Snakes don’t have the best reputation. Not only are they considered synonymous with “traitor,” but on March 17, folks around the world celebrate a man famous for driving the snakes out of Ireland. When it comes to science, though, snakes have a lot to offer.
There are hundreds of articles about snakes published across the APS family of journals. These studies span a wide range of topics and a wide swath of species. From pythons, sea snakes, and black and green mambas, down to the humble garter snake, snakes help researchers unravel the nuances of biology.
Venomous snakes evolved compounds that affect the biological processes of their prey. Studying the venom of the Brazilian pit viper helped researchers uncover fundamental aspects of how our bodies regulate blood pressure and inspired an entire class of blood pressure medication. Researchers are using other types of snake venom to explore other biological functions.
Learning how different vertebrates address the biological processes they share with people, such as homeostasis, oxygen transfer and muscle function, can inform what to look for in our own physiology and shed light on how we evolved. Isolated portions of snake kidneys, for example, are a common model to use to examine kidney function.
As important as our similarities can be, it is likewise valuable to understand what makes snakes unique. Understanding snakes’ strategies for surviving under conditions that would kill humans could inspire ways to help humans. Studying how water snakes deal with diving or garter snakes deal with freezing might hold keys to helping people in low-oxygen conditions or during a stroke or heart attack.
Similarly, pythons undergo many dramatic changes when they digest large meals. Some researchers hope studying these changes could better our understanding of diabetes, heart disease and gastric bypass surgery.
Studying snakes can also help snakes themselves. Snakes have sensory organs called the vomeronasal organ and the pit organ. The vomeronasal organ is an auxiliary sense of smell shared by many vertebrates—but not by humans—that helps detect prey. Similarly, the pit organ helps snakes sense prey. The pit organ has evolved twice in snakes and is what gives pit vipers their name.
Knowing how snakes interact with their environment and find food can inform conservation efforts and possibly even reduce risks of dangerous encounters between snakes and people.
So, this St. Patrick’s Day, spare a little thank you for those banished snakes!