How Do Snakes Eat Their Prey?


Snakes eat different foods and need to hunt in different ways. How they hunt depends on their species, size, and where in the world they live. While some snakes eat a wide variety of food, others are more specialised.

Because snakes don’t move very fast and don’t know when they will find their next prey, snakes have to make the most of each meal.

Why do snakes eat their prey whole?

Most snakes have sharp, short teeth that are good for gripping their prey. However, these teeth are not suitable for chewing them into smaller pieces. Snakes eat their prey whole as they cannot bite it or chew it into smaller pieces.

Swallowing their food whole means that most animals will be eaten head first. This allows them to get the legs, feathers, scales, wings, and feet down. If they didn’t eat their prey head first, then the wings of a bird or the toes could get stuck in the throat, causing them severe injury or even death.

Snake teeth are not very strong and can often become broken quickly, but they are often replaced. Poisonous snakes have fangs. When the snake bites, venom flows down ridges in the fangs to injure its prey.

Snakes are efficient hunters. Snakes will only kill when necessary to feed and try to find prey as large as they can swallow to be as efficient as possible. This allows the snake to conserve energy and venom.

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Photo of snake biting mouse

Adaptations for eating

Snakes can eat prey larger than themselves due to adaptations of their bodies. The ribs can open up, and the bodies can stretch to accommodate the large animal they feed on.

Snakes also have a jaw that allows them to swallow large prey. The jaw is not fused at the sides, and the lower jaw can move downwards as it is detached from the skull. The lower jaw is attached by ligaments that allow the snake to eat large wide prey.

When a snake eats, the hinge at the back of the lower jaw lets the mouth swing wide open, but the lower jaw is made up of two pieces joined by a ligament. As the snake eats, the ligament stretches, allowing them to eat wide prey wider than its head.

The two sides of the jaw move independently, so while one side holds its prey, the other side can get a new grip.

The prey that snakes eat can be sharp, so the tongue is kept in a muscular sheath at the bottom of the mouth while eating. For snakes to breathe while their throats are full, their windpipe is in a tube at the bottom of the mouth. The windpipe opens near the front of the mouth, allowing them to take in air while swallowing their prey.

Some snakes, such as vipers, have fangs at the front of their mouth that fold back. When vipers strike, the fangs drop down to the front of the mouth.

All members of the Elapidae family, such as cobras, coral snakes, and mambas, have short, fixed fangs that do not move. Non-poisonous snakes such as pythons do not have fangs but have teeth curved backwards to catch their prey.

Did you know there are three ways that snakes kill their prey? Find out what they are here.

Why Do Wild Snakes Bite People?

Wild snakes usually bite people when they are surprised or feel threatened. Because humans are much larger than (most) snakes, they don’t see us as prey and won’t attack as it would be a waste of energy. Snake venom uses a lot of its energy to produce, so they need to keep this to feed.

Snakes instinctively move away from large animals that they are not interested in feeding on. However, many people will overreact when seeing a snake and try to kill it. This is when many snake bites happen as the snake is feeling threatened.

Because of the energy it takes to produce venom, biting is a snake’s last resort. However, all venomous snakes are able to deliver a dry bite. A dry bite occurs when a snake bites but doesn’t inject any venom.

Dry bites don’t happen when snakes attack their prey but are used for defence. Snakes can choose how much venom to inject into their prey. Dry bites occur about 50% of the time on humans. However, you should always get snake bites looked at by your doctor or at a hospital straight away.

Snake bites are rare, with most bites occurring when snakes are handled. Be wary of snakes when out walking but if you look where you are going, avoid confrontation and don’t threaten it or attempt to pick them up; the chances of getting bitten are low.

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Can Back-Fanged Snakes Bite Humans?

Almost two-thirds of all snakes, including the Colubridae family, have fangs at the backs of their mouth.

Snakes can open their mouths extremely wide compared to their bodies, opening so wide that they can bite flat surfaces. Some snakes, such as the boomslang of Southern Africa, can open their mouth to 100 degrees and could certainly bite a human despite having their fangs at the back of their mouth.

Which Snake Has The Longest Fangs?

The snake with the longest fangs is the gaboon adder. The fangs of the gaboon adder can reach up to 5cm long. The gaboon adder is the largest adder species and holds onto its prey after biting to inject as much venom as it can.

The gaboon adder has the largest venom glands, with single bites injecting up to 600mg of venom. The venom is cytotoxic, and bites of just 30-100mg can be fatal to humans that have been bitten.

Adders have hinged, hollow fangs which allow them to inject venom deeply. The fangs move forward into place when the snake is ready to strike. When the mouth is closed, the fangs stay retracted, but as the mouth opens, they move forward.

Are Baby Snakes As Dangerous As Adults?

The venom of young snakes is as potent as adults. However, the amount of venom they can inject is less as their venom glands are smaller. Although this might make them less dangerous than adults, many species can kill with a small amount of venom.

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