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I was sent into the market this afternoon to purchase coffee. There were myriad instructions having to do with such things as brand, color, material, size of package and the like. I was actually excited, for I planned on ignoring such orders and grinding the beans back into the bag. Apparently, it has been quite a while since I bought coffee for that seems no longer to be an option in the store where we shop.

I recall with warm feelings shopping trips where the coffee beans were dumped into the top of a huge machine, various knobs and buttons adjusted to the proper settings, the bag placed under the spout, and the final big black button pushed causing the machine to whir to life with a deep pleasing growl. Ground coffee poured into the bag and the most delicious odor began to fill the air. When the hopper was empty, the machine shut off, you resealed the bag with a particular arcane folding technique and off you went.

One of my biggest curiosities was how the machine knew when to quit. The answer was simple: either you turned it off or it sensed no more beans in the hopper, depending on the model. However, my grandfather decided one day to assuage my curiosity with a demonstration. I was sworn to silence until the demonstration came to an end.

Gramp had been sent to get two bags of coffee while Gram perused the tea selection, another thing that had to be just right in her estimation. Gramp dumped half a bag into the hopper, closed the lid silently, and began to studiously read the partially full bag. In a few minutes, Gram turned from her tea quest, determined he had completed none of his assignment, and stormed over. Pointing out that they did not have all day to do this shopping, she grabbed a bag from the shelf, dumped it in the hopper, then set the machine grinding.

She was still sputtering about him not being able to fulfill the simplest request when the bag began to overfill. She stood there goggle-eyed, since this had never happened before. Gramp reached over, hit the off button, and asked what she had done wrong. She began to protest that someone must have dumped extra beans in because her bag was full and there was still a bunch in the hopper; Gramp said that was ridiculous, made a big show of dumping his bag in, and turned it on with her carrying on about how it was going to overflow. Of course, his bag filled perfectly. We were on the ride home when it apparently clicked and she muttered, “Dammit Howard!”

Of course, remembering the coffee bag incident also reminded me of a couple of inquiries I had yet to address. Actually, more than a couple, but all fired rapidly in a group conversation and all had to do with snake skins.

The conversation started with the premise that you could age a rattlesnake by counting its rattles because they grew a new one each time they hibernated, moved on through a whole bunch of why, when and how snake skins are shed. Let’s begin with the rattlesnake business. All snakes shed their skin periodically. Every time a rattlesnake sheds its skin, a small button is left on its tail making an additional “rattle.” They can also lose rattles through all sorts of wear and happenstance. Shedding the skin is not something unique to snakes. In fact, you do it yourself, it is just that humans do it a cell or flake at a time, not all at once like a scaled animal must.

It is not done in response to environment, i.e., they do not shed their skin so as to grow a thicker, warmer one for hibernation. It is done to allow the snake to grow larger. Pressure on the skin stimulates growth of a new layer underneath. When this is sufficiently thick, lymphatic fluid is exuded underneath the old skin, loosening and separating it. Some snakes do seem to also go to water as if to soften the outer layer. When everything is loosened, the fluid is reabsorbed. The snake then begins rubbing its head and nose on rough material until the skin has split away and is hooked, whereupon the snake simply crawls away, leaving behind the inverted old skin.

The lymphatic fluid is not a “poison that kills the old skin” and the shed skins are not poisonous by that mechanism. In fact, small rodents eat them with impunity and a number of birds incorporate them into their nest materials. It was, by the way, discovered that the avian practice of draping a snakeskin from the entrance of their nest was actually a great deterrent to predators. In one study, not a single snake-adorned nest was attacked while over 20 percent of nests with no skin were destroyed by one of the greatest egg predators — flying squirrels.

The number of rattles does not indicate the age of a rattlesnake — only how successful a predator it is. Skin is shed when it begins to get tight. For most species this is two or three times a year (and quite often right after leaving hibernation, before mating, and before egg-laying), although rapidly growing snakes in their first year may shed as often as every two weeks.

There is another function of ecdysis (skin shedding). In some areas, a snake can pick up a substantial load of parasites. These are left inside the inverted skin when the snake crawls away

One cannot become rich by collecting shed skins, although Dr. Wifey finds them fascinating and we have several various sizes and species adorning our nest. It is not “the finest leather known to man.” In fact, it is not leather at all but rather is made up of keratin, the same material as your fingernails. You will have as much success selling your toenail parings as you will selling snake skins. They do have some value to scientists because it is possible to determine species, size and gender from the skin. Examining shed skins is a technique often used to verify the existence of endangered species and even conduct population studies on some of the more dangerous species.

Finally, snake skins are not reused by smaller snakes. Like a coffee bag, they are one-time use and will hold only that which was in them to begin with.

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Bob Henke writes a weekly outdoors column for The Post-Star.


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