Book of Mormon/Animals/Serpents

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Serpents in the Book of Mormon

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Question: Does the Book of Mormon accurately represent the behavior of serpents during a drought?

In the Book of Mormon, the Book of Ether contains an account of a drought accompanied by a sudden increase in 'poisonous serpents'

Book of Mormon Central, KnoWhy #243: Why Did Snakes Infest Jaredite Lands During A Famine? (Video)

30 And it came to pass that there began to be a great dearth upon the land, and the inhabitants began to be destroyed exceedingly fast because of the dearth, for there was no rain upon the face of the earth.
31 And there came forth poisonous serpents also upon the face of the land, and did poison many people. And it came to pass that their flocks began to flee before the poisonous serpents, towards the land southward, which was called by the Nephites Zarahemla.
32 And it came to pass that there were many of them which did perish by the way; nevertheless, there were some which fled into the land southward.
33 And it came to pass that the Lord did cause the serpents that they should pursue them no more, but that they should hedge up the way that the people could not pass, that whoso should attempt to pass might fall by the poisonous serpents.(Ether 9:30–33).

A subtle point, the behavior of snakes in drought, is plausibly reproduced in the Book of Mormon

Some claim that this is biologically implausible. However, a subtle point, the behavior of snakes in drought, is plausibly reproduced in the Book of Mormon.

All snakes are predators.

Snakes often feed upon mice, rats, and other rodents. Their prey, in turn, tends to feed on plant material, such as grain. In the event of a famine, rodents will seek out food elsewhere. Human farms or settlements will contain large amounts of stored grain in a small area, which will naturally attract rodents. Snakes will inevitably follow. (This has been noted in real-life Israel following the abandonment of many farms following the 1967 war. Rodents, and the serpents that preyed on them, migrated to the few remaining farms, greatly increasing the number of snake-human contacts.[1]

Some snakes also require drinking water (rather than obtaining all hydration through predation), and modern biologists have noted that during a drought (when snakes' usual watering places have tried up) they will tend to seek new sources, which are often in human-settled areas. Dan Tredinnick, press secretary to the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, noted an increase in human-snake contacts during Pennsylvania's dry summer, and said:

The combination of heat and little rainfall is probably the cause...If people are seeing snakes and other reptiles that (lack of water) is very likely the reason...Just like us, they need water...Areas where they might traditionally slake their thirst may have dried up, he said, leaving the snakes no other choice but to go looking for new watering holes...They will go and seek other areas and the type of habitat they need....[2]

Furthermore, as prey animals became scarce due to drought, snakes would become more hungry and potentially more aggressive, which would also increase the number of human-snake encounters.

The disappearance of the snakes reported in Ether 10:33 may have been due solely to divine intervention, but an end of drought conditions would also result in snakes dispersing more widely as their prey was able to do so, thus decreasing the risk to the human population.

John Tvedtnes, "Drought and Serpents"

John Tvedtnes,  Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, (1997)
During my lengthy residence in Israel (1971–79), I had opportunity to visit the Musa Alami Farm near Jericho. The farm had been constructed after Israel's 1948 War of Independence to settle displaced Palestinian refugees. It was particularly geared toward teaching various farm skills to Palestinian boys. During the 1950s, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had equipped the farm with a dairy and a starter herd and had sent dairy experts to operate that portion of the farm.
Much of the farm was in disrepair during our visit because of the 1967 Six-Day War. Orange groves had died from lack of water, and most of the fields lay fallow. During the war, all but two of the pumps bringing underground water to the surface had been destroyed, making it impossible to maintain the farm at its previous level. Most of the refugees had fled across the Jordan River to the kingdom of Jordan. The Israelis had also expropriated all the land on the western bank of the river in order to maintain security patrols along the new border.
Of particular interest to me was the effect on local wildlife. When crops were no longer being grown near the river, the mice moved westward to find grains in the few fields still under cultivation. They were, naturally, followed by serpents. From time to time, residents of the farm found vipers in and around their houses. This, they assured us, had never happened before the war.

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  1. See John A. Tvedtnes, "Drought and Serpents," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 6/1 (1997): 70–72. off-site wiki
  2. See Eric Mayes, "Heat and drought bringing snakes out of their dens," The Daily Item (18 August 2005), accessed 9 September 2006. off-site See also Don Ayotte, "More snakes slithering into Lake Havasu City area," Havasu News-Herald (31 August 2006), accessed 9 September 2006. off-site