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)


Andrew Durso said...

I couldn't agree more that snakes are a "gateway drug" for naturalists. It was certainly that way for me and it sometimes seems that almost everyone I talk to in science has had some formative experience with them. I think you've hit the nail on the head with the importance of holding them to kids.

Seen this article?

What early 20th century nature study can teach us

Bree said...

Haven't finished reading the post yet, but had to leave some comments that just popped into my head.

First, I love your image from Nosferatu - It is by far one of my favorite films.

Second, I have also been getting advertisements with animated snakes on them! I totally thought they were tailored to me because I search snake-related content all the time. You learn something new each day!

Sweet_jesus said...

Nice blog snakeymamma. Im not a fan of ecosystem services but I dig your rendition!

David Steen said...

Great stuff. I don't do many nature shows, but when I run them before I take out any snakes I always try to first spend time reassuring the adults in the audience that everything is fine and OK and shrieking and expressing alarm is not a rational reaction for someone to have upon seeing a snake. This ensures that the kids, who are all excited and interested, don't shift their impressions after seeing the 'grown-ups' do stupid stuff. I think many of them aren't even that scared of snakes, but have learned themselves that screaming and carrying on is a socially acceptable thing to do when confronted with one.

Karen Lips said...

I remember my 3rd grade science teacher, Mr. Willard. He had snakes Lots of them. Big ones. and many lived at school. We loved the days when he brought them out and told us about snakes. I don't know what kinds they were, and i don't even remember if we got to handle them, but I do remember that class!

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