All snakes are carnivores and eat other animals, but they can also be hunted as prey. Many animals feed on snakes, so they need various ways to defend themselves.
Snakes will try to save their energy when attacked and try to escape a confrontation first. If they cannot get to cover, they will try to intimidate their attacker by hissing, rattling, or making other mechanical sounds. Some will play dead, defecating to give the illusion of death and emitting nasty smells. Snakes do not use venom to defend themselves, except for some species that can spray their venom through the air.
In this article, I look at some of how snakes defend themselves in the wild.
Which animals feed on snakes?
Snakes are predatory animals but often fall foul of other animals that feed on them. Many animals feed on them, including mammals and birds. Buzzards, Hornbills, Hawks, Eagles, and other birds of prey will all feed on snakes given the opportunity. Mammals that feed on snakes include badgers, raccoons, hedgehogs, dogs, and cats.
Even though some snakes are venomous, some animals build up an immunity to this. Most, however, will attack quickly and use their agility to avoid being bitten. The mongoose and the honey badger are excellent, as is the Roadrunner and Secretary bird.
Because snakes want to save their energy and not get hurt when attacked, the best way to do this is to escape. Most snakes can move quickly, and moving a short distance to cover can be done efficiently, even over rough terrain.
Snakes like to stay near cover, and a pile of rocks or a bush is never far away. Snakes know their home range well and often know where the nearest piece of cover is. Snakes can only move quickly over short distances, so they try to stay away from open areas. As the snake moves through cover, its colour and patterns make it more difficult for its attacker to see them.
A few species of snakes, including North American hog-nosed snakes and the European grass snake, have an interesting way of dealing with an attacker; they play dead.
Playing dead is an effective way to avoid confrontation, which many opossums do. Some snakes play dead after being attacked or when confronted. It will turn over, so the belly is exposed, with some species also letting their tongue hang out their open mouth. Some will also defecate to give the further illusion of death.
Unfortunately, many animals that prey on snakes also eat carrion, so this strategy may not always work. However, evolution has shown that there must be a reason for them doing this, so it must work sometimes.
Snakes that play dead sometimes defecate to give the illusion that they are dead, but this is not the only time that smell comes to the defence of a snake. Defecation frequently occurs in snakes that are attacked, and it is hoped that this will deter the attacker.
Colubrids, the largest snake family, are non-venomous to humans but have an interesting way of dealing with predators. When attacked, a family member will often use a discharge from their anal glands, which they try to smear over their attacker. If this doesn’t put its attacker off, then at least they will taste bad when being eaten.
We have all seen or heard a snake hiss, which is part of a snake’s defence. If a snake cannot escape, then it will try to intimidate the predator.
Snakes hiss by expelling air rapidly across a flap of skin in the throat. Often this is the first sign that a snake is close to you, especially when walking through one of their many habitats. Rattlesnakes use the rattle at the end of their tail to let others know they are near. Rattlesnakes produce a rattle using rings of hardened, discarded skin.
Some other species, including rat snakes, will use a similar method to rattlesnakes. Rat snakes vibrate their tails against the ground to produce sound. In the diadem snake, other noises are made by rubbing its scales together to create a sound.
Snakes will also make themselves appear bigger to frighten off attackers. The puff adder will blow its whole body up to look larger, changing the snake’s appearance as new markings are seen as their bodies change.
Hog-nosed snakes in North America and the Boomslang from Africa inflate their throat to scare off predators.
Cobras also change their body shape, expanding their hood to make it look bigger. They also use another type of intimidation, seen in many other species. They raise their bodies off the floor, appearing much larger and showing that they are ready to strike. Although they may strike, they often strike short; a warning shot for any animal trying to attack them.
Others will open their mouths wide, such as water moccasins with white mouths, to intimidate. Colour also plays a part in snakes, such as the Ring-necked snake, which has a red or orange underpart to its tail which they show when provoked. Many animals associate brightly coloured animals with venom or poison, so this is a good way of defending themselves without using any energy.
This behaviour also helps get attention away from the head in some snakes, something seen in other animals. Butterflies, for example, often have large ‘eyes’ on their wings and are attacked from in front of their heads. Some snakes use this to their advantage as their brightly-coloured tails move and look like their head.
As the predator attacks their tail, thinking it is the head, the head is looking for a safe place to get to.
Although many snakes are venomous, they generally don’t use venom to defend themselves. Venom is used when snakes hunt and attack, but not as a means of defence.
However, some do, with spitting cobras being the best example. Spitting cobras spit their venom up to 3.5m (12ft) with excellent accuracy and can blind an animal, at least temporarily.
Spitting cobras eject their venom through the front of each fang rather than the tip, allowing the venom to be sprayed forward.