Though snakes were early suspects as the source of the Wuhan coronavirus, reptiles have never been linked to any of the World Health Organisation’s top ten infectious diseases which pose the greatest threat of epidemics.
Snakes are different
One reason is straightforward. Snakes are cold-blooded (more correctly “ectothermic”) and have a very different physiology to humans. Viruses co-evolve highly specialised relationships with their hosts and are often species-specific.
Occasionally, a chance mutation might allow a virus to infect another species, but the more different the new and old hosts are to each other, the less likely that is.
In this context, reptiles represent a natural biological barrier to viral diseases.
And the benefits don’t end there.
They’re tailor-made for sustainability
Commercial snake farming has developed rapidly in China. The first experimental farms were set up in 2007; by 2019 the industry was producing large-scale high-quality protein.
Some snakes have highly desirable agricultural traits including rapid growth, early maturation and rapid reproduction. They are comparatively simple cognitively, and do not suffer the complex behavioural stresses seen in many caged birds and mammals.
Many are semi-arboreal, spending time in trees, allowing farms to maximise available space.Patrick Aust, Author provided (No reuse)
They do require a high-protein diet but, since their cold-blooded metabolic demands are very low (less than 10% of similar-sized mammals), food can be more directly channelled to growth.
It means they produce low volumes of biological waste and greenhouse gases, and require minimal fresh water.
Chinese snake farms rely on two principal sources of feed inputs: waste protein from agricultural food chains, and natural prey such as harvested rodents.Daniel Natusch, Author provided (No reuse)
Snake farming therefore provides a resilient livelihood in the face of economic volatility and the extremes of Climate Change.
It would be a shame if concern about coronavirus snuffed out an industry that is unlikely to be the problem, but could very well be a solution.
- ^ disease outbreaks (www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov)
- ^ banned (www.scmp.com)
- ^ our work in Asia (www.cambridge.org)
- ^ snakes were early suspects (theconversation.com)
- ^ top ten (origin.who.int)
- ^ specialised relationships (science.sciencemag.org)
- ^ remote (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ endemic (www.who.int)
- ^ How to feed nine billion people, and feed them well (theconversation.com)
- ^ wreak havoc (e.vnexpress.net)
- ^ diversity (theconversation.com)
- ^ energy efficiency (www.researchgate.net)
- ^ digestive systems (www.jstor.org)
- ^ China’s growing footprint on the globe threatens to trample the natural world (theconversation.com)
- ^ recycle agricultural waste (theconversation.com)
- ^ rodent pests (www.sciencedirect.com)
- ^ survive (link.springer.com)
- ^ downscale inputs (www.climatecouncil.org.au)
Authors: Daniel Natusch, Honorary Research Fellow, Macquarie University