Reflection 79: Serpent Consciousness

March 20, 2009

 

(Copyright © 2009)

 

While mounting my photovoltaic panel, I notice wasps hovering around the end of a bough on a nearby spruce, apparently attracted by gleaming drops exuded from its tip. In the grass eight feet below, a smooth green snake eyes the wasps, taking in the scene. I go about my business, but look up ten minutes later to see the snake sliding along that same branch. Stealthily, inch-by-inch, toward the tip and the hovering wasps. Slowly, almost not moving, it extends its body beyond the end into the air, drooping slightly as if part of the bough, as if its nose—its mouth—were the tip. There it waits. And waits. But the wasps have gone elsewhere. I run and get my camera to document what I have seen with my own eyes.

 

Smooth Green Snake 

 

Can I ascribe consciousness, planning, even intelligence to a snake on the basis of such an anecdote? Watching from below, seeing the wasps, climbing the trunk, venturing onto a limb, sliding its length to the end, hanging beyond the tip—this is not random activity. It is clearly deliberate. Each move made in proper sequence. At some point the snake must have put it all together as a plan of action. It had motivation and a clear goal: the wasps were there and it wanted to eat them. It had the smarts to figure out the route to take and what it had to do in order to bring that about. I am sorely tempted to say this is conscious behavior. The only flaw was that the wasps were too wary for the snake.

 

Snake consciousness? Wasp consciousness? Or can such behaviors be fully accounted for by hard-wired, unconscious reflexes? In the case of the wasp, perhaps, but the snake fully grasped the situation before it acted. It had the imagination to draft a plan extending the now into the future, and the follow-through to execute it. Which took time. Memory must have been involved. Situational memory encompassing goal, motive, participants, route, complex course of action, all unified by seeing the world from its point of view.

 

I have seen similar performances in raspberry bushes where insects were drawn by ripe fruit, the snake waiting in the shadows of leaves farther back. Is that necessarily conscious behavior? Does the predator have a sense of what it must do to capture its prey? Or does it simply rely on the equipment it is given to do its thing? Is the frog aware of turning its head toward the fly, of lashing out with its tongue? Frogs and snakes survive only in the presence of suitable prey. The habitat may be the message, all else following as a matter of course.

 

That may be true in the case of the frog, but the case of the wasp-seeking snake is more complicated. If the wasps wouldn’t come to the snake, the snake figured out it would have to go to the wasps. Was the process of “figuring out” similar to what we would call consciousness? It was certainly situational from the snake’s point of view, which took into account its size, capabilities, motives, habitat, and goal. Consciously or not, all that figured in the snake’s behavior, which appears to have been visualized and planned beforehand while it watched from its vantage point in the grass. And then retained as it executed its moves in proper sequence.

 

The first move was to turn away from the wasps toward the base of the tree. Then to climb up the stem of the tree. Only when it turned onto the particular branch leading to where the wasps were when seen from the ground did it face toward its prey. Reflexes are instantaneous; they cannot account for these complex, time-consuming maneuvers. The snake apparently operated within a three-dimensional model in its head, and monitored its position within that space, which became ever more charged with meaning as it neared the end of the bough.

 

Many people accept that (like apes, monkeys, and humans) birds, deer, dogs, wolves, foxes, coyotes, bears, and other animals have a mental sense of the territory which provides for and sustains them. But snakes? I am here to extend such a sense to them. I see the workings of the vertebrate hippocampus in their case as well. I see no compelling reason to believe that the wasp-seeking snake I witnessed was not conscious of its surroundings or its own actions. Until proven wrong, I will count snakes among the ranks of conscious beings, entitled to all the privileges such membership implies.

 

¦

 

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2 Responses to “Reflection 79: Serpent Consciousness”

  1. I remember a story by Benjamin Franklin about ants. He had left some sugar spilled on a table and the next morning there was a column of ants that had climbed the table leg to have a feast. Being Franklin, he decided to experiment. He put the leg of the table in a bucket of water. After a while, he noticed that the ants started climbing the side of the bucket, and then down to the surface of the water where some of them attempted to swim, but they all drowned.
    After an hour or so, during which more and more of them drowned, they stopped. A little while later, he noticed that the ants started climbing up another leg of the table and went to the sugar. So he decided to put all four legs of the table in buckets of water. He then observed that the ants tried each table leg in turn, with the same results — the ones that tried to swim drowned.
    Then he observed a strange thing. Some of the ants seemed to be gathering in the corner of the room. Soon a single ant started climbing a wall of the room and across the ceiling until it was over the table. Then it dropped. After it had reached the sugar, Franklin saw a line of ants marching up the wall and across the ceiling with similar results.

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