What made the ancient Greeks such feared warriors? If you said courage, intense training and superior leadership, you’d be right. If you said, “Because they threw snakes at their enemies,” you’d be right too. Not only that, live specimens of these so-called “javelin” snakes – thought to be extinct or close to it – were found recently in Sicily.
According to an article in Acta Herpetologica announcing the discovery, Comiso (Sicily) Natural History Museum Director Gianni Insacco says ancient Greek warriors threw snakes onto enemy ships before attacks to cause fear and confusion. Their favorite snakes to toss were vipers that had their venom removed (you don’t want your weapons killing your own troops, do you?). The javelin sand boas (Eryx jaculus) were their backup snakes, possibly because they were readily available on beaches.
Javelin sand boas lost their military jobs after the fall of ancient Greece and have not been seen in Italy since 1937. The small (50-80 cm/1.6-2.6 ft) species was the only boas found in Europe and was considered to be most likely extinct until September 2014 when herpetologists found some in southern Romania near the Danube River.
After hearing rumors of sightings in Licata, a city on the south coast of Sicily, zoologists searched the area and eventually found six javelin boas – three alive and three dead from being run over (too bad there were no warriors to throw one into the enemy vehicles). The zoologists believe the snakes had always been there but were never seen because of their nocturnal nature and underground burrows (not to mention lack of job opportunities).
Are the javelin sand boas making a comeback? It looks like they never really left – they just went underground. Are they ready to do battle again? Well, they prefer sandy beaches and many conflicts today are fought on flat lands away from the coast, which means you probably won’t be seeing these snakes on a plain (you knew it was coming).