This 'beauty' is just skin deep
Skin casting in snakes is a unique process and there are several theories around it. A white fluid that forms around the body is generally known to cause skin shedding.
They are worshipped and yet feared. Mythology and scriptures have elevated these reptiles to the exalted status of gods. They find place among the Hindu pantheon and continue to be worshipped fervently by the faithful. Showered with fruits, flowers and milk, they sometimes end up getting the rough end of the stick.
Snakes, however, continue to attract a lot of attention. Their venom can be deadly and yet it is this same `toxin' that goes into making antidotes for snakebites.
However, few know that not all snakes are poisonous. There are about 1,500 species of snakes of which only 64 are poisonous. "In Tamil Nadu, there are about 62 species of snakes and only four species are venomous," says G.M. Natarajan, professor, Department of Zoology, Government Arts College, Coimbatore.
Only the cobra, kraite, viper and echiscarinata species of snakes that are found in the State are poisonous, he says.
Interestingly snakes are the only species among the invertebrates that are known to shed skin regularly. All species of snakes, including water snakes, shed their skin.
A study taken by Natarajan and other research scholars in Madukkarai and Pattanam areas provide some interesting insight into this phenomenon. "Before skin shedding, the colour of the skin turns white. An oily secretion is formed between the scales and the skin. Later the snake sheds the skin," he observes.
If the snake does not shed skin on a regular basis it becomes ill. The time taken to release the skin varies from 15 to 30 minutes. "It is a painful process. In most snakes, skin shedding normally takes 30 days. But, skin casting varies from species to species."
A newly born Russell viper sheds its skin in just two days. The second shedding takes place in seven days and the third in 21 days.
Skin shedding is a continuous process in a snake's life. The skin or exuvia formed on the scales are shed periodically.
"Snakes generally prefer to shed their skin during a new moon day. But no particular reason is attributed for this." So why do snakes shed their skin? "A white oil-like substance accumulates around the body including the eyes and head.
This impedes vision and as a result they develop uneasiness. Soon, they start casting their skin. Snakes go blind and lose their hearing abilities on new moon day. The fluid that runs around its body makes them immobile. It is a puzzling phenomenon and further research will shed light about the entire process," he says.
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