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close this bookBiodiversity in the Western Ghats: An Information Kit (IIRR, 1994, 224 p.)
close this folder8. Reptiles, birds and mammals
View the document8.1 Snakes
View the document8.2 Crocodiles
View the document8.3 Birds
View the document8.4 Mammals
View the document8.5 Animal diversity in prehistoric rock-art

8.1 Snakes

Snakes, lizards, crocodiles and turtles are all reptiles. Snakes appeared during the Cretaceous period, about 125 million years ago. They became more common when their main food source-small mammals-became widespread.

India has 218 species of snakes. Although they are widely distributed, they are not often seen because of their living habits.

Snakes of the Western Ghats

The most important snake in the Western Ghats is the King Cobra, Cophiophagus hannah. The longest poisonous snake in the world, it feeds on other poisonous and non-poisonous snakes. It is the only snake to build a nest of decaying matter to lay its eggs. The decaying matter generates warmth which incubates the eggs.

Many species of pit vipers, such as the Bamboo Pit Viper, the Humpnosed Viper and the Malabar Rock Viper, are common in the Western Ghats. A majority of shield tails (uropeltids) live in the region, as do the larger specimens of the Indian Rock Python.

Cophiophagus hannah

Value of snakes

Rodent control

Snakes are often feared and persecuted. But they play a very important role in the ecosystem by controlling rodents. A pair of rats can produce nearly 800 descendants in one year. India's estimated 8,000 million rats cause a loss of Rs 50,000 million a year by eating and damaging crops. Even large, concrete cereal godowns are not rodent-proof. The Rat Snake (Ptyas mucosus) has proved very effective in controlling rats in these godowns.


Researchers have found that a solution of cobra venom is useful in treating intractable pain due to cancer, neuritis, migraine and other disorders.

Snake venom itself is used to produce anti-venom for treating snake bites.

Food and skin

Snakeskins have been used since time immemorial to make various products. Snakes are a source of food for many people of in Indochina. In the USA, canned rattlesnake can be found for sale. In the past, using snakes for food and skin has not upset their numbers. But modern commercial use and illegal trade may result in over-exploiting the resource beyond its natural ability to recover.

Snakes play a vital role in the ecosystem. Instead of being feared and persecuted, they should be appreciated, treated with respect, and conserved.

Myths about snakes

· Snakes such as cobras can recognize an individual and take revenge.
· Cobras live for 125 years.
· Old cobras have hairs.
· Snakes drink milk from cows' udders.
· Snakes can hypnotize their prey.
· Snakes are slimy.
· The John's Earth Boa has two mouths.
· The bite of the John's Earth Boa can cause leprosy.

All these popular beliefs are false. They show the lack of accurate knowledge about snakes among the general public.

The truth about snakes

· Snakes do not have eyelids.

· Snakes do not have an efficient sense of hearing. They lack external and middle ears. They hear mainly by detecting vibrations carried through the ground.

· Snakes use their forked tongue for smelling.

· The sensory pit (a thermal detector on each side of the head) helps the snake find warm-blooded prey.

· Snakes are exclusively carnivorous.

Cobras and religion

In India the cobra is intimately associated with Indian folklore, religion and art. The Nag (cobra) is worshipped on two days each year-Nagpanchmi and Anant chaturdesi. The Vedas refer frequently to snakes. Lord Krishna used Mount Meru for churning the ocean using the coils of the great serpent "Shesh Nag" to obtain the "Nectar of Divinity".

Snakes are worshipped in many temples in South India. The cobra is considered the Goddess of Fertility. Many childless couples come and pray by making cobra carvings on granite stones.

Ways to increase the snake population

· Conserve wildlife.
· Preserve rare species.
· Conserve aquatic life.
· Conserve habitats, such as forests.
· Avoid killing snakes.

Prepared by Bhalcandra Mayenka and Srinath