Popular Science: CAN WE IDENTIFY DANGEROUS SNAKES?
There are only five species of snakes in the Czech Republic, and four of them are harmless grass snakes. The only venomous snake in the Czech Republic is the common European adder (Vipera berus, figure 1B), though its poison is not dangerous for a healthy adult man. On the other hand, there are 32 species of European snakes in Azerbaijan, including some of the most dangerous ones. Whereas in Czechia there have not been any deaths due to snake bites reported in 25 years, in Azerbaijan the Lebetine viper (Macrovipera lebetina, figure 1C) was responsible for more than a hundred serious bites and one death in the year 2016 alone. Therefore, the authors assumed that the fear of snakes and the overall attitude towards them differ significantly in these two countries.
Figure 1: A) Eurasian blind snake (Xerotyphlops vermicularis), B) common European adder (Vipera berus), C) Lebetine viper (Macrovipera lebetina), D) Egyptian cobra (Naja haje)
The respondents were tasked with ranking 36 photos of snakes by the amount of perceived fear. Interestingly, the Czech and Azeri rankings were quite similar, even though there are fewer snakes in the Czech Republic, fewer opportunities to come across them in nature and they are less dangerous than those in Azerbaijan.
The presented species were split into two groups by the amount of perceived fear: a group of viper-like snakes and a group of grass snake-like snakes. The viper-like snakes are characterized by shorter and thicker bodies, wide triangular heads, big eyes and darkish colors. On the contrary, the grass snake-like snakes are long and slender with round smooth heads. However, the Egyptian cobra (Naja haje) was sorted into the grass snake-like group as well, since it appears as a quite inconspicuous snake while not in its typical threatening posture (figure 1D). The Eurasian blind snake (Xerotyphlops vermicularis, figure. 1A) was perceived to be the least dangerous. It is a small, pink snake more resembling a slowworm or even an earthworm.
How did the respondents’ answers reflect how dangerous the snake really was? They turned out to be quite accurate about vipers, which are indeed dangerous snakes. These species were correctly recognized as dangerous and, moreover, even by those respondents who could not have possibly known them from their country. It seems that people can predict the dangerousness of certain snakes more precisely than others. How so?
The reason might be the long coevolution of human ancestors and vipers. While hunting and gathering our ancestors in Africa must have met vipers quite often, and in many cases such encounters could have ended up with the death of one of the parties. It might be that during the coevolution a mental image (prototype) of a dangerous viper could have evolved in the human mind. Such an image could then help us identify a dangerous viper, even though we have never actually seen any.
Indeed, tense relationships between snakes and humans can still be found today. In southeastern Australia, where most of the snakes are fatally venomous, every third snake seen by humans is killed. In the Philippines, a quarter of the men from the native tribe of Agta Negritos survived an attack by a large constrictor. Elsewhere, on the other hand, snakes are seen as positive divinities, are part of traditional medicine or are considered a delicious source of meat. In any case, snakes were, are and probably will always be one of the most important animals for humans.
If you would like to try such a task yourself, search https://www.krasazvirat.cz/?lang=1.
Association Between Fear and Beauty Evaluation of Snakes: Cross-Cultural Findings; Eva Landová, Natavan Bakhshaliyeva, Markéta Janovcová, Šárka Peléšková, Mesma Suleymanova, Jakub Polák, Akif Guliev and Daniel Frynta; frontiers in Psychology; 2018