Why do I instinctively fear snakes?

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Offline thedoc

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Why do I instinctively fear snakes?
« on: 03/08/2013 03:30:02 »
Paul Mkhabela  asked the Naked Scientists:
Hi Chris

I am convinced that my body fears snakes. I sometimes cannot even look at a snake, alive or on TV, especially the head and open mouth. I also cannot watch a snake eating another animal or another snake. Could this be mindset or is there a fundamental scientific explanation.


Paul Mkhabela
Johannesburg, South Africa

What do you think?
« Last Edit: 03/08/2013 03:30:02 by _system »


Offline Don_1

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Re: Why do I instinctively fear snakes?
« Reply #1 on: 05/08/2013 11:12:18 »
I can only give you my opinion on this.

It is often said that strong, vivid colouration and black blotches or stripes are an indication of danger. The Coral snake certainly fits the bill in this case, as do the Poison Dart frogs. Even the Hooded Pitohui, a native bird of New Guinea, has toxins in its feathers.

But this colour code is not always reliable. Coral snakes (venomous) and Milk snakes (non-venomous) can often be confused. Many Rattle snakes are camouflaged rather than vivid and though venomous, will opt for running for cover rather than confrontation. Even when the Rattler bites, it will more often than not 'dry' bite. That is it will give you a painful bite, but not inject venom. In fact only around a 1/4 of snake species are venomous. Then there are the vivid colours of some harmless Birds of Paradise, Humming birds, not to forget the beauty of some vivid coloured butterflies. A Red Admiral has vivid red & black wings, a sign of danger, yet it is not poisonous and is predated upon. So the colour code certainly doesn't work there.

Snakes have always had a bad press. Cleopatra and her ass Asps and, of course, the Biblical depiction of the snake as the evil serpent in the Hebrew, Christian and Islamic faiths. Then there is their stealth and speed together with their strength.

It seems always to be percieved that all snakes are killers. The truth of the matter is that most snake encounters will result in the snake taking cover, but they are so good at it, that the encounter goes by unnoticed. Most of the encounters which are noticed will only be noticed when the snake feels threatened enough to strike.

I don't think there is anything scientific about a fear of snakes, though it may be to have a fear of a snake which may be dangerous would not be a bad thing, just as not picking funghi for food is a good move if you cant tell the safe from the toxic.

I don't think it is your mindset, but rather a mindset which has been handed down to us through the ages. A misconception, from even before the Bible, that snakes are the evil killer. It all comes from a lack of understanding. I would show a Taipan a great deal of respect and give it a very, very wide berth, but a Corn Snake or a Green Tree Python, or Boa Constrictor, I would be happy to handle, so long as it wasn't feeling a tad on the peckish side!

Now spiders, on the other hand.................
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Offline AntonMaeso

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Re: Why do I instinctively fear snakes?
« Reply #2 on: 06/08/2013 02:45:16 »
It seems likely that humans do have an innate fear of snakes or at the very least a strong propensity to fear snakes.

The evolutionary theory goes like this. Snakes can be dangerous. People who avoided snakes tended to survive longer and were more likely to reproduce. People who didn't were more likely to get bitten and die without passing on their genes. Eventually over a very long time we evolved a fear of snakes (note it may have evolved in a previous evolutionary ancestor).

That is the evolutionary story but where is the evidence. It seems that lots of people fear snake but not everyone (personally I love them). One theory suggests that we are predisposed to fear snakes but through learning we overcome these fears. Evidence supporting this theory comes from people do not appear to need a negative encounter with a snake to fear them.

The alternative theory is that we are not born fearing snakes but we are born with the propensity to fear snakes. Early evidence for this theory comes from looking at how captive monkeys who have never seen a snake before respond when shown a snake. Surprise surprise the monkey did not fear the snake. The experimenters then went about seeing if they could condition monkeys to fear snake. They showed the monkeys a video of a scared monkey with a snake or a scared monkey spliced with a neutral stimulus. Scared monkey + snake resulted in long lasting fear of snakes. Another study I read recently investigating infants reactions to snakes. It seems that infants also only fear snakes when associated with a fear reaction from an adult.

newbielink:http://childstudycenter.rutgers.edu/Publications_files/DeLoache%20%26%20LoBue,%202009.pdf [nonactive]

So it is possible that you have an instinctive fear of snakes. However the evidence suggests that we have the propensity to fear snakes all we need is a negative association. If you do not get this association you will not develop a fear if you do you will develop a fear.


Offline alancalverd

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Re: Why do I instinctively fear snakes?
« Reply #3 on: 06/08/2013 07:31:15 »
I don't think this instinct is peculiar to humans. I had a dog whose previous several generations had lived in cities. Walking in the country one day we came across an adder.  The dog's immediate reaction was to freeze and let the snake slide away - quite different from his usual response to anything new (sniff, poke, bark, bite, urinate - standard procedure). Clearly not a learned response, but the correct one.
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