Enter the Year of the Snake

THE large, very large, snake slithered, rather undulated, quietly through the remains of the forest tasting the air, looking, waiting. A minute vibration tickled its senses, at last movement. It froze, then its body elongated into a large moving stick as it inched forward. Its belly scales lifted and pulled the snake along the path towards its unsuspecting prey. The instant that the other snake realised the danger, it was too late. The king cobra, (Ophiophagus hannah), had struck a smaller brown rat snake (Ptyas fuscus).

HIGHLY-REVERED: Snakes are worshipped in countries such as India.

HIGHLY-REVERED: Snakes are worshipped in countries such as India.

The silence of the forest night exploded into cannon shots with multicoloured shooting lights, which outshone the stars. With each colour, with each light pattern, shots ran out above the forest upsetting the nighttime cover as human residents welcomed the Year of the Snake, which is the sixth celestial animal in the Chinese zodiac calendar.

The aggressive, highly venomous king cobra (a bite will kill a man in about 15 minutes) vanished into the underbrush, back to its nest. The king cobra, one of the few snakes that makes a nest and guards it until the eggs hatch, was jittery and the noise increased its restlessness.

King cobras and all cobras, including the Sumatran cobra (Naja sumatrana) in Sarawak, are referred to collectively as ular tedang in Malay, and are a protected species. They are endangered. They are members of the Viperidae family, which includes all vipers, for example the Bornean keel-backed pit viper (Tropidolaemus subannulatus).

SNAKE YEAR: A Python breitensteinii slithers across the grass. — Photos by Hans Breuer

SNAKE YEAR: A Python breitensteinii slithers across the grass. — Photos by Hans Breuer

The reticulated python (Python reticulatus) and its relative Python breitensteini, members of the Pythonidae family, are also protected. Pythons are not venomous, but are constrictors; with each breath the snake tightens its squeeze. The reticulated python is the longest known snake in existence.

Many people react with almost instinctive fear to snakes, particularly to venomous ones. The question – is it poisonous (or more correctly venomous) – is one of the first asked.

About 750 of the estimated 3,000 species of this legless, carnivorous reptile in more than 20 families in the suborder Serpentes are venomous. In Borneo, of the estimated 154 species of snakes, only 30 are venomous and 19 of these are sea snakes.

According to the writer of ‘The Natural History of Amphibians and Reptiles in Sabah’, only 11 of Bornean species pose a serious threat to man and cars are more dangerous. However, snakes should be handled with caution.

The arrival of the Year of the Snake reminded me of a rather hurried visit I made to the famous Temple of Azure Cloud, or commonly known as the Snake Temple, in Penang many years ago. Incense hung heavily in the air over the languid, seemingly intoxicated, poisonous pit vipers – which were literally everywhere – and visitors. These snakes are venerated because they are related to mythical Chinese dragons.

Snakes are revered in countries around the world, in the present and past. In ancient Egypt, as in present day India, snakes are worshipped as gods.

Like other reptiles, including lizards and turtles, snakes are cold-blooded, most species lay eggs, and they have a three-chambered heart. They are covered with scales and they are dry (not slimy as described by urban myths). The shape of the skull suggests that snakes and lizards share a common ancestor. However, it is believed that snakes lost their legs during the Cretaceous period.

They range across all continents except the Antarctic and some islands including New Zealand (although sea snakes infrequently visit the shores), Ireland, Iceland and some small islands in the Pacific. Their habitats are just as varied as they are found in forests, deserts, savannahs, mountains, rivers, lakes, and oceans. They are also able to adapt to man altered habitats. Last month it was reported that a python was seen moving across a busy road before disappearing into a monsoon drain.

Snakes are carnivorous and the prey depend on the size of the snake since snakes swallow their prey – mammals, birds, reptiles and invertebrates – whole.

Some species of snakes, for example the king cobra and pythons, are top predators; whereas smaller species of snakes are preyed upon by birds, mammals and other snakes. Regardless of their location in food chains, or the more complex food webs, snakes have a role in balancing the ecosystems in which they exist. The balance is important as without predators, prey may become overpopulated, but without prey, predators will disappear.

Respect for snakes and nature and the balance, which they are part of, should be developed. The timely arrival of the Year of the Snake should provide a push to develop a greater understanding of its namesake.

The Malaysian Nature Society

Established in the 1940, the Malaysian Nature Society is the oldest scientific and non-governmental organisation in Malaysia. Our mission is ‘to promote the study, appreciation, conservation and protection of Malaysia’s nature heritage’. Our 5,000-strong membership, spread across 12 branches nationwide, come from all walks of life, bound by a common interest in nature. For further information on membership or our activities in Kuching, call Kwan on 019-8349499. For information on our activities in Miri, call Nazeri Abghani on 085-453185. You can also visit www.mns.org.my or

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