Even if they aren’t the cliché pet every kid is begging for in movies and TV shows, reptiles and amphibians can be both fun and educational pets for children – everything from lizards to frogs to, of course, snakes. Unlike dogs and house cats, snakes still live in the wild, and as such offer an easy and fun window into learning about everything from climate change and native biodiversity to how sound travels.
1. Snakes can’t regulate their own body temperature. Snakes, like most reptiles, are cold-blooded, which means that, unlike humans, their internal temperature is controlled by their environment, not their bodies. Where humans shiver and go numb, snakes climb onto sunny rocks to warm up; when humans might start sweating, snakes crawl into a shady place. For pet owners, this means keeping a close eye on the temperature and furniture in a snake’s tank; for kids, this can be a window into learning about physiology and anatomy –their own and the snake’s–the physics of temperature transfer, and even discussing how climate change can affect wildlife.
2. Snakes can be both predators and prey animals. As much as snakes evoke a visceral fear reaction in many people, most snakes are not dangerous to humans. Instead, they’re more likely to be a threat to rodents and other small animals, and in the world of eat or be eaten, many snakes, especially the small garden snakes that kids are most likely to see in their backyards, end up as the latter, turned into dinner by a hawk or a fox. Those with pet snakes can watch this process in action if they feed their animal live insects or mice (though this isn’t usually recommended). The question of what and how snakes eat and/or are eaten by can be a great opportunity to talk about the food chain, nutrition, biodiversity, ecological balance, and the cycle of life and death in the natural world.
3. Pet snakes can be a major problem for the environment. Obviously, the most famous example of this is the well-publicized case of Burmese pythons in the Everglades, but pet reptiles released into the wild when their owners didn’t or couldn’t care for them anymore have become a persistent ecological problem across the country. If the temperatures and food sources are similar enough in their new environment to their natural one, the former pets can establish themselves as an invasive species and become a serious threat to the natural biodiversity of the region. Invasive species touch on a number of important issues, including biodiversity, human impact on the environment, food chains and natural balance, and even animal cruelty and the problem of pet abandonment.
4. Snakes don’t have eardrums and don’t “hear” sounds the way humans can. Instead, snakes’ “ears” are bone structures attached to their jaws, which then sense vibrations through the ground. This is one reason snakes can be so difficult to find in the wild (or easy to avoid, depending on how you look at it); they usually feel the vibrations made by human footsteps and clear the area. Whether snakes can “hear” at all, in the sense of recognizing sound waves and vibrations travelling through the air, is in fact still up for debate, though some research suggests they can. Snakes might also have other sensory organs science hasn’t fully identified yet that control how they experience sound. All of this could be a window for teaching kids about how their own ears work and how sound travels.
5. Snakes shed their skin regularly to grow and repair damage. Like most reptiles, snakes periodically grow a new skin and shed their old one, in one (rather dramatic) piece. Pet owners can tell when their snake is “in blue” – about to shed – because their eyes go milky as new skin grows over them. The snake will then find a hard surface on which to break open and rub off the old skin to make way for the new one. Most snakes only do this every year or two, as a way to get rid of parasites and heal old wounds. Kids can use this process to learn about their own growth and development and the ways in which bodies respond to injury and damage over time.
6. There are over 3,000 species of snakes in the world. People who only know about cobras, vipers, rattlers, and pythons are often shocked at the many, many different kinds of snakes that can be found on every continent except Antarctica. This includes 600 venomous species, only about a third of which are genuinely dangerous to humans. All of this diversity leads to a wide variety of habitats, appearances, behaviours, and adaptations, all of which can be used to teach about biodiversity, natural selection and evolution, environmental adaptation, and different ecosystems around the world.
Snakes are some of the oldest, strangest, most fascinating creatures on the planet, and they have an element of danger that often captures kids’ attention and imagination – attention and imagination that can then be turned to learning all about the world.
If you want to know more about these fascinating creatures then here’s a good place to start.