All Science One Spot

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Snake

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Snake (reptile), legless animal with a long, flexible body covered with overlapping scales. Snakes are reptiles, a diverse group of animals that also includes lizards, turtles, and crocodiles. Snakes are thought to have evolved from lizards and share many characteristics with this group—particularly the so-called legless lizards, which have tiny, almost imperceptible legs. But unlike most lizards, snakes have thin, forked tongues, and they lack external ears. And while most lizards have movable eyelids that periodically close to protect and lubricate the eyes, a snake’s eyes are always open, protected by immobile, transparent scales.
Like all reptiles, snakes are cold-blooded, or more correctly, ectothermic—that is, they cannot produce their own body heat. Instead, they rely on the sun to heat their bodies and then regulate their temperature with behavior. Because they do not rely on energy from food to generate body heat, snakes can survive on an extremely meager diet. Some wait for months between successive meals, and a few survive by eating a single, large meal just once or twice a year. When they do eat, snakes swallow their prey whole rather than biting off small pieces. Many snakes have specialized jaws that enable them to swallow animals that are far larger than their own heads. Although uncommon, some snakes, such as the African rock python, have been observed eating animals as large as an antelope or a small cow.
With over 2,500 species belonging to more than 10 families, snakes are a large and successful group. They owe much of this success to their versatility—snakes occupy habitats ranging from underground burrows to the tops of trees to ocean depths as great as 150 m (490 ft). They are found on every continent except Antarctica, and although they are most abundant in tropical areas, many survive in regions marked by extreme cold. The range of the European adder, for instance, extends north of the Arctic Circle. The only places without snakes are parts of the polar regions and isolated islands, such as Ireland and New Zealand.
PHYSICAL CHARACTERISTICS

  Although all snakes have a long, cylindrical body, many species boast unique modifications suited to particular habitats and lifestyles. Burrowing snakes, for example, have muscular, stout bodies and solidly built heads that they use to push through soil. Sea snakes have flattened, paddlelike tails for swimming, and the long, thin shape of many arboreal, or tree-dwelling, snakes provides agility when navigating between branches. Some snakes, including pythons, retain characteristics that reflect their evolution from lizards or from lizardlike ancestors. These snakes have traces of hind limbs called spurs, which are usually more prominent in males than in females.The smallest snakes are the blind snakes. One member of this group, the Texas slender blind snake, reaches just 13 cm (slightly more than 5 in) in length when full grown and weighs less than 2 g (less than 0.1 oz). The largest snakes are the anaconda and the reticulated python, both of which grow as long as 10 m (about 33 ft) and can weigh up to 250 kg (about 550 lb). Among most species of snakes, females are larger than males.

Skin




Snake bodies are covered in overlapping scales composed of a horny material called keratin. These transparent scales make up the dry, smooth, outer layer of skin, whose primary function is to prevent water loss. Snakes owe their coloration to pigment cells located in the skin layer below the scales. Most snakes display drab earth tone colors to blend with their natural surroundings. Arboreal species, such as the emerald tree boa, are often vibrant shades of green, a coloration that helps them hide among leafy foliage. Some snakes, such as coral snakes, have brilliant yellow and orange stripes that warn predators of their venomous bite.

Snakes regularly shed the outer layer of their skin as they grow. Even in snakes that are not growing, the scales become drab and worn over time, and must be periodically replaced by a new, healthy layer. Some species of snakes shed their skin about every 20 days, but other species shed it only once a year. In the shedding process, a new layer develops below the surface of the old one, which gradually separates in preparation for being shed, or sloughed. The snake begins the shedding process by rubbing its nose against rocks or other hard objects to separate the old layer from its lips. After the old layer is loosened, the snake crawls out of its old skin, typically shedding it in a single piece.
Internal Organs


Snakes share an internal anatomy similar to that of other reptiles, but modified to fit within an extremely narrow space. The snake’s three-chambered heart can move sideways to accommodate large prey animals traveling from the mouth to the stomach. The snake’s respiratory system is also compact: Most snakes rely exclusively on the right lung for respiration. In these animals, the left lung is either very small or nonexistent. Snakes have two kidneys, which are positioned so that the left one lies behind the right one rather than beside it. Similarly, the reproductive organs—a pair of testes for males and a pair of ovaries for females—are situated end-to-end. The snake has an extremely muscular and flexible stomach, a narrow liver, and both large and small intestines. Unlike the small intestines of many other vertebrates, those of snakes are stretched out instead of coiled. Like other reptiles, snakes have a cloaca, an internal chamber that receives wastes from the digestive system and eggs or sperm from the reproductive system before they leave the body. Snakes do not have a urinary bladder; instead, they excrete all their wastes through the rectum.
Senses


A snake obtains information about its environment primarily through the Jacobson’s organ located in the roof of its mouth. The snake continuously flicks out its forked tongue to collect scent particles from the air and the ground. When the tongue draws back into the mouth, the forked tips fit into cell-lined pockets in the Jacobson’s organ, which detects the odors of the particles it receives. This system is keenly sensitive, and snakes rely on it to locate both mates and prey.
Vision and the ability to detect vibrations are also important to the survival of most snakes. Snakes lack eardrums and external ear openings, but they have small bones in their heads that conduct sound. They are able to hear low-frequency sounds and to sense vibrations that travel through the ground or water. The majority of snakes have good eyesight, especially for detecting moving objects, although most burrowing snakes can only distinguish between light and dark.
Pit vipers, boas, and pythons have an unusual adaptation for detecting warm-blooded prey and predators. On the heads of these snakes are small pits lined with cells that are extremely sensitive to heat. These pits enable the snakes to sense the presence of a warm-blooded animal and strike accurately, even in total darkness.

Feeding
Snakes have a wide range of food preferences. Many snakes eat worms, insects, lizards, small mammals, birds, and frogs. Some snakes, such as the Australian bandy-bandy, feed only on other snakes. Several groups of snakes, including the egg-eating snakes of Asia, prefer the eggs of other animals; these snakes have modified teeth and vertebrae in the throat for breaking eggshells. These teeth snag the shell as the egg, swallowed whole, starts down the digestive tract; the broken shell is regurgitated. Among some species, males and females eat different types of food. For example, male Arafura filesnakes eat small fish that inhabit shallow water, while females of the same species eat larger fish that live in deeper water. Many snakes change their diet as they grow larger, as in the reticulated pythons. When young, these snakes feed mostly on rats. When they reach about 4 m (13 ft) in length, they switch to larger prey, such as wild pigs, monkeys, and small deer.
Snakes use diverse strategies for capturing their prey. Slender and agile snakes actively pursue their prey, but snakes with thicker bodies, such as pythons, are more likely to wait in a coiled position and ambush their prey as it passes by. Many snakes begin to swallow their prey while it is still alive. The teeth of snakes point backward and are not designed for chewing—instead, snakes use their teeth to pin down their prey to prevent its escape. Others kill prey animals before eating them.
Snakes that kill their prey use one of two methods: constriction or envenomation—the injection of venom. Constrictors, such as pythons and kingsnakes, wrap their coils around a prey animal, tightening their grip each time the prey exhales. In this way, constrictors gradually suffocate their victims. Several groups of snakes kill their prey with venom. Copperheads, bushmasters, and other vipers inject their venom and then release the prey immediately, later following the scent trail to find the dead animal. Others, such as cobras, simply hang onto the prey they have poisoned and swallow it when its struggles have ceased.











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