Snake Eyes

A scientist wonders what the inscrutable snake has to teach us

One of Greene's experiments in snake intelligence tested whether baby hognose snakes' responses to a threat might change if the snakes thought the situation had changed. Animal intelligence researchers think an animal demonstrates consciousness and awareness if it finds solutions to changing and unforeseen problems.

Surprisingly, the little snakes feigned death only when they thought a "predator" (a stuffed owl) was watching them. "It's incredible," says Greene. "Their tongue hangs out on the dirt, they even shit on themselves."

But when the owl was turned to face away from the snakes, they immediately flipped over and began crawling away, only to repeat the whole performance when the researchers turned the owl around again. Obviously, the snakes were adapting their behavior to the changing situation.

To get to UC Berkeley's snake rooms, you pass through two heavy sets of locked doors, as required by state regulations for the control of hazardous materials. Most of the glass tanks inside bear cards stamped with the word "venomous" in block capitals. There is a buzzing noise, as though a ballast in one of the overhead fluorescent lights is malfunctioning.

"Hear them rattling?" asks Greene. "That's these guys down here." He lifts the lid off a tank and the sound becomes much louder. This is his favorite snake -- a 3-foot-long female western rattlesnake he collected years ago in Lassen Park. Coiled into heavy loops, she rattles threateningly, but Greene says she's actually mild-mannered. Using his hooked aluminum snake-handling stick, he lifts her gently out onto the floor.

The snake hesitates a moment. Greene offers her a clear plexiglass tube, a tool herpetologists use to study venomous snakes without danger of being bitten. After a second or two, the rattlesnake glides obligingly into it, and he lifts her again, her head and front third of her body now encased in the tube.

The snake watches the humans, her black eyes glittering. What is she feeling? What is she thinking?

Greene observes her fondly. "As for the snakes themselves, we still can't say what it's like to actually be a blacktailed rattle-snake ...," he writes at the conclusion of his book. "I must go farther and closer.

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