On February 10, people all around the world will ring in the Lunar New Year with paper lanterns and firecrackers. At the heart of it all sits the snake, a slithery reptile feared for its sharp fangs and revered for its undeniable charm. (Watch videos of some of the world's deadliest snakes.)
Those born in the Year of the Snake are said to be intelligent and quick thinking, but they can also be dishonest and prone to show off. Though based on Chinese astrology, some of these traits are similar to characteristics of the actual serpent.
Snakes are known to be great at outsmarting their predators and prey. Their colorful, patterned skin makes them some of the best tricksters in the animal kingdom. And despite a bad rap as frightening creatures, snakes never fail to fascinate scientists, explorers, and zoo-goers. (See pictures of snakes.)
With more than 3,400 recognized species, snakes exhibit incredible diversity in everything from behavior and habitats to skin colors and patterns.
"As a vertebrate lacking in limbs, all snakes look largely like other snakes, yet they succeed in tremendous diversity in multiple directions," said Andrew Campbell, herpetology collections manager at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute.
To usher in the Year of the Snake, Campbell and herpetologist Dennis Ferraro at University of Nebraska-Lincoln weigh in on some of the snake's qualities that the Chinese zodiac predicts people born this year will have.
Horoscope: Snakes have an innately elegant personality but can also be ostentatious at times.
In Nature: Snakes come in all different colors, patterns, and textures, making them some of nature's most visually stunning creatures.
According to Campbell, the utility of their coloring falls into two main categories: to use as camouflage and to warn predators to stay away.
Among the most beautiful are the emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus)—whose vibrant green body is decorated with white stripes resembling lightning bolts—and the Brazilian rainbow boa (Epicrates cenchria), characterized by its iridescent skin and the large black rings down its back.
For some snakes, the diversity in color occurs within the same species, which is why Ferraro tells his student not to identify snakes by colors. For example, the polymorphic bush viper (Atheris squamigera), many of which are green, also come in shades of yellow, orange, red, and blue, as captured in photographer Guido Mocafico's "Serpent Still Life" photo series.
Horoscope: The snake is known to be the master seducer of the Chinese zodiac.
In Nature: Female garter snakes (Thamnophis) have all the luck with the gentlemen.
When a female garter snake is ready to mate, she announces it by producing chemicals called pheromones. Males, upon encountering the scent, immediately come crawling out and gather around the female in a large, wriggling "mating ball."
The competition intensifies when a male passing by the ball tries to fool the others by producing a scent that mimics that of the female, said Ferraro.
As soon as his rivals are led off in the wrong direction, the trickster slides right in. In areas with smaller populations of garter snakes, each ball consists of about 12 males and one female.
But in places like Manitoba, Canada, where garter snakes travel to certain areas to mate after coming out of hibernation, a mating ball can have thousands of males and only a hundred females.
Horoscope: Though snakes don't often tell lies, they will use deception when they feel it's necessary and they think they can get away with it.
In Nature: When it comes to using trickery to catch dinner, or to hide from predators, snakes are no amateurs.
The most cunning of them all is the two-headed snake. To protect against a sneak attack from behind, the two-headed snake's tail looks just like its head. While the business end looks for food, the snake coils up its body and rests its tail on top to look like it is on guard.
The tail can even mimic the behavior of a retreating snake to trick predators into thinking they're going face-to-face with their opponent.
Horoscope: When snakes get down to work, they are organized and highly efficient, and they work quickly and quietly.
In Nature: While snakes are often perceived as lazy, Campbell said people are mistaken. "What we perceive as shy, lazy, or inactive is really efficiency," he said.
"On average, they are bigger than other lizards and can build a lot of body mass. They do that by being efficient in feeding and traveling." In other words, snakes don't move very much because they don't have to.
When it comes to food, snakes catch prey that are significantly larger than them so they can eat less frequently. This reduces the time they spend hunting and thus makes them less vulnerable to falling victim to a predator themselves.
For Campbell, the most impressive hunter is the eastern diamondback rattlesnake (Crotalus Adamanteus), which is able to hunt and kill its prey very quickly using venom, so it doesn't have to travel far. "Because they don't have to do that, they can become relatively large and heavy, being able to build up body mass and not having to spend that energy hunting."
Horoscope: Snakes are charming, with excellent communication skills.
In Nature: For snakes, their visual and auditory senses don't mean much when it comes to communicating with each other.
Instead, they use their sense of smell and the chemicals produced by their musk glands. Unlike mammals, a snake picks up scent through the forks of its tongue.
When the snake retracts its tongue, it inserts the forks into grooves in an olfactory organ located at the roof of its mouth. Depending on which fork picks up a stronger scent, the snake knows in which direction to go when looking for prey or a mate.
It's when snakes are threatened that they use sight and sound, said Ferraro. Rattlesnakes, for example, shake their tails, making a loud rattling noise to ward off predators.