Skip to main content
Spring 2012
Print Bookmark and Share

Around the Quad

No Wonder We Fear Snakes

Credit: J. Headland

Agta tribesmen in the Phillipines shot this 22ft-long python.

Have the urge to flee when you see a snake? A new study by Cornell herpetologist Harry Greene indicates this may be a well-grounded response based on the long and complex evolutionary history between snakes and primates. The study, conducted with Thomas Headland, an anthropologist at the Summer Institute of Linguistics (SIL) International in Dallas, provided proof that humans and large snakes such as pythons are each other’s prey, predator, and competitor. Modern hunter-gatherers in the Philippines and rural Asians who share the jungle hunting grounds with huge reticulated pythons (Python reticulatus)—capable of growing to 28 feet in length—provided evidence that the snakes actively attack and eat humans, including ambushes on land and in water, as well as foraging in human dwellings for a meal. More than a quarter of Agta Negritos men in the Philippines reported surviving a python attack. However, the Agtas also routinely ate pythons as well as deer, wild pigs, and monkeys, which the pythons also ate. Furthermore, natural history observations from all over the world show that each major lineage of primates, including lemurs, tarsiers, and Old and New World monkeys, eats and is eaten by snakes, implying similar complex relationships date back more than 70 million years, to the origin of primates.