Archive for March, 2013

Incredible as it may sound, Easter is nearly upon us. And whilst the Easter Bunny is probably, right now, simply a frozen lump of flesh surrounded by glove making material, we should still think about Easter; and reflect upon the nature of Faith.

Faith can be many things to many people. It can make a man spend his entire life helping the poor in some third world country, having not a care for his own wellbeing. Equally, it can make a man shoot a girl in the head for trying to get an education. It can make a woman stand up for justice for all, or make that woman walk onto a bus with a vest made of fertiliser, bleach and nails. Truly, the nature of Faith is manifold.

It can also make someone let a deadly venomous reptile crawl around on them, due to a distressingly literal interpretation of Mark 16-17 in the Bible, which is almost certainly meant to be interpreted metaphorically. Briefly, it says that the faithful  shall have the power to pick up snakes as well as drink poison without them being harmed. Whilst  most people would be content to take this on trust (it is the *Word of God*, after all) the Church of God with Signs Following have snake (usually rattlesnakes or copperheads, but sometimes even cobras are used)  handling as a key part of the service. If one is truly faithful, the argument goes, then the snakes will not harm the crazy people twirling them around. Whilst it is kind of beyond this blog’s remit to comment on theological matters, it should be noted that over sixty people have been killed, by snakebite, during these religious rites; although on the advice of our lawyers (these people are, somewhat unsurprisingly, mostly Americans (sorry American readers. Ed.))  we would like to stress that we have no evidence these bites occurred during the actual snake handling process. Maybe their churches are just really snake infested, or something. Another feature of these churches is that they usually prohibit alcohol, which is odd as the only possible way this ‘religion’ could have evolved is through some kind of drunken bet between rival groups of evangelicals.

However, although using rattlesnakes in Church services is, admittedly, a bit mad, it could be considerably more insane. One way to do this would be to use Black Mambas (Dendroaspis polylepis) in their Church services. This approach would have both advantages and disadvantages; the advantages being that Church services would be considerably shorter  and the disadvantages being that everyone would be killed.

The Westboro Baptist Church also base their entire belief system around a single Biblical verse; although a much less awesome one. Sadly, they have not yet taken up my suggestion of Black Mamba handling to test their faith.

Black Mambas are found all over sub-Saharan Africa, although there is considerable uncertainty about their exact range. This is slightly worrying, given what sort of snake the Black Mamba is, but still, according to Wikipedia, there is an area considerably larger than Western Europe where Black Mambas may or may not occur. Whilst we understand that scientists have many priorities, we cannot help but feel that finding out exactly which areas of Africa are infested with which lethally venomous snakes is fairly important.

Orange areas represent those places where Black Mambas are definitely present, green ares where they might be present. To be completely safe, avoid all grey, orange and green areas. White areas may contain sea-snakes, sharks and jellyfish. (Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Another interesting fact about the Black Mamba is that it is not so named for its skin (which starts off a light brown and gets darker with age) but rather for its mouth, which is apparently black. I stress the word ‘apparently’ here because there is literally no way I am going near enough a Black Mamba to check what colour its mouth is.

Black Mambas are well renowned for being the fastest snake on the planet; sometimes clocking in at around 20 kilometres per hour (Maina 1989) although it appears that in reality they don’t chase down and kill anyone they see. However, they are known for being very defensive of their homes (Haagner and Morgan 1993) and can be very aggressive if disturbed (http://www.zoocheck.com/Reportpdfs/Venomous%20snakes.pdf); and has a possibly deserved reputation for unprovoked attacks. This is not generally something one wants to hear about a venomous animal. Really, only “lives in beds” or “can take the form of a family member” could really be worse.

Although it looks as though it is smiling, this is actually the snakes defense posture. For some reason, the picture can’t be downsized, so scroll along to enjoy! (Picture credit: Wikimedia Commons).

The Black Mamba’s attack pattern consists of several very rapid strikes and bites; meaning it can defend itself against a group of predators or hunters.  Its estimated that each bite delivers around 100-120mg of venom (although in some cases 400mg has been measured); which is a good definition of the word ‘overkill’, since it takes only a tenth of this to kill an adult male (http://www.hikinginfo.co.za/DOCS/Snake%20Guide.pdf ); indeed before the discovery of antivenom a bite from a Black Mamba pretty much meant it was a good time to pick out a headstone. Assuming you were bitten in a gravestone shop, of course, because death almost always occurs less than  a few hours after biting.

The venom contains a whole cocktail of toxins. Dendrotoxins block potassium channels in the synapses (places where nerves join together) which promotes over-release of the neurotransmitter (a chemical which ‘transmits’ a nerve impulse) acetylcholine. This results in repetitive and spasmodic muscle movements (Harvey et al 2001). The venom also contains calcispetine, which relaxes smooth muscle tissue; leading to heart attack (Weille et al 1991). A person bitten by a Black Mamba will experience dizziness, difficulty breathing, severe abdominal pain, vomiting, nausea, loss of muscular control and, bizarrely enough, excessive drooling. Fortunately, the venom also contains a painkiller similar to morphine (Diochot et al 2012); although why the Black Mamba produces this is something of a mystery. Perhaps, deep in its black heart, the snake hopes that you will go out on a literal high, as painlessly as possible.

Nah (Picture from Wikimedia Commons – note the darkness of the inside mouth)