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No. 96: Nov-Dec 1994

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Electric Snakes

We have already written about electric fish and how they employ electrical fields to create an "image" of their environment. (SF#89) Snakes, too, it seems, possess an electrostatic sense.

Experimental setup for demonstrating the electrostatic-generating capabilities of rattlesnake rattles
The experimental setup for demonstrating the electrostatic-generating capabilities of rattlesnake rattles.
Snakes were not blessed with the voltage-generating organs of electric fish, but the simple act of slithering along the ground can generate potentials of 100-1,000 volts. In fact, their dry skin seems adapted to generating and retaining electrical charge. Even more curious, laboratory experiments with snake rattles demonstrate that they can generate 75-100 volts when shaken!

What is the electrostatic payoff for snakes in their search for prey? It is hard to say. Who has followed hungry snakes around checking on their electric fields? A clue may lie in the ways snakes use their forked tongues in hunting. When following a chemical trail, snakes usually touch surfaces with their flicking tongues. In general exploration, when chemical trails are absent, snakes seem to wave their tongues up and down in a distinctive manner, avoiding surfaces. Herpetologists usually ascribe this action to chemical "sniffing." However, W.T. Vonstille and W.T. Stille, III, venture a different explanation:

"The fact that moist air is conductive for the electric charges that exist on the Earth's surface could be very important to a snake's survival. The airborne plumes of moisture exhaled by animals and flowing out from under cover are invaded by static charges from the Earth and could be detected by snakes."

(Vonstille, W.T., and Stille, W.T., III; "Electrostatic Sense in Rattlesnakes," Nature, 370:184, 1994.)

From Science Frontiers #96, NOV-DEC 1994. 1994-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987