Snake Diversity and Conservation Inside Coffee Forests
Readers are requested to refer to our previous articles for a better understanding of the present article.
Shade grown Indian coffee plantations provide the perfect natural habitat for a variety of snakes, both native and endangered. The floor of the coffee forest as well as the tall evergreen tree canopy is a fitting home for snakes of all kinds; venomous and non venomous. Luckily of the many varied species habiting the coffee forests only a handful of snake species are poisonous.
The topography of the coffee forest has always played an important part in the distribution of snakes. Temperature decreases with altitude and this cool temperature favors the multiplication of snakes. In short, snakes have always been an integral part of the coffee ecosystem. However, since the opening of more virgin lands in the build up of coffee farms, the relationship between the coffee farmers and reptiles has been uneasy. We hardly see any snakes die of old age. For some strange reason, snakes have been relentetlessly persecuted.
Thanks, to Modern science, Farmers are now aware of the vital role played by snakes in balancing the energy flows inside the coffee eco system. Due to greater awareness many coffee farmers have also become believers in wild life conservation.
Shade grown Indian coffee plantations are unique in many respects. The floor of the coffee forest is covered with vast amounts of biomass; all through the year due to the constant leaf shedding by a three tiered shade system that is unique to India. The thick mulch and the cool conditions prevailing inside the coffee mountain are ideal components for the presence of snakes. Snakes are cold blooded creatures and hence need to constantly regulate their body temperature. They do so by going through sun and shade.
Reptiles are generally a discarded lot. They continue to remain at a distance evoking awe and fear, more of the latter. Almost 3000 species of snakes crawl the earth. Snakes of India comprise of 275 species, included in ten families and 75 genera.
Snakes have an elongate body, roughly divided into head, body and a tapering region called the tail beyond the vent. The body is covered by scales which are imbricate in primitive snakes and form a distinctive mark in highly evolved snakes. Snake scales are made of keratin. The scales on the head are called shields. Snakes cast skin old skin often. They have eyes with a round or vertical pupil, but no eyelids. There is no external ear in snakes and the internal ear is primitive. The lower jaw is not a single bone, but is connected in front by an elastic ligament and is not properly articulated with the upper jaw. The tongue is bifid. The tongue gathers scent particles from the surrounding air and while the tongue is withdrawn, transfers them to a structure called Jacobsoní»s organ for perception. Teeth arte modified which form fangs.
A number of snakes give out some odoriferous secretions. A rat snake emits a fairly foul smell. A krait emits a black secretion. A large number of female snakes secrete glandular discharges. The males are attracted to these secretions.
During the long protracted period of feeding the snake is vulnerable for predation. Generally speaking, apart from man, reptiles have more to fear from their own kind. King Cobras are noted for feeding on other snakes. So also the branded krait.
Snakes inside the coffee forests have adapted to a range of environmental conditions. The skin colors and intricate patterns on the body match and blend with the coffee habitat. The same species may be dark colored in heavily textured soils and light in light textured soils. In higher altitudes they dawn protective colors, have matching body patterns with those of the surrounding environment and change their shape too. The body of the snake is often modified to suit its ecological conditions. Snakes depend on outside sources for their body heat. The burrowing snake shuns sunlight. These snakes are either blind or have very small eyes. The swimmers are characterized by the flattening of the tail. The arboreal snakes have an elongated tail and a supple body. The parrot green whip snake camouflages well with the green twigs. Ground snakes have various colorations to match the surrounding environment.
Shedding in snakes is a periodic process and differs according to the age and sex of the snake. It is more frequent in the summer months and less during the colder season. At the time of shedding the snakes loose a great deal of body liquids. The skin takes on a dull and lifeless appearance and its eyes cloud over. It loses its appetite. An oily secretion is rubbed between scales and skin, while the skin is cast off like a coat taken inside out. We have observed that most snakes shed their skins close to lakes, ponds and streams since they require water to soak themselves.
SNAKES and COFFEE FARMERS
Numerous temples and farm houses in and around coffee farms set aside a small piece of land for snake worship. In every likelihood the idea originated from the belief that destruction of rats and other harmful pests by snakes, keeps the balance of nature in favor of the coffee farmers.
COLOR: Snakes are considered to be color blind.
VISION: Some species of snakes like the cobra, tree snakes and rat snakes have excellent vision.
SMELL: The sense of smell is located in their nostrils and the snake tongue is engineered to pick up scents and odors in the atmosphere. The JACOBSON'S ORGAN located in the roof of the mouth is the primary site for the detection of odors.
TEMPERATURE: Different species of snakes are equipped with varied heat sensing Mechanisms. According to Romulus Whitaker (Leading Herpetologist) the heat sensitive PITS between the nostril and the eye in pit vipers can detect temperature change as slight as three thousands of a degree centigrade. He further states that PITS are very helpful in finding warm blooded rodents or birds or even a slightly warm frog or toad on a cool dark night. Pythons have similar infrared receptors along their upper lips.
All snakes are predatory in nature. The snake's flexible engineered jaw helps it to swallow a prey bigger than its head. After eating its prey, the digestion takes many days. Enzymes and digestive juices in the snake stomach digest the soft tissues. Some snakes swallow their prey by constriction, others are egg eaters. The coffee forests have a well balanced ecological pyramid. Hence the supply of food is in abundance. Snakes, depending on their diet eat frogs, lizards, smaller snakes, fish, insects, rats, chickens, small animals and birds.
MODE OF ATTACK
Evolution has programmed the snake to strike in different ways. Some poisonous snakes have deadly venom which can paralyze their prey; in some others the venom can simply kill the prey instantaneously. In smaller snakes, the toxic saliva can subdue the prey and in bigger snakes like the python the common method of killing the prey is by constriction, resulting in the suffocation of the prey. New born venomous snakes have fully developed fangs and venomous glands.
BREEDING: With respect to breeding snakes are classified into two categories; namely OVOVIVIPAROUS (Eggs develop internally) and one that give birth to young ones directly. More than 25% of Indian snakes are considered to be ovoviviparous.
MATING: Since the seasons inside the coffee mountain are fairly well differentiated, the snakes too have a well defined mating season. The females emit pheromones or scent trails which are easily picked up by the males.
Romulus Whitaker and Ashok Captain in their book Snakes of India (2004) report that the male has paired sex organs called the HEMIPENES. Each is referred to as hemipenis. During mating the male inserts one everted hemipenis into the females cloaca and copulation can last for hours. Gestation lasts between 30-50 days. The clutch of eggs or young ones vary from four to six in the case of smaller snakes to 40 or more in the case of a python or Russells viper. Eggs need high humidity and warm temperatures to develop.
VENOM & FANGS: Depending on the type of snake species, the type of venom and fangs too vary. Some have backward curved teeth, others have curved fangs and others have hinged fans. Teeth and fangs are replaced regularly during the growth cycle of the snake.
BIOCHEMISTRY OF VENOM
Venom is nothing but an extension of the saliva. The venom is a concentrate of a highly concentrated digestive juice. Venoms are good sources of enzymes. The toxic actions of venoms are attributed to proteolytic enzymes, phosphatidases and neurotoxins. Venom acts in two ways.
NEUROTOXIC: Acts on the nervous system, paralyzing muscles of the heart or breathing apparatus or both.
HAEMOTOXIC: Acts on the circulatory system, clotting blood cells and destroying capillary walls. Some snake venoms consist of both types.
The venom of Russells viper can be used as a haemostatic agent on account of its coagulating principle.
We have observed for the very first time THREE very RARE species of snakes. We have not identified the snakes based on the taxonomic approach but only on a visual basis.
COFFEE CORAL SNAKE
This snake is slender and long with alternate bands of brick red and black color. It is very agile. In our two decades of coffee field experience, we have observed this snake only twice; Once on the floor of the coffee forest and a second time on the coffee bush. Because it resembles the coral snake, we have named it as the COFFEE CORAL SNAKE.
HABITAT: Coffee habitat
DIET: Not observed.
PREY: Not observed.
SLENDER CORAL LIKE SNAKE
The snake has a small and slender body. It grows to a length of about one foot. The color is light metallic pink and faintly speckled. The underside is uniform pinkish red, bright scarlet at vent and the underside of the tail is bluish.
HABITAT: Scrub jungle, dried leaves and fallen trees.
DIET: NOT OBSERVED
PREY: NOT OBSERVED
SUN BEAM SNAKE
The snake appears highly iridescent. The head is flattened with very small eyes and a pointed tail. The scales beneath the body appear whitish.
HABITAT: Nocturnal & Found in valleys and paddy fields.
DIET: Not observed.
PREY: Not observed.
Published: December 2006, Last Modified: September 2011