The mysterious life of snakes

The mysterious life of snakes

SNAKE! Everybody is afraid of one of these animals who are found among animals in the class reptilian of the suborder of serpents.

They are elongated, legless, carnivorous, ectothermic with overlapping scales, lacking eyelids and external ears. Many snakes have mobile jaws and skulls with several more joints that enable them to swallow prey larger than their heads, and are feared by many people because of their deadly venom though not all species are deadly venomous.

Meanwhile, a black mamba is Africa’s longest most feared and the world’s second longest venomous snake after the King Cobra.

This species belongs to the family which includes all snakes with fixed fangs at the front of the maxilla. The snake is slender, averaging around 2.5 to 3.2 meters and sometimes growing to lengths of 4.5 meters while hatchlings measure 450-600 millimeters. Adult black mambas are slender built snakes, but their powerful body can weigh from 1.6 to 3.1 kg.

Their name, black mamba, is somehow misleading as it does not describe the species’ body colour, but rather the colour inside its mouth which looks inky black.

The colour of its scales varies from yellowishgrey-brown with the belly more off-white, but never black as the name suggests. Young snakes are lighter, but as they age, their coloration gets darker. Scales are arranged in 23-25 rows at mid body. Dark spots or blotches cover the back of the body.

The head is narrow and elongated, with the shape of a coffin. The snake’s eyes are dark brown to black, with a yellow edge on the pupils. The tail is long and thin, making about a quarter of the total length. Both sexes show a similar appearance and are similar in size.

Information regarding the lifespan of snakes is not well documented but the longest recorded lifespan in captivity is about 14 years. On the other side, as part of physiological processes in their bodies, most of them experience molting or shedding process.

The term moulting, depending on species, can also be known as sloughing, or shedding. Moulting is the physiological process whereby an animal regularly takes off a part of its body usually, but not always, an outer layer or covering, for example skin, pelage hair, feathers, fur, wool, wings in some insects or the entire exoskeleton in arthropods, either at exact times of the year, or at specific period or points in its life cycle.

The moulting process, particularly in snakes, involves the removal of the outer skin as evidently seen in many protected and wildlife areas like national parks, forest reserves and game reserves.

When passing in these areas, for examples, game rangers in patrols, researchers in data collection or tourists in visitations, snake moults can be seen vividly scattered in many corners. Like human beings changing the size of clothes when their bodies have increased in size in terms of height and width, snake as well, have the same reason.

Most of the snakes shed or “slough” their skins once a month, in one piece and the frequency of shedding depends on many factors such as species, age nutritional and reproductive status, the presence of skin parasites or bacteria, and ambient enclosure temperature and humidity. For instance, younger snakes will shed more frequently due to growth rate variation per age group.

In addition, humid environment is very essential for the shedding process. The utilisation of humid environment depends on the location of the snake at a particular time.

Those found in the wild have their strategies for acquiring the humid environment if compared to those in captivity.

Snakes in the wild or free range, utilise humid microclimates by lying in underground burrows or in rocky crevices, under discarded boards around human habitation where it is more humid while those in captivity can be provided with water bowl large enough for them to comfortably or loosely coil up in deep enough so that when they are fully submerged, the water does not overflow the top of the bowl.

Humidity is very important for reptiles with requirements varying from species to species. Most snakes require an environment of 50% to 70% humidity. Insufficient humidity, or absent humidity during shedding may cause the snake to undergo incomplete shedding. Prior to molting, snakes will also undergo color changes.

For example, boas and pythons will tend to grow dull, then get darker, sometimes becoming so dark that it is hard to differentiate their normal markings from a distance.

The process of shedding is not an easy task which may take place easily and faster without preparation. The snake needs to be prepared by undergoing some behavioral changes which include getting badtempered during this time, becoming hissy or snappy, dull skin, cloudy or ‘bluish’ eyes, increase in nervous behavior because they cannot see well, objecting to being held or touched.

Also, as time goes, they may lose appetite for food thus most reduce their food intake while others do not take food at all this time.

Meanwhile with exception of a honey badger which has special interest on flesh from snakes, the black mamba has no specific threats and real predators apart from humans and therefore it is not undergoing significant population declines. The species adapts well to human presence.

Human encroachment and land use charge to settlements and agriculture and livestock keeping has increased the likelihood of mamba encounters and bites. Given the danger that this species poses to people, it is likely that efforts to eliminate it from settlements will continue.

The black mamba has adapted to a variety of habitats, ranging from coastal bush, swaps, moist and dry savannah, woodland, dense forests, and farmlands. But generally the snake prefers more arid environments, such as dry savanna bush country. They often reside in abandoned aardvark and porcupine holes, and hollow trees or house roofs.

Most favored are termite mounds as they provide some natural air-conditioning. Free air circulation reduces the heat during the day without taking too much valuable moisture while not getting too fresh at night, which are ideal conditions for them and their nests.

Like other reptiles, the snake is cold blooded and relies on external heat to maintain its body temperature. Therefore, it frequently basks in the sun during the day. However, during the hottest time of the day, the snake may retreat inside its burrow.

The black mamba is capable of reaching speeds of around 20 km/h, travelling with up to a third of its body raised above the ground. Over long distances, the snake may travel l1 to 19 km/h, but has been recorded at speeds of 23 km/h in short bursts, making it the fastest land snake in the fastest land snake in the world. Individual are active during the day, but details of their activity patterns are not known.

The mamba is active in the morning from 10 a.m. to 12 noon before it retires to its hideout. The snake comes out again from 4 p.m. and returns to its hole at 12 p.m.

These snakes are not territorial in the true sense, meaning they do not defend territories, but they remain in one area, retiring to the same place in the late afternoon. If left undisturbed, they tend to live in their lairs for long time. These hiding places are also used if it becomes alarmed and it will attack any creature blocking the path to its hole.

When hunting, the black mamba often travels with is head raised up above ground level, quickly moving forward in search of prey. Its diet includes rodents, bats, elephant shrews, squirrels, bush babies, and rock hyrax, which are their favorite prey. They have also been known to prey on birds and small chickens as well as other snakes, such as the puff adder. A large specimen has even been recorded eating a young blue duiker. Black Mambas breed only once a year.

The breeding season occurs around September when males begin to fight over females to secure mating rights. Fighting involves wrestling matches in which opponents attempt to pin each other’s head repeatedly to the ground.

Fights normally last a few minutes, but sometimes can extend to over an hour. Beyond mating, males and females do not interact.

Males locate a perceptive female by following a scent trail. When copulating, a male black mamba will first inspect the female by flicking his forked tongue across her entire body. After copulation, the eggs develop in the female’s body for about 60 days. Females seek for a suitable place for the nest where they lay 15-25 eggs (about 65 x 30 mm in size).

The eggs are well hidden and very aggressively defended. Eggs incubate for about two months before hatching. The 50 long hatchling appear at the onset of the rains. They are independent immediately and can catch prey of the small rats. Within a year, they reach 2 meters.

Hatchings are preyed by mongooses, secretary birds and other larger species. Young hatchlings are as venomous as the adults, but do not deliver as much venom per bite as an adult snake would. Black mambas use their eyesight mainly for detection of motion, and sudden movements will cause them to strike.

The tongue is extended from the mouth to collect particles of air which are then deposited in the vomer nasal organ on the roof of the mouth, which acts as a chemosensory organ. They have no external ears, but are quite adept at detecting vibrations from the ground.

Like many snakes, when threatened, they will display aggression with a set of signal warnings of the possibility of attack. Black mambas are described as highly aggressive species, yet these snakes are generally elusive and avoid human contact and will rather flee than confront a potential threat. But once cornered, it will defend itself with remarkable vigor.

Threat displays of the snake include spreading a narrow hood, raising one third of its body length off the ground facing its aggressor, and displaying the black mouth, while shaking the head from side to side and hisses. If the attempt to scare away the attacker fails, it has the ability to strike several times in quick succession.

Black mambas belong to the group of the 10 most venomous snakes worldwide. The venom is injected through two hollow fangs at the mouth front. The bite delivers 100-120 mg of venom on average, but only 10 to 15 mg is deadly to a human adult.

The black mambas venom is among the fastest acting of any snake species, and a bite will be fatal if not treated with anti-venom. The venom attacks the central nervous system and death usually results from results from results from respiratory failure.

Black mambas will even kill a dog or cattle. Similarly, black mambas have been witnessed biting and subsequently killing lions and other large predators in defense of their territory, eggs or when predators stand between the snakes and their prey.


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