Myths and Folklore


What Is a Reptile? | Myths and Folklore | Benefits of Reptiles | Threats to Reptiles | Glossary | Scutellation | References


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If a [insert name of reptile here; usually a turtle of some sort] bites you, it won't let go until it thunders.  I don't know how this myth got started, but I've heard it several times.  Perhaps it alludes to some reptiles' tenacity when they bite.  Some reptiles let go immediately to effect a timely escape; others seem to hold on until you pry them off!


Mountain BoomersThis local name for collared lizards stems from the pioneer days when travelers across the Great Plains would hear a noise and look around, only to see a lizard perched atop a nearby rock outcrop.  Collared lizards make no such sound (although they can hiss).  Some people falsely believe they are poisonous and can sting with their tails (neither of which is true).


Snakes are poisonous.  Some snakes are poisonous.  Nope! This is more a misuse of terminology than a myth.  No snake is poisonous.  Some snakes are VENOMOUS.  The term "poisonous" refers to something which, if ingested, can have ill effects (like some kinds of mushroom, or fugu).  The term "venomous" means the toxic material must enter your body against your will (e.g. a snakebite or a bee sting).  People can, and do, eat snakes--even venomous ones, without harm.  It is even possible to eat the venom, as long as you have no open sores in your mouth (but I wouldn't try it, just to be on the safe side!).

Of the approximately 128 species of snakes found in North America, only 21 species are venomous, and very few people die of snakebite in the US.  For the most part, if you can get to a hospital within a few hours of the bite, your chances of survival are greater than 99%.


HoopsnakesSome people claim that certain kinds of snakes will take their tail into their mouth, forming a hoop with their bodies, in order to roll down hills (and after people).  Not true.


Snakes with a "poison stinger" in their tail.  Some snakes' tails terminate in a sharp tip, and some of these snakes may even attempt to thrust this spike into a would-be captor's hand, but there is no associated venom.


Rattlesnake eggs.  Popular at roadside gift shops are small envelopes marked "rattlesnake eggs."  They contain a device which causes a rattling sound when the envelope is opened, frightening the prankster's victim.  The only problem is that rattlesnakes give birth to live baby rattlesnakes--they don't lay eggs!


Milksnakes can milk cows.  Milksnakes are often found near barns, but not because they're after milk.  They are attracted to the rodents which barns invariably house.  Having milksnakes and other constrictors around is beneficial in keeping the mouse and rat populations in check.


Old Rip.  The story of a horned lizard who survived 31 years sealed up in the cornerstone of a Texas courthouse.  Click here for more information.


Snakes hypnotize their preyThis myth may originate from the fact that snakes have no eyelids in the traditional sense; therefore they're always "staring."  A prey animal may not be observed to move away from a snake, thereby suggesting some sort of power the snake has over the animal, but in reality it may just be that the animal hasn't seen the snake (a hunting snake moves slowly and deliberately, and its coloration helps it to blend in with its surroundings).


Snake doctors.  Dragonflies are sometimes called "snake doctors" due to the belief they can heal injured snakes.


An injured snake will not die until sundown.  This belief may stem from the fact that a "clinically dead" snake will often still exhibit movement for many hours after it's killed (a decapitated snake's head will still extend its tongue and even open its mouth; I've personally witnessed this).  The person killing the snake gives up on watching the snake and goes to bed; upon return the next morning the snake is no longer moving.  Therefore, in the person's estimation, the snake "officially" died at sundown.


Hanging a rattlesnake with its belly to the sun will cause it to rain.  I'm not sure how this one got started, other than someone happened to hang a dead snake in this fashion, and it rained later that day.  Consequence does not necessarily mean causality!


Horsehairs thrown into rainwater will turn into snakes.  Again, I'm not sure how this myth started.


If you kill a copperhead, its mate will attempt to avenge its death.  Snakes generally don't associate with other snakes except in communal hibernation areas, and they don't have the mental capacity to avenge deaths.


Coachwhips use their long tails to whip people.  No.  Coachwhips are likely so named because they physically resemble a braided leather whip (long, skinny, and the coloration gives the snake a "braided" look).  After the common name was established, later generations probably started attributing the snake with the qualities of its namesake.


Joint snakes break into pieces and reassemble themselves after the danger has passed.  First of all, there's no such thing as a "joint snake."  This is an erroneous name for legless lizards, which resemble snakes but can be distinguished by the presence of eyelids and ear openings, both of which snakes lack.  Legless lizards are also called "glass lizards" because their tail is easily detachable (hinting at the fragile nature of glass) as a defense mechanism.  The tail cannot reattach; however, the lizard can regenerate a new tail, which will not be as long or pretty as the original.


Rattlesnakes live peacefully with prairie dogs in prairie dog towns.  While it's true that rattlesnakes will often seek shelter in the burrows, the prairie dogs are a food source.


Horsehair ropes repel snakes.  Cowboys used to think if they slept with surrounded by such a rope, it would keep rattlesnakes away.


Snakes travel in pairs.  This rumor probably started by observations of courtship and mating behavior in snakes.  Males will often follow females around during mating season.


Snakes' tongues can sting.  False.  Their tongues, like ours, are sensory organs.  Snakes flick their tongues to sample the air for odors such as the scent of prey.


Snakes will swallow their young to protect them.  No snake does this, as it would kill the babies.  It is likely this myth arose from observing kingsnakes or other snakes eating smaller snakes (for sustenance, not for the smaller snake's protection).


Snakes are slimy.  I highly encourage people to touch one for themselves and find out.  Or, if you're afraid of snakes, touch a snakeskin boot--it feels the same.  Snakes are not slimy.


[Rattlesnakes, copperheads, etc] mate with nonvenomous snakes and produce dangerous offspring.  This is a scientific impossibility.  It may stem from snakes which resemble venomous snakes (and act mean), such as water snakes and rat snakes.


Salmonella hazards. This is actually a fact, but one blown well out of proportion (to "mythical" proportion, if you will).  In the 1970s, young red-ear sliders were popular pets.  Many parents bought them for their children, and let them do things like take baths with them in the water, put the turtles in their mouths, etc.  As a result, the children developed salmonella poisoning.  Laws were enacted prohibiting the sale of turtles under 4 inches in length (except for scientific and educational purposes, and the turtles can still easily be purchased today via this loophole).  This caused an initial decrease in reptile-associated salmonella poisoning, but the number of cases today is increasing (due to increasing popularity of other reptiles as pets).  The antidote is to assume every reptile is a carrier of salmonella, and practice proper hygiene.  Treat a reptile like you'd treat raw chicken--don't let it touch a food preparation/eating surface, and wash your hands when you're through handling it.