The word “Connotation” is defined as ‘an idea or feeling which a word invokes for a person in addition to its literal or primary meaning’. The idea that the word ‘Wolf’ invokes is often one of a ferocious or voracious person or thing. That’s largely thanks to misguided platitudes such as “Wolfing down one’s food” or “To throw someone to the wolves” or “A wolf in sheep’s clothing”. In reality, wolves (Canis lupus) are incredible animals, and their fierce reputation omits more than it encompasses. They display many noble qualities including loyalty, family, teamwork, protection and playfulness that we humans could learn a thing or two from. But this article is not about wolves. It is about a creature that belongs to a group of animals that are even more discriminated against: Snakes. And our subject is the Flowery Wolf Snake (Lycodon fasciolatus).
If ‘Wolf’ has such frightening connotations attached to it, one can imagine what visions ‘Wolf Snake’ conjures up. The truth, however, could not be more different. It is almost as if, prefixing ‘Flowery’ is an attempt at softening the proverbial blow. The title of Wolf Snake comes from the fact that their front (maxillary and mandibular) teeth are quite large and reminiscent of the fang-like canines of a wolf. The word Lycodon, the genus to which these snakes belong to, originates from the Greek words ‘Lycos’ meaning wolf and ‘odon’ meaning tooth. In Sinhala, these snakes are called “රදනකයා”, once again, in reference to their large front teeth.
Wolf snakes are a completely non-venomous genus of snakes within the Colubridae family. The Flowery Wolf Snake, endemic to Sri Lanka and Peninsular India, is one of several species in this genus. It is also one of the most common, and not just amongst wolf snakes, but amongst snakes in general. So common are they throughout Sri Lanka that they have even been found snuggled amongst the paraphernalia of a handbag.
Flowery wolf snakes are small snakes, maxing out at lengths of around 50cm. They have a slim, cylindrical body with a pear-shaped head that is distinctly separated from the neck. Their brown dorsum often has cream coloured patches complete with a dark brown outline that, at a glance look like flowers, hence the name. However, there are specimens with no dorsal markings at all, with simply a uniform brown-coloured dorsum. The easiest way to identify a flowery wolf snake is by the brown spots within the cream coloured scales of their upper lip (supralabials). Pitch black eyes, complete the look.
Flowery wolf snakes, like all wolf snakes, are predominantly nocturnal, preferring to spend the daytime snoozing in dark places such as under leaf litter, in wall or rock crevices or beneath various pileups like the clay tiles you took off the roof and stacked in your garden, because they threatened to slide off and bash an unwary victim square on the noggin. They have even been found inside shoes left out to dry. You would think after having spent the day inside someone’s smelly sneaker, they wouldn’t have much of an appetite. You would be wrong. They are an accomplished, active predator of geckoes (primarily Hemidactylus spp. in Sri Lanka) and skinks. A real go-getter.
Sri Lanka’s four species of wolf snakes, and their close relatives the bridal snakes (two species of Dryocalamus) tend to adopt what is known as Batesian Mimicry. Batesian Mimicry is when a non-harmful species attempts to mimic the physical appearance of a species that it shares its habitat with, that poses a greater danger to potential predators. In this case, the species being mimicked are the highly venomous kraits (Bungarus caeruleus and Bungarus ceylonensis).
However, there are a couple of ways of distinguishing between the mimics and the mimicked. Putting colour patterns aside, since they are the source of the confusion in the first place, the best way of identifying wolves in krait’s clothing, are by looking at the vertebral scales (the scales that run along the spine) of the snake. A krait has very large, almost perfect hexagonal ones, while those of wolf snakes are not very different from the rest of its costal scales (also called dorsal scales, these scales cover the snake’s dorsum). On top of this, a wolf snake’s head is clearly separated from its body, while that of a krait is not. Also, don’t forget, as mentioned before, the brown spots on the flowery wolf snake’s upper lip are unique to it. But it is very important to remember, that these identifiers are specific to recognizing wolf snakes and bridal snakes from kraits. They should not be used to distinguish between other species.
Even though the krait-mimicry by our flowery wolf snake is less than perfect compared to its congeners and the bridal snakes (A for effort), at a glance, it is possible to confuse the two. This confusion is great when it comes to escaping natural predators, but it’s literally a curse in disguise when it comes to dealing with humans.
Being a common serpent has the fairly significant drawback of frequently coming snout-to-face with people. Add to this the fact they look like another, well-known, highly venomous snake and the result is an interaction that rarely ends well for the flowery wolf snake. When threatened, the flowery wolf snake’s first reaction is to flee. If cornered, they roll into a ball and hide their head within their coils, sort of like a scaly pretzel. Very rarely will they attempt to bite, and only if excessively provoked. And even then, being a small, completely non-venomous snake, the damage they can inflict on a person is miniscule. Stubbing your toe against a dining room chair and waking up the dead as you attempt to navigate the dangers of your kitchen in the dark, will cause more pain and damage to both your toe and your hopes of being a ninja. Aside from people and their carrot-and-stick (without the carrot) approach to dealing with snakes including the harmless flowery wolf snake, another major non-natural threat to these creatures and urban wildlife as a whole, are cats, both pets and feral.
Cats (Felis catus) have been domesticated for thousands of years. However, they have retained the keen predatory instincts of their wild ancestors, allowing them to be excellent hunters of small prey including rodents, birds and small reptiles. Feral cats refer to those domesticated cats that now live outdoors as a result of straying, being abandoned or being born feral. Feral cats generally avoid human contact and depend almost exclusively on small animals and birds for food, which is devastating for local wildlife. Imagine Alien vs Predator, but the cat version, and instead of Alien versus Predator, it was just one Alien Predator. That is literally the situation with feral cats. In fact, the Global Invasive Species Database lists Felis catus as the 38th worst invasive alien species on Earth.
Although many of us may not know it, or sometimes through our fear may not be inclined to pay attention to it, snakes are a critical part of their natural ecosystems, providing several key ecosystem services. They help maintain the predator-prey balance by keeping prey populations in check as predators, while they themselves are sources of food for a variety of other species. Rodents which are carriers of various zoonotic diseases and also pose a severe threat to food crops are the favoured prey of many snakes. Therefore, by controlling their populations, snakes are directly responsible for reducing the burden on our healthcare and agricultural systems. Snake venom contributes to life saving drugs, including anti-venom, as well as furthering our understanding of our own anatomy. We know very little about snake venom, and therefore, the unknown medical potential of it remains enormous. Snakes also play the part of ecosystem engineers through secondary seed dispersal. Their prey includes animals that consume seeds, and when snakes excrete, they expel the undigested seeds along with their excreta, thus enabling the growth and spread of floral species. Likewise, the flowery wolf snake is also key part of its natural ecosystem providing crucial services such as maintaining the predator-prey balance. Considering how little we know about snakes in general, there could very well be other key functions they serve that we know nothing about.
If we do not learn to live and let live those that we share space with, then beautiful creatures like the flowery wolf snake will disappear for good, causing untold and irreversible damage to the ecosystems around us, notwithstanding detrimental effects to our own processes and systems. As Baba Dioum said in 1968, “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught”. So, to safeguard our natural environment and all those that call it home, including our flowery wolf snakes, let’s educate ourselves and educate others and while we are at it, let’s also remember to keep our cats inside.