Country diary: Keeping a close eye on the adders | Reptiles

I wouldn’t know how to choose the music, but my luxury item for Desert Island Discs would be easy: binoculars. My one objection is calling them a luxury. I’ve had a pair around my neck for what seems like most of the last 50 years.

It’s not only that you can see things more clearly: binoculars let you experience the living world as humans seldom do. A female adder, for example, went from the only formal shape in a random scatter of vegetation to a precise triple coil of black zigzags on brown.

With my “bins” I could see her blood-red eyes like polished garnets – and dorsal scales throughout her 50cm length, every one marked with a raised keel like the central vane that runs through a feather. As she rotated slowly, these keels – as well as the scale edges when the sun caught her twisting body – presented as momentary splinters of light.

A brown patterned female adder (left) entwined with a grey-patterned male (right). Photograph: Mark Cocker

Every user of binoculars knows that, if I’d been able to get closer, I could have turned the lenses upside down and seen her magnified to the kind of exquisite detail her mate must know. For she was joined by a male. They were almost certainly of breeding age, and it was strange to think that they have lain hereabouts for four years and, since they possess neither eardrum nor tympanum cavity, have never once heard this skylark song rolling overhead. In fact, rattled cans and blown bugles have been shown to elicit nothing from resting adders.

Yet if I took a single step closer they would instantly feel my vibrations through the ground. Imagine what information flows through a snake’s underside, each one of the ventral scales a heightened nerve-ended receptor attuned to the world as it moves about them. How they must feel the earth.

I inferred a little of this as I watch him sidewind across her, his belly pressed down so that the underside scales scraped slowly over her in curving ritual, until I couldn’t tell one snake’s coils from the other’s, and his head, shunting forward in awkward, excited, jerky movements, seemed at odds with the sweet flow of his whole body.

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