What predators eat snakes?
While many creatures snack on snakes as a side dish, few predators eat only snakes. The exceptions are some birds of prey and snakes which eat snakes!
Birds are major snake predators: not just birds of prey but also little itty bitty birds which eat baby snakes. Some birds specialise in snakes: The Secretary Bird worries a snake to death, dancing around it, stomping on it and throwing it up in the air until it dies. The Road Runner also eats snakes. But these birds eat other things besides snakes. Small snakes are vulnerable to other bigger carnivorous or omnivorous creatures. Even spiders eat small and juvenile snakes, some have venom to kill small pit vipers. Snakes eggs are also relished by many.
Contrary to popular belief, mongooses don’t eat only snakes, they eat mostly small mammals, insects and fruits. Mongoose had been introduced to new areas in the hope that they would eliminate dangerous snakes, but instead, the mongoose avoided snakes and focuses on mammals and ground-nesting birds, and seriously threatened these local species.
The most efficient and widespread predator on snakes is humans. We have killed more snakes and destroyed snake habitats than any other snake predator. For more on the status and threats to snakes. Predators usually get the better of a snake by exhausting it first. A snake cannot keep up active movements for long because snakes are "cold-blooded" (ectothermic). So predators circle and irritate the snake into making frenzied defence postures. When the snake becomes tired, the predator will kill it with a bite to its neck. For more about being "cold-blooded".
Are snake predators immune to snake venom? Animals which eat snakes are often more resistant to the venom of their favourite snack. But they are not completely immune, they can just take much larger doses of the venom without ill effect. They are also not resistant to the venom of other snake species. An opossum, for example, can endure a dose of rattlesnake venom 60 times that which would be lethal to another mammal of the same size. An injection enough to kill a horse produces only a slight change in heartbeat, and within half an hour, the opossum shows absolutely no ill effects. But the opossum would drop dead if a cobra bit it, as cobras don't naturally occur in its habitat. Other snake-eaters which have developed resistance include: mongoose, some rats and hedgehogs, meerkats. Even domestic cats are resistant to cobras. Snakes which feed on snakes are also resistant to the venom of their prey.
How do snakes protect themselves? A snake will prefer to run away or scare off a predator than to waste its precious venom or expose its head to risk by bringing it near a potential predator. The following are the many ways snakes protect themselves. A snake may use several of these techniques one after the other. Most bite only as a last resort.
Camouflage: Although some patterns may appear vivid, they effectively camouflage when the snake is in its normal habitat. They blend the snake in with the background and break up its outline. The snake may enhance this by its posture and movement; vine snakes sway with the breeze, stick-mimics stay stiff.
Misdirection and head hiding: Some snakes use their blunt tails to mimic the head, holding up, coiling or even striking out with their tails. Pipesnake's tails are flattened to resemble cobra hoods. The real head is hidden within their coils, ready for a counterattack. This behaviour probably gave rise to the myth of two-headed snakes. Some snakes don’t bother with the tail distraction and curl into a very tight ball with the head firmly in the centre. Ball Pythons (Python regius) do this, as well as the Rubber Boa (Charina bottae) and Rosy Boa (Lichanura trivirgata); these boas also have blunt tails which they may wave to mimic their heads. For this reason, these boas are sometimes referred to as "two-headed" snakes.
Can you find the TWO highly venomous Gaboon Vipers (Bitis gabonica) in the photo?
Multicoloured bands make a snake appear to be of one colour as it moves quickly blending the colours. When it stops and its many colours camouflage it against the background, a predator looking for a single-coloured snake will think it disappeared into thin air! Banding also results in flicker fusion, the illusion that the snake is going in the opposite direction (just as a car’s wheel spokes appear to rotate in the opposite direction). Snakes that are banded tend to rely on speed and this flicker fusion effect to escape, while blotched snakes with irregular patterns stay still to rely on camouflage.
Being disgusting: Most harmless snakes put off predators by releasing a foul-smelling mixture of musk and faeces from their cloaca. They may wipe the stuff all over their bodies by writhing in coils (yucky!). The stuff doesn't just smell bad, it also tastes vile and is long-lasting. Most venomous snakes don’t stoop so low. Warning colours: Some have conspicuous colours or patterns to advertise a venomous or distasteful nature. In nature, the same colour combinations used in our traffic signs are used as warning colours. Red, yellow, black and white in various combinations signal "keep off!”.
Mimics: Many harmless snakes mimic the bright warning colours of venomous snakes especially if they share the same predator or territory. Here's one way to remember which colourful banded snake is dangerous and which is the mimic: "Red touch yellow, kill a fellow; red touch black, poison lack". Can you now tell which of the two snakes below is the dangerous one?
The Scarlet Kingsnake
(Lampropeltis triangulum elapsoides)
The Texas Coral Snake
(Micrurus fulvius tener)
Even other creatures mimic snakes! The caterpillar of a Costa Rican moth has features on its rear end which mimics a viper!
To remain camouflaged when not in danger, some warning colours are only revealed when threatened, to surprise or intimidate predators. Examples include: coloured underbelly; coloured skin or banding hidden in between dull coloured scales, exposed by inflating the body with air; coloured mouth lining exposed by gaping the mouth has scary eye-shaped designs on the back of the hood to discourage attacks from behind.
Feigning death may mislead the predator into stopping its attack so the snake can make a getaway. The Oscar Award Winner must surely go to the harmless, burrowing Hognosed Snake (Heterodon spp) (left). When alarmed, it will first hiss menacingly, flatten its neck like a cobra and make short darting strikes with its mouth closed. If that doesn't’t work, it starts writhing as if in great pain and gapes its mouth open. It then pretends to die by flipping over on its back, wiggling a bit before freezing. It may bleed at the mouth, regurgitate food or hang out its tongue. If you pick it up and place it upright, it will roll over onto its back again to continue playing dead! This behaviour appears common among toad-eating snakes. One suggestion is that such snakes have large adrenal glands and are perhaps more likely to go into shock when attacked. The Asian tentacled snake (Erpeton tentaculum) pretends to be dead by holding its body as straight and stiff as a stick.
Biting: Snakes prefer not to bite and will usually give many warnings before doing so. Baring fangs: Opening the mouth widely, displaying teeth and sometimes a startlingly coloured inner mouth. Making warning noises. Getting into strike position: The classic S-shape. Some harmless snakes make false strikes with their mouths closed. Most venomous snakes make a few false strikes before actually biting. And many that do bite usually don't inject their precious venom ("dry bites"). Large harmless snakes may inflict powerful “punches” with their strikes. Some harmless snakes have spine-tipped tails used to jab predators.
Spitting venom: Only a few cobras spit venom and only for defence, never to catch prey. The snake aims for the eyes and is accurate. The snake will usually flee after spitting. Only three Elapidae groups can spit: two groups are African cobras, the third group are cobras in Southeast Asia. For more about spitting cobras.
More about snakes
- What are snakes?
- Are snakes cold?
- Why are snakes long?
- What do snakes eat? Do they drink?
- How do snakes swallow?
- How do snakes hunt?
- Why and how do snakes kill?
Snake predators and how do snakes protect themselves?
Snake mating, eggs and babies
Where are snakes found?
Fascinating snake adaptations to various habitats
Snake bites and first aid
Snakes in danger: role and conservation and snakes in human culture
Snake records: biggest, smallest, deadliest and more
- More snakes
- More animals
- General snake links and references
Further informations in german can be found here!