Charming snake: The male usually searches for and courts the female when he is ready to mate.
Marvellous Males: Male snakes have two penis (called hemipenes or “half penis” in the mistaken belief that they were pressed together to form one penis). Lizards are similarly equipped. Some snakes alternate between the two for separate matings, some just use which ever is closest to the female. The hemipenes inflates when it is inserted into the female and some hemipenes may be forked or spined, probably to ensure it stays inside the female during what can be a long mating.
Some males prevent the female from mating with other males by prolonging mating (remaining connected for up to 6 hours). Other simply hang around for a few days, keeping other males off. Some plug her up with secretions. Some are even sneakier: Garter Snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) hibernate in large communal groups. In spring, the males emerge first and wait for the females to emerge. When a female sleepily stumbles out, tons of males form frenzied mating balls around her. Some males produce female pheromones which confuse other males and give them a chance to fertilise the real female. Once a male gets to her, the others scatter because he releases a pheromone than causes temporary impotence in other males.
Male ritual combat: Most males battling for a female will not bite each other and instead wrestle to try to force their rival’s head to the ground. The battle is more like a dance; combatants may “stand” erect parallel to each other, or twine around each other like a rope. A few snakes do actually bite each other. Sometimes a female initiates the first stage of combat and wrestles with the male. She will reject the suitor if he does not respond forcefully. For photos and a description of male rattlesnakes in combat, see Roger Repp's article Tuscon Herpetological Society site.
How often do snakes mate? Most snakes mate once a year, usually timing it so that the young will emerge when it is warm and prey is abundant.
But some snakes don’t mate every year. Females usually don’t eat when they are pregnant so they need to build up their strength before they mate again. It can be years in between matings. Seasnakes may mate only once every 10 years! The range of the European Adder (Vipera berus) extends into the Arctic Circle. Females give birth to live young in about 2 months but don't feed while they are pregnant. Many die after giving birth and survivors often fail to gather enough energy to breed again the next season.
Some female snakes can store sperm for several years and fertilise several clutches of eggs from this store. The Brahminy Blindsnake (Ramphotyphlops braminus) can reproduce without males (parthenogenic). Her eggs are self-fertilising and produces only females.
How to tell the boys from the girls? For humans, it is hard to determine a snake’s gender without an internal examination. Males tend to have longer, fatter tails (when not in use, the hemipenes are inverted and tucked into their tails), females have bigger bodies to make and contain eggs; but there are exceptions.
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!