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Revisiting the fear of snakes in children: the role of aposematic signalling

Abstract : Why humans fear snakes is an old, yet unresolved debate. Its innate origin from evolutionary causes is debated against the powerful influence early experience, culture, media and religion may have on people’s aversion to snakes. Here we show that the aversion to snakes in human beings may have been mistaken for an aversion to aposematic signals that are commonly displayed by snakes. A total of 635 children were asked to rate single item images as “nice” or “mean”. Snakes, pets and smiley emoticon items were not rated as “mean” unless they displayed subtle aposematic signals in the form of triangular (rather than round) shapes. Another 722 children were shown images featuring two items and asked which item was “nice” and which item was “mean”. This context dependent comparison triggered even sharper responses to aposematic signals. We hypothesise that early primates evolved an aversion for aposematic signals in the form of potentially harmful triangular shapes such as teeth, claws or spikes, not for snakes per se. Further, we hypothesise that this adaptation was in turn exploited by snakes in their anti-predatory threat display as a triangular head or dorsal zig-zag pattern, and is currently the basis for efficient international road-danger signalling.
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Jérémie Souchet, Fabien Aubret. Revisiting the fear of snakes in children: the role of aposematic signalling. Scientific Reports, Nature Publishing Group, 2016, 6 (1), ⟨10.1038/srep37619⟩. ⟨hal-02962773⟩

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