Thursday, January 13, 2011

Creature Feature: Black Mamba.

Is there any creature with a more exaggerated Hollywood reputation than snakes? (OK, maybe sharks.) Snakes do not bite people because they are the servants of some evil mastermind; they bite people because the humans are being idiots. Real snakes do not make good Hollywood monsters. Bar the speed in a strike, most snakes are not very fast at all.

Oh, except this one.

Now, without looking at the title of this entry, what would you call the snake above? "Get it the fuck away from me" is not going to please scientists. They decided to call it Dendroaspis polylepis (many-scaled tree asp) instead of something that really encapsulates how dangerous the black mamba is

That dull-looking snake is the infamous black mamba. It is not some massive, black snake with four-inch long fangs that could run through a guy's hand. It is a long (2.5 meter/8.2 foot), slender elapid with a pitch black mouth. It is native to East Africa.

The black mamba is the fastest land snake in the world, capable of moving at speeds of up to 16-20 km/h (or 10-12 mph). Whaddya mean that's not fast? It's fast for something that has much of its body  length on the ground most of the time, and probably faster than you. The black mamba is as fast as snakes get.

(No wonder Kenyans have a speed record.)

Even this lethal work of nature will not behave like the Seviper genetically-engineered bastards in Anaconda 3. The black mamba uses its speed to get away from humans, not maliciously bite them in the ankle. It gives plenty of warning signs, like the opening of its "your death is near" mouth, before striking. That mouth is enough to send large mammals scattering.

Do not try to be a hero in front of the mamba. This snake's venom contains a poison cocktail so strong that it can kill a human with just two drops. It even has its own name - dendrotoxin - because it is unique to Dendroaspis mambas and attacks muscle neurons directly. If you are bitten, seek medical help immediately. Do not suck the venom out; doing so will earn you a Darwin Award for pissing off the wrong snake.  (Plus, sucking venom out is STUPID.)

The black mamba has all the potential for a good movie monster - fast land speed, deadly venom, length, and a scary black mouth -   but nine times out of ten (i.e. if the director is sane), another, less deadly snake is used instead. The Papuan Olive Python (Apodora papuana) usually serves as the mamba's stunt double; even though it is from a different part of the world entirely and is nonvenomous, it has similar coloration to the black mamba down to the mouth. This was the snake used in Indiana Jones: Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, even though neither mambas nor pythons really fit the setting.

There are about a million things wrong with this picture, including "Peru does not have pythons" and "boas are very easy to come by."

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