Saint Patrick, patron saint of Ireland, is best known for bringing Christianity to the Emerald Isle, but his story is also filled with other legends and miracles.
It is said that the missionary raised dozens of people from the dead, for example, and even banished all snakes from Ireland into the sea after a 40-day fast. Unfortunately, and perhaps unsurprisingly, science doesn’t quite back up that last claim.
While it’s true that the Irish don’t have snakes to deal with, St. Patrick can’t take credit for it. In fact, no one can – because there’s no evidence in the fossil record that creeping snakes ever lived there.
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Why are there no snakes in Ireland?
Many islands have them, of course. Ilha da Queimada Grande, or “Snake Island”, located about 90 miles off the coast of São Paulo, counts up to one snake per square meter. So why did they never arrive on the Emerald Isle?
Researchers point to the most recent ice Age.
Blame the Ice Age
During this last ice age, around 120,000 to 10,000 years ago, Ireland and the island of Britain were far too cold for snakes and other reptiles. After the ice receded, two land bridges were revealed: one linking Ireland to Britain and the other linking Britain to the rest of Europe.
Around this time, a number of new species, including three different snake species, colonized Britain. But as melting glaciers caused sea levels to rise further, the land connection to Ireland became impassable – some 2,000 years before the surrounding seas cut the bridge to Britain.
The prevailing theory is that the Serpents simply didn’t have enough time to make the final stint on the journey to the Emerald Isle. To date, the island has only one native terrestrial reptile: the common or viviparous lizardwhich must have happened within the last 10,000 years, after the end of the Ice Age.
Where else are there no snakes?
You might be surprised to learn that Ireland is in good company. The main islands of New Zealand, Iceland, Greenland, Hawaii and Antarctica are also snake-free – and therefore excellent holiday destinations for those of us with ophidiophobia.
Risk of invasion
Many of these governments prohibit the importation and possession of snakes to ensure that they remain so (even pet lizards and tortoises are illegal in Iceland). After all, invasive snakes are known to wreak havoc on island ecosystems; look no further than Guam, where the invasive brown tree snake is infamous for killing lizards and native birds.
But reptile enthusiasts can rejoice as such laws do not exist in Ireland.
In fact, pet snakes were seen as a status symbol there as recently as the early 2000s. They can also be found in zoos, including the National Reptile Zoo in Kilkenny City, the only reptile zoo in the country.
This is because there is little fear that abandoned or runaway snakes will become invasive there. Because creatures are cold-blooded and unable to warm upthey depend on the warmth of the sun – something that is too rare to sustain a healthy snake population in the Emerald Isle.
In other words, there’s no need for a modern-day snake-killing Saint Patrick…for now, at least.
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