SNAKE, the name itself sends a chill down the spine. Whether we like them or not they are a part of our age-old culture and heritage. In most cases they depict negative forces. Even quotes and proverbs in different languages have given them a special place. There may be very few animals with more enigmas associated with, than a snake. Even today when intergalactic communication is becoming a reality, people find it hard to believe that snakes are just like any other animal around us. Myths and superstitions have made them more then just an animal. One of the most popular of all these myths is the concept of icchadhari nagin wherein a snake by its wish can turn from itself to a human being. Interesting! Philosophically humans are the greatest creation of God. Now if a snake can switch between itself and human being, it should have been the greatest creation ever. Scientifically, evolutionary biologists in the likes of Darwin and Lamarck would have turned in their graves seeing such a fast rate of evolution. But the fact is they are just another vertebrate occupying a place in animal kingdom, with may be just a little exception in the form of venom that a few of them produce.

Snakes are a very interesting group of animals which are believed to have evolved from lizards like life forms more then 100 million years ago. Those lizards like forms slowly evolved to what we know today as snake. The first thing we notice in this evolution is the loss of limb. Let us think of ourselves without limbs, itís just scary! But for snake it was rather a boon. Now it could get hold of its prey into those burrows and holes where its previous form could not, because their limbs usually got stuck! Gradual evolution has made them master hunters. They can swim in water, crawl on ground, climb tall trees and some of them can even glide in air. Also they do not have ears like their lizard cousins. This means that they are deaf to the air borne sounds. But what about those spellbinding street snake shows, where the snake charmers make the snake dance to the tune of its been. Snakes actually cannot listen to any of those tunes which have a far fetched effect in our own Bollywood. The snake rather focuses on to the movement of the arms and the been of the charmer and just responds to those movements. Rather snakes taste their environment. The forked tongue of the snake is its most important sense organ that collects the scent particles around it. These scents are then decoded in an organ attached to the roof of the tongue, called the Jacobsonís organ. Thatís why we see the snake flicker its tongue. By doing this they keep a track of their surroundings. Though some snakes have acute vision, but in most cases they are no match to us in seeing this beautiful world. In addition to these, some snakes have an additional sense organ in the form of Ďthermo receptor pitsí. These are either located on the upper lips or between the nose and the eyes of the snake. Through these pits they can gauge the slightest of temperature fluctuations around them, thus enabling the snake to strike with surgical precision, even in complete darkness.

Snake are Ďectothermsí, meaning that they cannot regulate their body temperature as we do. That is why they hide during winter. Another queer character of snakes is that they regularly shed their skin. This is because they grow continually; and the old cover can no longer hold them.

Perhaps the most important thing regarding the snakes is their capacity to produce venom. This venom is produced in small sacs called venom glands present in the posterior part of their upper jaw. When a snake is excited or feels threatened it lets lose this venom which travels from the gland to the fangs via venom ducts. Fangs are actually just the enlarged teeth. A typical fang is hollow from inside, through which venom runs out when an injection is made. Fortunately, majority of the snakes are non-venomous and rather harmless as opposed to our prevailing belief. Our irrelevant fear associated with snakes is one of the most important factors in the way of their conservation. For most, all snakes are venomous. But the fact is in India, only about 20% of all snakes, except those living in sea, can cause a fatal bite to humans. Even more interestingly, most of them are forest-dwellers and less than 7% of these venomous snakes come in any type of human contact. The snake venom is a complex mixture of proteins and inorganic ions. The venom once administered in the body of the victim will act according to its composition. The venom of cobras and kraits are basically neurotoxic in origin, wherein they block the nerve impulses and generally the victim suffocates to death, as the nerves feeding the diaphragm with impulses generally stop working. The effect of envenomation can be experienced quickly, maybe within an hour of bite. For others like certain vipers producing cytotoxic venom, the effect may take time to set in. Bite from this type of snake generally destroys the tissue and causes necrosis. In this type of bite even if the life is saved, the victim may have to go for organ amputation.

Fortunately, the answer to these snake bites lie in the snake venom itself. The antivenom is the only medication available during a venomous bite. The antivenom is prepared from the venom of the snake itself. Also the venom has other medicinal implications. Studies show that snake venom may slow down tumour growth. The anticoagulant property in the venom of some snakes may help treat various heart ailments. Snake venom can also help formulate pain-killers thousand times more potent than morphine. Snakes, in general, are also important. They maintain balance in the ecosystem. It reminds me of Janmastami festival celebrated in Mumbai, where devotees form a human pyramid with a goal to break a dahi handi above them. Now consider removing any of the devotees from the pyramid except the top one. What will be the outcome? Yes, the whole structure will collapse. The snake here is equivalent to any of those devotees, remove the snake and the whole ecosystem will collapse. Also snakes feed upon small mammals like rats and mice which are a menace to farmers.

In India most of the snakes are protected by law but practices like snake charming, trade of snake skin and malicious killing of snake still prevails. Most of the venomous snakes used by snake charmers are either defanged or the whole venom gland is removed, and ultimately the snake dies a slow and painful death. Here we can play a vital role by not participating in these types of inhuman displays. But, there still remains an ethical question to be answered. What will the snake charmers do now? They were doing what they knew the best. The answer lies with the Irulas of South India. The Irulas now have taken up the work of venom extraction from the snakes with the help of local agencies. Their knowledge on snakes is again earning them their bread, but this time for a noble cause, for production of antivenom. Another problem is the snake-human encounter itself. In most cases, the former has to lose its life because of our misconception regarding them. Fact is snakes only bite if provoked or cornered, or else their general instinct is to avoid us. They are rather more afraid of us than we are of them!

More than hundred species of snakes are reported from the Northeast India. About 25 odd species of snakes can be found in and around Guwahati itself with checkered keelback (dhora saap), common water snake (meni saap), common wolf snake (maruli saap), striped keelback (bamuni saap), trinket snake (nilaji gom), redneck keelback (batraj), python (ajagar), monocled cobra (chokori pheti), Indian rat snake (hulaberia) being the most common ones. Since the Northeast is a biodiversity hotspot, more research will certainly reveal new data regarding the snakes. With more knowledge of facts regarding snakes the irrelevant myths and superstitions among masses will slowly die out, thus helping the cause of conservation of this misinterpreted animal. Whatever it is, we still remain the greatest creation of nature ever, but why? Itís just because if any organism has the power of reorganizing most of the aspects of nature for a better tomorrow, itís Ďusí. If we do not take care of our earthly cousins, who will?

Jaya_ditya@rediffmail.com

Jayaditya Purkayastha