Snakes and cats are in the news this week. Because I have a mean streak, I decided to share it with you.
Let’s start with snakes. Everyone knows most people have an instinctive aversion to legless reptiles. Last October, scientists from Toyama University of Japan and the University of Brasilia jointly released the results of a study of brain cell activity in certain monkeys. According to their research, there are “snake-sensitive neurons” in the brains of these primates that respond more strongly and rapidly to images of snakes than other cells respond to images of monkey faces, monkey hands or geometric shapes. These results are astounding because subject monkeys were raised in a walled colony and never had previous exposure to snakes.
This leads researchers to conclude that snakes, “… have exerted strong selective pressure on primates.” According to the theory, modern mammals and snakes big enough to eat modern mammals evolved about the same time. When venomous snakes, “ambush predators,” came along, they shared trees and grasslands with our primate ancestors. This meant primates who could detect and react to concealed snakes had an edge in the evolutionary landscape.
This suggests our brains, when operating normally, may be hardwired to have strong aversive reaction to serpents. I myself am not overly afraid of snakes, but, really, the thought of snakes gliding silently through the air at night gives me the creeps. Evidently there are snake species that can do just that. They are so quiet and capable the Pentagon Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency helped fund a study to uncover the secret that makes some snakes such skillful gliders. According to Jake Socha, an expert at biomechanics at Virginia Tech University, “Our expectations going in were that it (serpent aerodynamics) would not be very good because it does not look like a classically streamlined airplane type cross-sectional shape… What we got were surprising aerodynamic characteristics. In fact, it was much better than we anticipated.”
I’m not sure where this research is going, but it’s not hard to imagine the benefits of weaponized snakes released from attack helicopters gliding silently on the night breezes in search of enemy combatants. Kinda causes your monkey brain to shiver, doesn’t it?
Now about cats. First, I have no particular grudge against cats, even though some years ago I tried to do a feral cat a kindness and was repaid by a furry assault full of slashy claws and fangy teeth. Fortunately, I healed without hospitalization. It would be accurate to say, though, as James Thurber did, “I am not a cat man, and all felines can tell this at a glance — a sharp, vindictive glance.” But my personal views have nothing to do with this column; it’s strictly science.
According to the Feb. 5 issue of Science Daily, the Mayo Clinic released some remarkable statistics about cat bites. Evidently, when cats strike, they can inject bacteria deep into the victim’s joint and tissue.
The Clinic studied 193 patients from Jan. 1, 2009, through 2011. Each subject was the victim of “cat bite.” Fifty-seven of these victims were hospitalized for an average of three days. Thirty-eight required wounds to be surgically irrigated or flushed with infected tissue removed. Eight patients needed more than one operation. An undisclosed number needed reconstructive surgery. Thirty-six patients were hospitalized immediately while 154 were treated with antibiotics on an outpatient basis. Antibiotics failed in 21 of these outpatients who ultimately required hospitalization. This article suggests that, statistically, cat bite is much more likely than dog bite to cause infection trouble. Why? “The dog’s teeth are blunter, so they don’t tend to penetrate as deeply…. The cat’s teeth are sharp and they can penetrate very deeply, they can seed the bacteria in the joint and tendon sheaths … It can be just a pinpoint bite mark that can cause a real problem, because the bacteria get into the tendon sheath or into the joint where they can grow with relative protection from the blood and immune system.” This according to Dr. Brian Carlson, a Mayo Clinic plastic surgeon who authored the report published in The Journal of Hand Surgery.
The article does not say whether the Pentagon has taken any particular interest in the surprising toxicity of cat bite, but we might wonder.
Are there lessons we can draw from these two studies? I’m unprepared to make general statements but I can say they will have little effect on me. I don’t visit places where snakes glide out of the trees and, as a rule, I no longer offer cats any reason to bite me. I’m Hink and I’ll see ya.
MIKE HINKLE is a retired attorney and Edmond resident.