Snakes—almost everybody has an opinion about them, and often those opinions are extremely polarized, with people either fearing snakes or being fascinated by them. The sinuous movements of a snake’s body, the oil-on-water effect of its iridescent scales, the hypnotic movements of its elevated head, the unblinking gaze, the continually flickering tongue, and often the serpent’s totally unexpected and unannounced appearance, are all factors that play into its ability to convey both beauty and menace in a single tongue-flick.
It is no surprise that the snake has touched so many societies throughout history and been included in countless cultural and religious stories. By shedding its skin, it may be seen as a symbol of renewal and long life, but at the same time it is the bringer of death. It is likely that since humans first walked upon the Earth, the snake has held them in its thrall, an ever-present danger in the shadows, hidden in leaf litter, reaching out from a leafy bough, or lurking beneath dappled waters.
So, why do so many people shudder at the very word “snake?” Obviously, one of the reasons people fear snakes is perfectly reasonable and natural—some snakes can, and do, kill humans. Worldwide, up to 125,000 lives are lost through snakebites every year. But, putting this into perspective, figures extrapolated from World Health Organization data suggest that 1.25 million people may have died in road-traffic accidents in 2015, ten times as many as were killed by snakes over a similar 12-month period.
A venomous serpent striking from a leafy bough probably epitomizes the worst nightmare for many people. Yet this Great Lakes Bushviper (Atheris nitschei) is actually a highly specialized and wonderfully adapted predator of mammals, lizards, or frogs that only uses its venom in defense when it feels truly threatened.
A hooding Egyptian Cobra (Naje haje) an iconic image, yet the purpose of the hood is to warn potential attackers that the cobra will defend itself if necessary; it is trying to avoid confrontation, not provoke it.
There are a little over 3,700 living snake species known to science. They exhibit a truly amazing diversity of shape, size, color, pattern, and natural history. In The Book of Snakes, I will introduce the reader to 600 species, almost one in six of all snakes known. For those who are unfamiliar with snakes, I aim to dispel myths and bring enlightenment and understanding about one of the most maligned groups of animals on the planet. For those who are already snake aficionados, I hope to introduce rare or elusive species that may have previously passed beneath their radar.
In selecting which 600 species to feature in The Book of Snakes, I went for diversity, including many of the familiar names, both the popular, inoffensive snakes kept as pets, and the infamous, highly venomous species that claim lives. But I also wanted to illustrate less well-known species, from remote islands, cold mountains, arid deserts, verdant rainforests, and the open oceans—snakes with unique lifestyles or diets, and each with its own interesting story to tell. Some species are so rare that we struggled to find a single photograph to represent them. And that was the one hard-and-fast rule: if no image was available or of sufficient quality to represent the species at life size, then that species did not make the book. However, thanks to the many excellent photographers who have contributed images, we lost fewer than 30 species from the original selection.
I hope that The Book of Snakes will appeal to both armchair naturalists and experienced fieldworkers alike, but particularly that it will inspire budding herpetologists of future generations to respect, study, and protect snakes.
The little girl’s expression, her hand reaching out to explore, to make contact, both suggest awe and wonderment directed toward the sinuous serpent, a Burmese Rock Python (Python bivittatus), on the other side of the glass.