Madison Area Herpetological Society

Reptile and Amphibian Myths and Misconceptions!

Reptile and Amphibian Myths and Misconceptions!

As can be well-imagined by now, reptiles and amphibians, collectively known as “herptiles”, are among the most maligned and misunderstood groups of animals throughout the world for many reasons. Many different cultures, religions, and traditions both revere and/or revile these animals, and even to this day, many different local myths, misconceptions, and beliefs all still persist due to fear, and lack of knowledge and information. Snakes especially, and even more so the venomous species, have long been especially prone to, and subject to many of these different beliefs due to the fact that they especially, are potentially deadly or dangerous to humans in some way or another. Furthermore, in many cases, bits of information that may be helpful or useful for us in dealing with these animals in one way or another are gathered into “rules of thumb”, which may be accurate when used one way, but not always necessarily the other.

This is why we at the Madison Area Herpetological Society, have decided to compile a quick guide to the most commonly seen and heard myths we see about these misunderstood reptiles and amphibians while out educating, both in the wild and in captivity, and to hopefully set the record straight and lay these myths to rest! The truths to many of these myths are of little to no use or value at best, and may be potentially harmful or dangerous to humans and/or the animals at worst when they are followed. Many of these myths below may have differing variations to them depending on where and how they are told, but we’re covering as many of these in general as we can! Be sure to stay tuned to this educational article for continual updates on more myths and misconceptions to be added as we know of them, and if you’ve seen or heard of one that we haven’t listed, be sure to let us know about it!

Myth: Some snakes will “sting”, “lash”, or “beat” a person to death with their tails! Hoop snakes will place their tails in their mouths, and then roll after a person like a hoop.
Truth: Some species of snakes have tails which end in a small spine that may be pressed into a potential threat in defense, but there are no snakes that will actively or vigorously attack other animals to death with their tails, which furthermore do not contain any venom or poison. Although there are several snakes from different areas of the world that are often locally called “hoop snakes” for this belief, there are no snakes that will actually do this for any reason.

Myth: If a baby snake is seen, the mother could be close by.
Truth: Most species of snakes generally do not provide parental care to their young, and once they hatch or are given birth to, are self-sufficient and on their own. A parental snake may or may not still be in the area, but there are usually not any parental associations between them.

Myth: Baby, or hatchling venomous snakes are more dangerous than the adults because they haven’t learned how to control their venom.
Truth: This is only partially true at best, and stems from a human fascination with irony. Studies have shown that baby snakes can control their venom just as adults can, and their level of experience plays little to no role in their venom injected. Venom potency and composition may vary between baby and adult snakes of the same species and/or population in some cases depending on their diet, environment, and other factors, and baby snakes may indeed be potentially more venomous than adults, but their venom yield will be much less due to their smaller size and venom glands. More on this misconception can be found at the Venom Interviews segment below:

Myth: A snake cannot strike or bite while underwater.
Truth: Any snake can strike or bite whether above or below the water’s surface. Many species of snakes will hunt for and capture fish, and other aquatic prey in this manner, or will ambush prey from the water.

Myth: People have fallen into “nests” of venomous cottonmouths/water moccasins “up north”.
Truth: There have been no substantiated accounts of this ever happening, and snakes generally do not “nest” together. Many species may overwinter together in hibernaculums beneath the frostline in large numbers, but these areas are usually inaccessible to humans falling into them, and the snakes will then disperse in the spring and summertime. Some species will also form large “mating balls” in the spring consisting of a single female, and many males attempting to court and reproduce with the same female, although this is not nesting behavior. Furthermore, there are no “venomous” cottonmouths or water moccasins in Wisconsin, the Upper Midwest, or in many other areas of the U.S.

Myth: Rattlesnakes are being stocked/introduced into areas to control the turkey populations.
Truth: There have been no such wildlife management plans made by any state or local wildlife agencies anywhere, and this would require ample public review even if it were to be considered. Rattlesnakes generally do not eat turkeys or their eggs, and instead, turkeys will often kill and eat snakes.

Myth: Snakes are aggressive, and will chase people!
Truth: This is perhaps one of the most common, widespread, and persistent myths when it comes to snakes and many other reptiles. While the terms “aggressive” and “defensive” can be construed to mean the same things in the broadest sense, beliefs often stem from human misperceptions when encountering snakes, and one of several things could actually be happening instead. As with many other animals and wildlife, snakes which have been fed or acclimated to human presence over time may come to associate humans with having food for them, and may thus move towards them for this reason. Feeding any wildlife is illegal and should of course be discouraged for both human and animal safety and well-being. In other cases, a snake may still move towards a potential threat when their preferred, or only means of escape is otherwise impeded. Some reptiles will also perform “mock strikes or charges” over a short distance in order to defend themselves, nesting sites, or their territories, and to intimidate potential threats, but do not sustain chase. With the exception of a very few species not found in North America, most snakes behave defensively, there are no snakes which will “chase” or act “aggressively” towards a human for prolonged distances with the intent to bite, attack, kill, or eat them. It is also very costly and energy consuming for most any ectothermic animals to give or sustain such prolonged, strenuous activity. More on this misperception can be found in this article below:

Myth: You can use certain features on an animal, such as the number of rattles on a rattlesnake, or the number of rings on a turtle’s scutes, to determine their age.
Truth: This is usually untrue, as rattlesnakes will shed and grow up to several segments of their rattles each year depending upon food, their environment, and other local resources, as do turtles with regards to their shells. Certain body segments can also be worn down, or broken off over time as well. In most cases, a reptile or amphibian’s age can only be estimated at best, and a hatch or birthdate would need to be known to give the most accurate idea of how old an animal is.

Myth: Any snake that rattles its tail must be a rattlesnake.
Truth: Most harmless and nonvenomous snakes, as well as many other venomous species without rattles or that are not rattlesnakes can also rattle, or rapidly vibrate their tail tips as well when they are threatened, and when this is done against debris or objects, can create a loud buzzing sound which may sound convincingly like a rattlesnake.

Myth: If a snake is small, it must be a baby.
Truth: While many species of snakes may be small as hatchlings or babies, there are also many species of small, harmless snakes which do not exceed 8 to 15 inches as adults. The DeKay’s Brownsnake (Storeria dekayi), is one of the most commonly encountered examples of this.

Myth: When bitten or envenomed by a venomous snake, the venom should be cut and/or sucked out.
Truth: This is a very old and outdated snakebite remedy that has the strong potential of doing more harm than good, and is generally not recommended by most, if not all, scientific studies and snakebite professionals. When another animal is envenomated, the venom from the snake very quickly enters and spreads through the body’s tissue and bloodstream, and most of the venom will not be able to be easily removed through cutting or sucking it out through the bite site. Inexpensive “snakebite” extractor kits consisting of a small pump and scalpel which are commonly available at many stores can be used to bide some time, but by no means should be a substitute for seeking prompt, proper medical care and attention in the event of a snakebite, and at best, only concentrate some of the venom into an area where more localized damage can then occur. More on this can be found in this article here:

Myth: “If Red Touches Yellow, Kill A Fellow. If Red Touches Black, Friend of Jack”.
Truth: This is a very commonly cited rhyme often used in the identification of venomous coral snakes (Micrurus sp.), and their many harmless mimics. However, this rhyme only holds true for North American species, and even then, not in all individual cases. Many species of Neotropical, or Central and South American coral snakes also have colors and patterns which do not follow this rule. More on the coral snake rhyme can be found at this article below:

Myth: Coral snakes are rear fanged, and/or need to chew on a victim in order to for their fangs to inject venom.
Truth: This is all false. As with all elapids (i.e. cobras, mambas, taipans, coral snakes, and others), coral snakes have small, fixed front fangs, and do not necessarily need to “chew” in order to initially inject their venom.

Myth: A snake can be identified as being venomous due to a “triangular” or “pointed” head.
Truth: Many harmless, and nonvenomous snakes can also flatten, or triangulate their heads and necks when threatened or defensive. While this may be used as a rule of thumb in some local areas where all pit vipers have triangular shaped heads by default, head shape is generally not a reliable universal indicator of a snake being a venomous species. Many other groups and families of venomous snakes, such as elapids, which are also highly venomous, also do not typically follow this rule of thumb.

Myth: Touching or handling a frog or a toad causes warts.
Truth: This is an old wive’s tail that carries no truth. Warts are caused by a human virus, rather than contact with amphibians. Most amphibians, however, have moist and delicate skin, and many can secrete potentially toxic or irritating substances if ingested or threatened.

Myth: A snake can be identified as being venomous due to its vertical, elliptical, or slit-like eyes or pupil shape.
Truth: Pupil size and shape can vary drastically even among both venomous and non-venomous snakes of the same species, and they can expand or contract drastically depending upon the lighting and their other environmental conditions. While this may be able to be used in some local areas where all pit vipers may have vertical or elliptical pupils by default, eye or pupil shape is generally not a universal indicator of a snake being a venomous species.

Myth: Snakes do not have bones.
Truth: All snakes are vertebrate animals, and do have bones. They have a skull and specialized jaw bones and ligaments, many connected vertebra, or a spinal backbone, and as many as 300-400 pairs of ribs or more, among a few other minor bones present.

Myth: Snakes, and other reptiles can sting or deliver venom or poison through their tongues.
Truth: This is false. No reptiles can sting or deliver any toxic compounds or substances through their tongues. Their tongues consist of chemoreceptors which are used to pick up and determine their environments and any surrounding scents, which are then processed by an organ in the roof of their mouths known as the Jacobson’s organ.

Myth: Some species of snakes can give off a venomous or poisonous breath.
Truth: While there are some species of venomous snakes, namely the spitting cobras of Africa and Asia which can deliver a stream of venom towards a potential threat as a defense from a distance of up to 10 to 15 feet using specialized muscles, venom glands/ducts, and hollow, grooved fangs, there are no snakes which naturally or normally have a venomous or poisonous breath. This is an old wive’s tail in many areas of the U.S.

Myth: Venomous snakes can be identified by their habit of swimming above the water, while a non-venomous snake swims beneath the surface.
Truth: Both venomous and non-venomous snakes can inflate or deflate their lung(s) to become more or less buoyant when swimming. This is not a reliable method for distinguishing a venomous snake from a harmless species.

Myth: Nonvenomous snakes do not have teeth, and cannot bite, whereas a venomous snake can or will.
Truth: The vast majority of snakes, whether they are venomous or not, do have teeth and can bite when they feel threatened or when their food/prey is detected, as can any animal with a mouth. Most non-venomous snakes have several rows of small, recurved teeth used for grasping and ingesting their prey, but do not have enlarged, front-facing fangs that many venomous snakes do.

Myth: Using sulfur, mothballs, or other “snake replants” will help deter or keep snakes away.
Truth: There are no proven “remedies” or “snake repellant” products, which are commonly available at hardware and garden stores, which can be guaranteed 100% to work in deterring or repelling snakes. Likewise, there are no trapping methods which specifically or exclusively can target snakes without capturing, or potentially harming other wildlife, children, pets, and/or the environment. Encouraging property and homeowners to reasonably co-exist with snakes and other wildlife, rather then viewing them as pests to be eliminated or controlled, and promoting proper education and awareness of one’s actions and surroundings when living or working outdoors in areas where there may be snakes will go a much longer way in preventing most, if not all, negative human-snake encounters.

Myth: Reptiles will only grow to the size of their environment or enclosure.
Truth: This is an old myth based on lack of knowledge and insufficient information, or sometimes even deliberate misinformation pertaining to the captive keeping of reptiles and amphibians, and is not true. Most reptiles and amphibians undergo indeterminate growth, which is where their most rapid growth occurs as hatchlings or juveniles, and where their growth never truly stops throughout their lives, but slows considerably to the point of becoming much more minute and unnoticeable once sexual maturity is reached. Conducting proper research into the animal in question, and providing the proper and appropriately sized enclosure and overall environment, diet, nutrition, lighting, heating, humidity and temperatures, and many other considerations are all vital for promoting the growth and well-being of these animals both in the wild and in captivity.

Myth: A snake that is not eating in captivity may be planning to escape and then size up their owner in bed. And, snakes can, or will eat people!
Truth: This is a commonly told, and false urban myth that is not based in truth. Most species of boas and pythons are opportunistic, cryptic, sit and wait ambush predators, and they do not conceive which specific prey items they would like to eat in the future. Certainly, no prey animal would ever allow a large snake, or any other potential predator to get close enough to them to be able to do this in the wild, and this would obviously be an unsuccessful hunting strategy. With the possible exception of a very few of the largest species of snakes in the world found largely in the most remote areas, no snakes become large enough, or have the propensity to consume or be major predators of humans outside of perhaps one or two obscure tribes of pygmy, or smaller tribal people in Asia. Deaths or fatalities by these snakes in captivity elsewhere in the world are accidental, and are the result of human error and improper and irresponsible handling and husbandry. Only well-documented and proven cases should be discussed and be considered valid as to not promote deception and misinformation.

Myth: Copperheads and other venomous snakes will give off a cucumber-like, or other odor when nearby.
Truth: This is an old myth which is mostly untrue. Many snakes, both venomous and nonvenomous, can excrete a foul or noxious smelling musk when they are directly threatened or handled, but do not normally or naturally have any odor to them that would indicate their presence nearby. More likely than not, this myth is based on someone smelling a stronger smelling plant or something else nearby which erroneously became associated with the snake’s incidental presence.

Myth: Snakes are slimy and gross!
Truth: In actuality, a snake’s skin and scales are dry, and can be smooth to rough, or keeled depending on the species, and they do not have sweat or other glands. All reptile’s skin, scales, and scutes are comprised of the same material as human hair and fingernails, and are not slimy. Some elongated, legless or nearly legless amphibians, many worms, and other animals do require their bodies to be moist or that secrete a mucous to cover their bodies, but are not snakes.

Myth: A “glass snake” can shatter half of, or portions of its body!
Truth: Oftentimes, what are commonly known as “glass snakes” are actually “glass lizards” or any of the many other groups or families of legless or nearly legless lizards which are not actually snakes. Approximately half of the bodies of many species of legless lizards are comprised of their tails, which can be physically or voluntarily dropped at several fracture points to distract a predator long enough for the lizard to escape. This is what lends to this belief. Legless lizards can be distinguished from snakes by their more rigid and inflexible muscle and skeletal structure, external ear openings, and visible eye-lids, among a few other differences, all of which snakes lack.

Myth: Some snakes will enter, or can be found around barns to drink milk from cows.
Truth: This common legend is most often applied to milk snakes (Lampropeltis sp.), which is how these species derived their common name. In actuality, these, and many other snakes are commonly found in and around barns, outbuildings, and sheds in order to locate food in the form of rodents, and shelter. There are certainly no snakes that will suckle or drink milk from the teats of cows or any other mammals.

Myth: Snakes can dislocate or unhinge their jaws in order to swallow large prey.
Truth: Snakes are certainly well known for being able to ingest prey items several times larger than their heads, but their jaws do not actually become unhinged or dislocated in order to do this. Instead, snakes have many extremely flexible muscles and ligaments and jaw bones known as the quadrate bones that allow them to expand, move independently, and more easily accommodate these prey items. When a snake “yawns” after a meal, they are “re-accommodating” and “re-aligning” these jawbones and ligaments.

Myth: Snakes will travel in pairs, and will seek revenge if one of them is killed.
Truth: Most, if not all snakes, do not travel in pairs or groups, and are not social or gregarious animals, which are animals that regularly, instinctually, or preferentially can be found in large numbers. Multiple individuals of the same, and/or other snake species can be found within the same area for mating and reproductive purposes, or if there is sufficient food, shelter, and other resources, but they do not seek out revenge towards a person if one of them is killed.

Myth: Using or releasing kingsnakes into an area will help deter and keep venomous snakes away.
Truth: While kingsnakes are well-known for their ability to overpower and consume other native venomous snakes, there are many reasons why this idea will not work. Kingsnakes may eat venomous snakes and other snakes when they incidentally encounter them, but there is no evidence that their presence will necessarily deter other snakes from an area, and there is also no guarantee that they will eat any venomous snakes, or even remain in the area. There are generally not any techniques or methods which can be used to selectively attract or repel any particular species of snake from an area.

Myth: When a snapping turtle bites down, they won’t let go until it thunders or when there is lightning.
Truth: While snapping turtles and a few other reptiles can have strong and powerful bites, and can be tenacious, thunder and/or lightning have nothing to do with when they’ll decide to let go.

Myth: When threatened or attacked, a mother snake will open her mouth to allow the babies or brood to seek shelter or refuge inside.
Truth: Many snakes can, or will eat smaller snakes, and may also even cannibalize their own young in some circumstances. There is no evidence that this is any means of providing protection or parental oversight for their young.

Myth: When a snake constricts, they are crushing, or asphyxiating their prey.
Truth: Constriction is in fact a very quick and efficient means of killing prey used by many snakes, and although it has been widely and long believed that it is performed by crushing or asphyxiation, this can be proven to no longer be the case. Instead, this method relies on rupturing the animal’s cardio-vascular system, thereby affecting blood flow to the heart.

Myth: Snakes are deaf, and are dancing to the music.
Truth: Although it has been long known that snakes lack outer ear openings and eardrums, they still possess inner the ear bones connected to their jawbones, and can detect low frequency vibrations and airborne soundwaves through the ground that are then sent to their brains to be processed. However, when a snake is allegedly “dancing” to music, such as how cobras are used by Indian snake charmers, they are relying less upon responding to “hearing” high pitched airborne sounds, and more so on bodily movements and other environmental cues associated with a potential threat or predator.

Myth: Snakes must be coiled in order to strike.
Truth: All snakes can still bite from most uncoiled positions, although coiling prior to striking gives them the greatest distance and leverage to do so. Many species of sedentary snakes which rely upon sit and wait ambush hunting can furthermore strike from surprising positions and directions which do not require them to be coiled.

Myth: Turtles and tortoises can climb out of their shells.
Truth: Unlike many cartoons, a turtle or tortoise cannot actually switch or climb out of their shells. Their shells are actually part of the animal’s skeletal structure, and their spinal cord, rib cages, and other internal organs are all fused to and connected internally. An empty shell which may be found are simply the remains of a turtle or tortoise which has died and decomposed.

Myth: A turtle or tortoise cannot feel when its shell is carved into or painted into.
Truth: Just as with human fingernails and skin, a turtle or tortoise’s shell has sensitive nerve endings which can feel sensations to what may seemingly be hardened armor also designed to protect them from predators. Therefore, attempting to carve into or paint into their shells, unless done in a specific way or location for scientific and research purposes to minimize pain and discomfort, is actually cruel and unnecessary.

Myth: There are such things as “sewer gators” in New York City’s sewage system.
Truth: This is an old urban legend dating as far back as the 1920’s and 1930’s, often having made its way into popular culture and media when baby American alligators were much more popular as pets, and were accidently or intentionally release or escaped. While irresponsible pet acquisitions and releases still unfortunately occur, including when these animals may occasionally turn up in sewage systems of large metropolitan cities, there has been no evidence that any populations of “sewer gators”, much less mutated ones, have persisted or sustained over the decades in these types of environments. High levels of bacterial growth, inadequate temperatures, and sometimes lack of suitable food for exotic reptiles all inhabit these animals from surviving in the sewers for more than a few months at most.

Myth: Chameleons will use their color changing ability to camouflage and to blend in.
Truth: Although it has been long, and popularly believed even to this day that chameleons will change color to camouflage, or blend in with their surroundings, this is not actually the case. Instead, chameleons use a combination of color changing pigment organelles in their skin and scales, and two super-imposed layers of skin which control their color changing ability to thermoregulate, or to communicate and signal their current moods or dispositions, or sometimes to signal their current reproductive status.

Myth: Snakes are just lizards without legs.
Truth: Although snakes and lizards may have evolved from the same, or very similar ancestors that resembled lizards that had legs millions of years ago, and are both in the scientific family of Squamata, they are actually very different in that many more recent phylogenetic and evolutionary diverging can be noted. In many cases, snakes and lizards can have very different digestive, physiological, skeletal and muscular, and other differences, and there are also many different groups and families of legless to nearly legless lizards as well.

Myth: Reptiles need to have friends or be companions with one another in order to feel bonded.
Truth: This is a common belief stemming from lack of knowledge and understanding of pet ownership and the animal’s biology, habits, and behavior. Most reptiles are not social, monogamous, or gregarious animals, and although many species can be housed or co-existed together initially as hatchlings or juveniles, they will often become more territorial, predatory, and/or dominant towards one another and may begin to combat one another once they reach sexual maturity. Even more subtle behaviors such as “stacking” or “cuddling” are in fact dominance behaviors to obtain the best food and other resources. Live rodents and snakes also most certainly do not become friends, and any close contact between them is only incidental at most, and any live rodent feedings should always still be closely monitored and attended to.

Myth: There are “good” and “bad” snakes. And some, or all snakes are “evil”.
Truth: In actuality, there is no such thing as “good”, “bad”, or “evil” snakes. They are all just animals which have evolved many different ways of surviving and thriving in their environments, and this notion is based solely on human intentions and perception. The notion that any snake is “evil” is widely and deeply rooted in erroneous religious and/or cultural beliefs that do not hold any truth.

Myth: Snakes will go blind during the dog days of summer.
Truth: This myth most likely stemmed from the fact that all snakes need to shed their skins periodically as a means of their growth and development. During this time, an opaque, lubricating liquid is formed underneath the existing skin and scales, including over the eyes, giving them a cloudy or milky appearance. While this does indeed impair a snake’s vision during this time, snakes are not known to shed any more or less often during any one particular month than other months of the year when they are active.

Myth: Snakes will come in “waves” or “seasons”.
Truth: While it is true that snakes, and many other reptiles and amphibians may become more active and likely to be encountered in numbers during the spring and fall when they are emerging or heading to their hibernaculums and overwintering areas, they do not necessarily come in “waves” or “seasons”. Nearly all reptiles do not live annually as do many insects and other invertebrates, and are active and present in their longevity throughout the year, and oftentimes multiple years or even decades, although their periods of activity and phenology of course depend on the region, climate, weather patterns or events, or other environmental factors.

Myth: “Pilot black snakes” will lead venomous snakes and other snakes to and from their hibernaculums and overwintering sites.
Truth: This myth stems from the fact that in many cases, ratsnakes (Pantherophis sp.), as well as many other species of snakes, will often share or can be found in association with rattlesnakes using the same overwintering sites or hibernaculums. There is no evidence, however, that these snakes are leading other snakes to or from these areas, and rattlesnakes, and other snakes are just as capable of locating these areas instinctually.

Myth: A decapitated, or mortally injured snake will take until sunrise or sunset to finally die.
Truth: Decapitation is a quick and instantaneous death for any animal, although post-mortem nervous system activity can still take place for up to several hours after the animal’s death. Snakes and most other reptiles are also surprisingly resilient animals, and the time it takes for them to either succumb to or survive from any injuries has nothing to do with the onset dawn or dusk.