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Monday, 12 November 2012

Amphibians and reptiles in the Portuguese folklore

Amphibians and reptiles carry the unfortunate burden of being feared and hated throughout the world. For herpetologists or anyone dealing directly with herpetofauna, the constant facing with the incomprehension of general public, the widespread wrong ideas about the danger of these animals, and also the several folklore-based portraits that depict amphibians and reptiles as evil, dangerous and disease carrying animals, are common situations. These situations constitute a serious conservation problem since they usually results in a lack of support on conservation campaigns, a general disregard of these animals in environmental impacts assessments, and sometimes leading to episodes of direct persecution and killing. For someone born in Portugal’s countryside growing up hearing a variety of stories of local folklore about lizards, snakes, geckos and toads is a common situation. During all of my childhood, and even when I've started to study biology, I've been told by my family and local people how venomous geckos were, how snakes stole milk from babies, and how dangerous was to a women to go into the forest wearing a skirt, since lizards would climbing up their legs, etc, etc. Simultaneously, it was rare to hear someone say that they appreciate these animals, and unfortunately was quite common to find people persecuting and killing amphibians and reptiles.

Figure 1 - Salamanders (Salamandra salamandra) have always been linked to fire. This can be partly explained by its coloration, but also due its attempt to flee from burning woods used in a fireplace, giving the idea that the animal is in fact "birthing" from the fire.
This reality led me to question many things. What would be the real impact on the persecution of these animals? What relationship existed between the presence of folklore based misconceptions, negative feelings and aesthetic notions and persecution? What is the origin of this type of folklore, its distribution in society, and how to combat it? In an attempt to answer these questions I developed a questionnaire and made about 514 interviews with people in the district of Évora, southern Portugal, during 2009. My aim was to understand the relationship between the presence of certain misconceptions, tastes and feelings, with the persecution and lack of support for the conservation of amphibians and reptiles. To analyze the data I created a structural equation model where I intended to test the supposed relationship between the different constructs, as well as to clarify the importance of several socio-demographic factors such as age, sex, level of education and the difference between urban and rural areas. The results were quite clear and unequivocal! People who presented more folkloric ideas and higher levels of negative values towards amphibians and reptiles were more willingly to persecute and less interested in the conservation of these animals than those who didn't (Figure 2). This was true for amphibians and reptiles, although reptiles presented higher level of misconceptions, negative values and were more persecuted than amphibians. I also found that these misconceptions based on folklore and negative values are widespread throughout the entire population. These results showed me the importance and urgency of exploring and deepening the area of human relationships with animals and specifically with the ever hated herpetofauna.

Figure 2 - Folklore based misconceptions and negativistic values contribute directly to the persecution that amphibians and reptiles suffer. In addition, both are correlated. Adapted from Ceríaco 2012.

This led me to explore in a more detailed way the folklore and cultural representation of these animals in Portugal. The majority of biologists usually refer to folklore related with animals as "wrong ideas", "misconceptions", "old stories" and other depreciative adjectives. Even if these adjectives may be in part true, due to the real impact that they have in animal populations it became urgent to study them in more detail. What are these stories?  What do these stories tell us? What they mean for local populations?  Where they come from? These and other questions became starting points for ethnozoological investigations. With the collaboration of many colleagues I'm conducting field surveys since 2010 in order to collect many ethnographic and sociological data, and also conducting bibliographic investigations aimed to gather any disperse information about herpetofauna related folklore. The first results present us very interesting new information. In 2011 we have published a paper dealing with geckos in folklore, where we presented strong evidences that the southern Portuguese folklore about these animals is an Arab heritage (Portugal has been under Arab dominion for almost five centuries), since the same stories told in Portugal are equal to the stories told in many Arab countries. These stories depict geckos as poisonous and dermatological disease carrying animals, which contribute to a very harsh relationship between human population and them (Figure 3). However, this investigation also gave us the idea that sometimes some of the information given by local populations can in fact turn out as valid data for scientific studies. Right now we are preparing a paper about the folklore related to snakes and lizards, while a similar investigation about amphibians is being carried out. However, much more investigation is needed, and comparative studies between countries and different regions in Europe are still lacking.

Figure 3 - Mediterranean house gecko (Hemidactylus turcicus), a supposedly vector for "cobro", a dermatological disease transmitted by the direct contact with the human skin, and one of most feared and persecuted reptile in southern Portugal.
Despite of its importance, ethnozoology studies and data is still quite limited and mostly absent from conservation action plans. Without a full documented picture about how people understand certain animals, any attempt to conserve or protect them may bump with incomprehension and even opposition of local people. Also, there are several areas of knowledge that can benefit from the understanding local ethnozoology. From the almost exclusively academic areas of history of science, cultural anthropology or pure zoology, to more the practical ecological studies and conservation actions, ethnozoology can complement with quite interesting and pertinent data, giving the possibility to establish linkages between subjects that apparently were completely different and were considered as independent realms since long time ago.


Ceríaco, L., M. Marques, N. Madeira, C. Vila-Viçosa, and P. Mendes. 2011. Folklore and traditional ecological knowledge of geckos in southern Portugal: implications for conservation and science. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 7: 26. [open access]

Ceríaco, L. 2012. Human attitudes towards herpetofauna: The influence of folklore and negative values on the conservation of amphibians and reptiles in Portugal. Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine  8: 8. [open access]

Luis M.P. Ceríaco - Centro de Estudos de História e Filosofia da Ciência (CEHFCi), Universidade de Évora, Palácio do Vimioso, Largo Marquês de Marialva, n°8, 7000-554, Évora, Portugal. E-mail address: luisceriaco@netcabo.pt


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