this instance a rain-god. The Chinese people pray and worship an image of a long, serpent like dragon that covers himself with the water of five different colors (rainbow) and sprinkles the earth with water and fertility. According to an interviewed philosopher Kwang Chung who quotes the classic Kwan Tse, the five colors the dragon covers himself with means he is embellished with “cardinal virtues,” meaning that the dragon has the ability to shift his shape to go anywhere below, within, and above Earth (Ingersoll, 1999). 

The dragon then, is not limited by the space of time, and therefore can only be a shen (meaning god) by every definition of the Chinese word. The same dragon, in other ancient descriptions, is considered of the highest rank and therefore “imperial.” Being the embodiment of fertilization and controller of the waters of the earth, the dragon has the power to invoke and revoke the rain. Because of his powers, the Chinese in ancient times and today worship the reptilian rain-god, hoping for fertile land and no drought. Other depictions of dragons can be seen as controlling different forces of nature and the elements in Chinese art, conveying them to be different deities of those elements. 

Across the globe reptiles are among some of the most feared creatures in cultural lore. Many represent evil and malice. They are feared and avoided and sometimes killed because of these ancient legends. But, in many cultures reptiles (especially snakes) are celebrated and worshipped. Legends have a unique way of telling tales that reveal truth and give moral insight to how people should treat animals. In this case, legends are the stuff that drives respect for reptiles in every culture, be it through fear or superstition. But, I think we can all agree that there is something fantastical about reptiles that can only be conveyed through finding where they came from in stories, and that is what makes them legendary.

Budge, E. A. W. 1969. The Gods of the Egyptians: Studies in Egyptian Mythology. Vol. 1. Courier Dover Publications.
Gupte, B. A. 1994. Hindu Holidays and Ceremonials: With Dissertations on Origin, Folklore
and Symbols. Asian Educational Services.
Ingersoll, E. 1999. Dragons and Dragon Lore. Book Tree.
Lall, R. 2004. Among the Hindus: A Study of Hindu Festivals. Asian Educational Services.
Sanford, A. W. 1988. Hinduism and Development. In: Handbook of Research on Development and Religion. Edward Elgar Publishing.
Murison, R. G. 1905. The serpent in the Old Testament. The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures 21:115-130.
Speck, F. G. 1923. Reptile lore of the Northern Indians. The Journal Of American Folklore 36: 273-80.
Stanley, J. W. 2008. Snakes: Objects of Religion, Fear, and Myth. Self-published here
Tenney, M. C. 1997. John: the Gospel of Belief: an Analytic Study of the Text. Wm B. Eerdmans Publishing.
Tylor, E. B. 1871. Anamism. In: Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom. Vol. 2. John Murray.