They slip soundlessly through our landscapes, cloaked in a rainbow of colors and patterns that help them become one with bark, rocks, leaves and soil. Often the only sign of their existence is what they leave behind: ghostly shed skins imprinted with shapes of eyes and scales, traces of pigmentation and other clues to hidden lives.
While snakes are some of the shiest creatures to cross our paths, they’re among the most persecuted. Because these reptilian wallflowers are hard to observe, we know little about their natural behaviors—and we fill that knowledge gap with myths steeped in fear and misunderstanding. Chief among them is that snakes are out to devour us.
Even if that were true, it would be an impossible mission. “They swallow their food whole, and in the United States there are no snakes big enough to eat us,” says Melissa Amarello, executive director of Advocates for Snake Preservation. “They just don’t want to have anything to do with us.”
Lacking limbs, facial expressions and vocalizations, snakes are inscrutable to a species that reads intention into every waving hand, raised eyebrow or—when interacting with nonhuman companions—wagging tail and beseeching meow. But scientists have seen beyond snakes’ scaly exteriors and gained insights into social dynamics, watching them commune with friends, defend young and keep snakelets warm. By recording activity at an Arizona black rattlesnake den, Amarello and her partner even discovered pregnant females helping mothers who’d just given birth. “It’s usually the youngest one who’s getting stuck with the babysitting [duties]. She’s still out basking; she hasn’t given birth yet.”