The Secret Life of Slithery Snakes Featured in Colorado State University Virtual Anatomy

Snake enthusiasts, students and veterinarians with a love for things that slither can learn just about everything about snakes through the “Virtual Veterinary Anatomy of the Snake,” a program developed by Colorado State University veterinarians and veterinary medicine students. The virtual anatomy CD is educational, detailed and visual, covering skeletal, nervous, reproductive and digestive systems of snakes.

The leader of the project, Sandra Pitcaithley, is an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Sciences. She said the project started when she began preparing for a new course for veterinary students at CSU about exotic animal anatomy and found that very little information in a laboratory format existed about snakes.

“The anatomy of a snake is fascinating. Unlike any other creature, all of its internal organs are aligned in a long row,” Pitcaithley said. “You can start at the mouth and go right straight back looking at one organ after another. And they have fascinating anatomical modifications that allow them to eat prey that are so much larger than they are.”

The program covers anatomy, unique behaviors, clinical procedures and species identification. Pitcaithley said that the program is aimed to help students, veterinarians, snake owners and breeders better understand an often misunderstood creature.

“Snakes should never be a spur-of-the-moment purchase,” Pitcaithley said. “Owners must know and provide very specific care such as the right environment, temperature, humidity, cage, food and nutrients, feeding schedule – which can vary by season.”

“Anatomy of a Snake” is packed full of fascinating facts about this reptile, their diets and habitat, including:

– Snakes flick their tongue to smell their surroundings by carrying scents back on the tongue into their mouths and depositing the scents into a pit in the roof of their mouth.

– Snakes don’t have ears, but they hear through vibrations passed from the ground or through the air into their bodies.

– Snakes have superpower vision; they can see in infrared. During daytime hours, the vision of their prey is superimposed with infrared information, and they can sense changes in heat as infinitesimal as 0.003 degree Celsius.

– Snakes store fat in pads, or globules of fat, to get them through difficult times.

– Snakes generally have one lung and a heart with three chambers. Their esophagus is longer than any other reptile’s and they have between 160 and 400 vertebrae.

– All snakes are carnivores. Depending upon their habitat, size and species, they will eat snails and slugs, earthworms, ants, termites, spiders, fish, lizards and other snakes, birds, eggs and many different kinds of mammals.

The project included students and employees at Colorado State University including veterinarians Drs. Sandra Pitcaithley, Terry Campbell and Ray Whalen; veterinary students Zach Freeman, Zach Whitman, Rachel Emerson and Allison Kean.

Computer programmers were Devin Whalen and Andrea Linton. The project was partially funded by the John H. Venable Memorial Scholarship.

Dissected snakes featured in the CD were donated by their owners after they died of natural causes or illness.