Playing dead (thanatosis) is a common defense mechanism. But of all the animals you associate with pretending to be dead, snakes aren’t necessarily one of them.
The hognose snake will flip onto its back and loll its tongue from its wide-open mouth. It will musk so it smells dead, too. Snakes of other genera, like the grass snake and garter snake, sometimes play dead. Snakes that play possum do so as a last resort to deter predators.
Pretending to be dead is something that you see more frequently in wild than captive snakes. Captive snakes quickly learn that you aren’t a predator, so don’t need to play dead. So, your pet snake is more likely digesting its food (which takes days/weeks) than playing dead.
Are There Snakes that Pretend to Be Dead?
Many snake species play dead. Some are well known for their behavior. However, these species are all in the same family: the hognose snake family.
These snakes are common across the continental United States. They are non-venomous, despite an urban myth that they can breathe venom on you. Rather than becoming aggressive, these snakes use their patented trick: playing possum.
According to the journal of Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, hognoses aren’t the only snakes known to play dead, though. ‘Tonic immobility’ is ‘relatively prevalent amongst snakes, but the number of families involved remains unclear, according to these researchers.
The article (above) lists animals of many different kinds, not just snakes. But snakes referenced as also playing dead include garter snakes and grass snakes.
How Do Hognose Snakes Play Dead?
Hognose snakes have several ways of defending themselves, aside from playing dead. If they feel threatened, they will begin with these alternative methods.
They will first hiss at you to try and scare you. They will even spread their neck out as wide as it can go, like the cobra does. This is often enough to scare away a potential predator or threat.
If you still don’t leave them alone, they may strike, although they rarely do this is if the threatening animal is much bigger than they are.
But when this doesn’t work, they’ll pretend to have died. Their performance is unique, convincing (to other animals), and can appear quite funny.
The main part of their display is that they will roll onto their back, rather than their belly. They will coil and curl up before flipping over. They will then writhe around, almost as if they’re in pain, quite violently. Eventually, they will become still.
Then, their mouth will hang open with their tongue lolling out. They will be as still as possible even if you pick them up. And if you try to flip them back onto their belly, they will immediately flip back onto their back.
In addition to this, the snake will musk. This is where they produce a foul-smelling, sticky substance from their cloaca. It’s like what a skunk does. They may also defecate at the same time. The idea is to make themselves as unappetizing as possible.
It’s difficult to imagine how this might work, but it does. You might think that a predator would realize they haven’t died, as there wasn’t anything around to kill them. But they fall for it all the time.
When Do Snakes Pretend to Be Dead?
Playing dead comes late-on in the predation sequence. It’s a last-ditch attempt to get a predator to leave the prey alone rather than a first resort.
It usually occurs after the predator has been in physical contact with the prey. You can see this in action if you ever encounter a hognose snake. To get them to perform their display, touch them a few times and they likely will.
Knowing this, you’re probably wondering whether it does work. And that would be a good question: after all, if the predator is trying to kill the prey, and then it pretends to be dead, isn’t that much the same? Wouldn’t the predator eat the prey anyway?
The idea isn’t that playing dead will guarantee the snake’s safety. It may only work half the time. But because they only use it as a last resort, a fifty percent chance is much better than certain death.
Do Other Snake Species Play Dead?
Hognose snakes are the only species known for playing dead. Other species can, but do so rarely.
Why this is the case isn’t clear. Playing dead, also known by the scientific term thanatosis, is an effective means of protection. Snakes of a similar small size would benefit from playing dead like hognoses. They would be predated on less often.
Also, they have the means to do it. The musk that the hognoses can produce makes them unappetizing. Frankly, it makes them smell like something that’s been rotting in the sun. But many other snake species can produce musk too.
The reason why only certain snakes play dead comes down to evolution. Different species will adapt different defensive mechanisms based on their environment. Some kingsnakes developed to look like the deadly coral snake, for example.
The hognose snake learned to play dead because it benefitted it. To figure out exactly why, you would need to look at the species it lived near, and its predators. Playing dead must have been their most effective defense.
Do Pet Snakes Play Dead?
Pet snakes generally don’t play dead. For starters, the most common pet snake species, ball pythons, and corn snakes, don’t know how to. You won’t ever see them play dead. If they refuse to move, then they may be dead.
But even pet hognose snakes don’t play dead. They quickly drop their death-feigning act after a little time in captivity. This applies both to wild-caught and captive-bred snakes.
There’s a good reason for that. Snakes that play dead do so to avoid predators. While they won’t grow to love you like other pets, they will come to understand that you don’t want to eat them.
When they realize this, there’s no need for them to play dead anymore. You may notice your pet hognose playing dead initially after they hatch or are caught. But they will ‘grow out’ of the behavior the longer you have them.
Why Do Snakes Play Dead?
There is one main reason why a snake would choose to play dead—to defend themselves. But you may also be mistaking their behavior for something it isn’t.
Dead Prey Can Make Animals Sick
The main reason why any animal pretends to be dead is as a defense mechanism.
It’s almost counterintuitive. Playing dead means staying still even after a potential predator has found you. You might think that this will make it easier for the predator to kill you.
But many predators actively avoid eating dead prey. Snakes themselves are a good example, and their reluctance to eat food that’s pre-killed is a source of worry and frustration for many snake owners. They have an innate instinct to avoid eating prey they haven’t personally killed.
A prey item that’s dead may be infested with parasites or bacteria. If eaten, this would do the snake much more harm than good. That’s why they prefer killing the prey themselves.
Last Resort Defense Mechanism
Something you’ll find with animals that play dead is that they use it as a last resort.
This is something we see with the hognose snake, as described above. When they encounter a predator, they may first hiss loudly, raise their body, and widen their neck. This may be enough to frighten certain predators away.
However, it may not work. This is when the snake will pull out their last resort ace-up-their-sleeve. There’s a chance that playing dead may frighten the predator, or at least convince them not to eat the snake.
Of course, there’s still a chance the predator could eat the snake anyway. But the point is that playing dead is their last chance at survival.
Snakes are Slow
Snakes play dead because they can’t escape quickly from a predator. Consider a completely different animal, like a fox. What defense mechanisms do they have? A fox could use its teeth and claws, or its loud growl. In that way, it isn’t too different from a snake.
But one significant difference is that foxes are fast and wily. They can escape dangerous situations easily by running away. Animals prefer running away, because it’s the least risky option, especially for an animal that’s smaller than whatever’s threatening it.
Snakes can’t run away. They can try to get away as quickly as they can, but they can’t ‘outrun’ a bird of prey, a mongoose, or similar animals that might make a meal of them.
This leaves them with the option of fighting. Most snakes try to fight back by making themselves look big and striking with their fangs exposed. But if this isn’t enough to scare a threat away, a snake isn’t left with many options.
That’s where playing dead may come in useful. This is backed up by the observation that gravid, i.e. pregnant snakes will use death feigning more frequently than non-gravid snakes. Their slower speed makes them more vulnerable.
To be clear, this idea hasn’t been backed up by rigorous research yet. To figure that out, you would have to compare rates of playing dead in species that are quick versus slow species. You would also have to account for the speed of the predators.
This is an explanation that makes sense rather than a definitive answer.
They Aren’t Really Playing Dead
You may also be misidentifying that your snake is playing dead. It may not be purposefully playing dead, but staying still for another reason.
Snakes are notorious for not moving much. There are several reasons why:
- To digest, snakes rely on the warmth of the sun. They find a warm rock to sit on and warm their bellies.
- Many snakes are ambush hunters. This means that they don’t chase prey, but wait for prey. They sit still in one place as still as they can.
- Snakes conserve their energy. They only eat infrequently, so can’t go slithering from place to place all the time.
- Some species rely on their camouflage. They’ll sit still on a branch, hidden away from their potential predators.
Your snake could be exhibiting these behaviors rather than specifically playing dead. Playing dead is something specific in snakes and is often accompanied by other recognizable behaviors.
This is especially likely with captive snakes. Over time, captive snakes learn that you aren’t likely to eat them when you’re near them or handle them. They don’t become your friend, but at least understand you aren’t a predator.
This means that captive snakes are unlikely to play dead. They may do so at first as they’re getting used to you. But over time, they learn that there’s no need.
This even applies to hognose snakes—it applies to every species. So, if you see your snake sitting still, it’s probably relaxing or digesting rather than pretending not to be alive.