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The scale of things.

Few animals evoke such strong emotions in humans as snakes. They are loathed, feared, admired, or worshipped the world over. Moving gracefully without limbs, swallowing meals often several times larger than their own heads, and with many having venomous bites, they never fail to fascinate. There are about 2,930 species of snakes inhabiting almost every part of the globe. Only in the coldest regions and on some islands (notably Ireland and New Zealand) are there none at all. They specialise in living in a range of different environments. Some are adapted for life in water and never venture onto dry land, while others are found only in the highest tree tops of rainforests, or spend much of their lives burrowing underground in dry, sandy deserts. In his new book called Snakes, Peter Stafford looks at the varied and complex ways in which individual species live. He believes that this group of animals should be valued and admired rather than feared

The enlarged fangs of the false pit viper (Waglerophis merremi) can be seen in the rear of its mouth

The African egg-eating snake (Dasypeltis scabra) feeds exclusively on birds' eggs and has special structures for dealing with their smooth, hard shells. A one-metre long snake with a head no wider than a large fingernail is capable of consuming an average-sized chicken's egg. The crushed empty shell is regurgitated

As this South American new-born emerald tree boa (Corallus canina) matures, its colouring will gradually change to bright green. This snake has greatly enlarged anterior teeth. It rests in trees looping its body over a horizontal branch

Under natural conditions snakes feed more or less exclusively on living prey. This spotted python (Antaresia maculosus) is constricting a rat. Coils thrown around the body of the victim prevent it from inhaling. Pythons are mostly `ambush hunters' that lunge at passing animals from a hiding place

The red spitting cobra (Naja pallida) from northeastern Africa. Perhaps no other venomous snakes are more instantly recognisable than the cobras with their ability -- normally when threatened -- to spread the skins of their necks into a flattened `hood'. Several species of cobra also defend themselves by squirting venom. Their fangs have an orifice on the anterior surface, rather than at the tip, through which venom is forced at high pressure and directed at an enemy in a well-aimed stream. The larger species of cobra can spit up to three metres. Should their hooded threat posture or `spitting' fail to deter an adversary, some cobra species will, if molested, resort to feigning death

A naturally-occurring colour mutation of the Mexican parrot snake (Leptophis mexicanus) from the Turneffe Islands, Belize. Typical examples are bright green with a bronze stripe

A juvenile green tree python found in Australia and New Guinea. Like the emerald tree boa of South America, this tree dweller will assume the colour of its name as it reaches maturity

The false coral pipe snake (Anilius scytale), found in Amazonian South America, feeds on other snakes, lizards and infant rodents. Although mostly a burrowing snake, it is also commonly found in water

From Mediterranean Europe, the leopard snake (Elaphe situla), is a colourful rat snake that lives in olive groves, woods and rocky hillsides. It feeds on lizards and small mammals

An adult, South American emerald tree boa (Corallus canina). Tree boas are nocturnal snakes that use both active and ambush hunting methods to catch their prey

Peter Stafford, author of Snakes, with an two-and-a-half metre-long adult female boa constrictor in the upper Raspaculo river in Belize

Geographical has three sets of the Natural History Museum's Life Series (Oceans, Lichens and Snakes) to give away. Send a postcard to the usual editorial address marked `Snakes' to arrive by 1 March
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Title Annotation:Peter Stafford's new book, Snakes
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Feb 1, 2001
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