The legend of Saint Patrick put science to the test

The legend of Saint Patrick put science to the test

On St. Patrick’s Day, most revelers do not remember the patron saint of Ireland for his role as snake hunter.

However, legend has it that a Christian missionary rid the Irish shores of these creeping reptiles when he converted the pagan peoples of Ireland in the 5th century AD.

When he performed a forty-day fast on a hilltop, Saint Patrick is said to have chased away the attacking serpents, bringing them back to the sea.

An unlikely story, especially when you learn that Ireland is distinguished by the fact that it is not home to native snakes.

It’s one of the few places in the world – along with New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland and Antarctica – where you can roam without fear if you have a deep aversion to snakes.

But according to scientists, Saint Patrick will not have anything to do with it.

As Secretary of the Department of Natural History at National Museum of Ireland In Dublin, Nigel Monaghan researched the large collections of fossils and other available records that list Irish fauna. Monaghan said, “There was never any mention of snakes in Ireland, so Saint Patrick had nothing to hunt.”

so what happened?

Most scholars point to the last ice age, which kept the island in temperatures that were too cold for reptiles until about 10,000 years ago. After the Ice Age, the surrounding seas may have prevented snakes from colonizing the Emerald Isle.

left behind

Once the ice caps and woolly mammoths retreated north, the vipers returned to northern and western Europe, spreading as far as the Arctic Circle.

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Britain, which had a land bridge with Europe until about 6,500 years ago, was colonized by three types of snakes: the venomous viper, the grass snake and the smooth crown snake.

But Monaghan notes that the land link between Ireland and Britain was cut off about 2,000 years ago by seas swelled by melting glaciers.

Brown bears, wild boars and lynxes are among the animals that arrived in Ireland before the sea became an impassable barrier, but “snakes never got here. Populations of snakes are slow to colonize new areas,” he adds.

Mark Ryan, director of the Louisiana Poison Center at Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, agrees that the time is not right to expand the range of these sensitive, cold-blooded reptiles.

He points out that “there are no snakes in Ireland for the simple reason that they cannot get there, the climate was not suitable for their existence.”

Other reptiles also failed to reach the island, with the exception of the gray lizard. Ireland’s only indigenous reptile, this species must have arrived within the past 10,000 years, according to Mr Monaghan.

So, unless Saint Patrick doesn’t know how to distinguish a snake from a lizard, where does this legend come from?

Specialists easily lean towards the allegory. Snakes are symbols of evil in Judeo-Christian beliefs, like the serpent that caused the fall of Adam and Eve.

These animals have also been linked to pagan practices, so Saint Patrick’s act of eliminating snakes can be seen as a metaphor for his Christianizing influence.

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“False” snakes

Irish people looking for snakes to hunt and repel will likely have to settle on the fragile slowworm, a non-native type of legless lizard often mistaken for a small snake.

This species was first recorded in the early 1970s and was thought to have been deliberately introduced to western Ireland in the 1960s, according to Ireland’s Department of Environmental Protection.

However, the creeper does not appear to have spread outside the biodiverse limestone area of ​​County Clare known as the Burren.

Snakes on the Irish Plains?

In the future, it is quite possible to see snakes in Ireland, especially pet snakes deliberately released by their owners.

“There are no exotic species that are safe for local wildlife,” Monaghan says. “The isolated nature of the islanders makes Ireland highly vulnerable to any introduction, whether bona fide or misleading.”

Henry Kacprzyk, curator of reptiles at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPQ Aquarium, believes that Ireland’s wildlife would not be willing to introduce snakes. Invasive snakes such as boiga ir legalis have already wreaked havoc on Guam and other island ecosystems.

Getting rid of these unwanted creatures won’t be as easy as the Saint Patrick’s legend suggests.

“I don’t want to completely break the myth of Saint Patrick,” Kacprzyk says. “I want to keep him partially alive.”

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