Most of us can recall the striking image of a snake’s fangs from our childhood. But if you’ve never encountered a snake in real life and has the chance to look inside its mouth, you might wonder whether they just have fangs, or they also have any other teeth, too.
The guide below covers everything you need to know about snake teeth, starting with some facts about how many teeth snakes have, and which types of snakes don’t have any teeth at all.
- 1 What Teeth Do Snakes Have?
- 2 Why Don’t Some Snakes Need Teeth?
- 3 Snake Teeth Types
- 4 Do Snakes Have Normal Teeth?
What Teeth Do Snakes Have?
Like other predators, snakes have several rows of teeth. They generally have four rows on the top and two rows on the bottom. However, the number of teeth, the arrangement of the teeth and the number of rows are species-specific, meaning that it varies from one species to another.
Snakes kept as pets have teeth in the following arrangement:
- One row of teeth on each side of the lower jaw
- Two rows of teeth on each side of the upper jaw
These teeth don’t meet in the middle like ours. Snakes don’t have a chin, just two jawbones with nothing connecting them, which is how they can open their mouth so wide.
If you take a look inside your snake’s mouth, though, you might not be able to see them. Your snake’s gums typically cover them. That’s why you can see so many teeth if you look at a dead snake’s skull, but not so many in a living snake’s mouth.
How Many Teeth Do Snakes Have?
Again, it depends very much on the species of snake. Some have hardly any teeth, whereas some have far more than we do. Boa constrictors, for example, can boast upwards of a hundred teeth. But since they’re not venomous, boas don’t have fangs.
King cobras, by contrast, have two large fangs and maybe twenty or so small teeth.
Why Don’t Some Snakes Need Teeth?
The answer is a part of the snake’s unique evolutionary biology.
If you take a look at a herbivore’s teeth, they don’t have fangs. Instead, they have molars, which are large and flat teeth that are perfect for grinding down vegetables, leaves, and grass.
Because there’s less nutrition in a pound of grass than in a pound of meat, herbivores have to process their meals more, chew them for longer, and digest them for longer.
Snakes are not herbivores; they are strict carnivores. They don’t eat anything other than meat. That’s why they only have the teeth that they need for their diet.
These are their fangs, for envenoming prey, and small teeth that aren’t for chewing but for holding onto prey. Like all things in nature, snakes only have what they need.
Types of Snakes Without Teeth
You might think that some snakes don’t need teeth. Egg-eating snakes spring to mind. These are a group of colubrid snakes that have adapted to eat nothing but eggs—no live prey, no berries, no leaves or grass, just eggs.
So, why would an egg-eating snake need teeth? Perhaps to fight off predators. But concerning eating, teeth would only get in the way when their only food is so big and round. Imagine if you tried to eat an egg whole. It would be a lot easier if you didn’t have any teeth, wouldn’t it?
And that’s precisely why egg-eating snakes don’t have teeth. They don’t have fangs, and they don’t have teeth in their mouth. Instead, they have tiny bone spurs along the inside of their spine. These small protrusions help the snake to crack into the eggs once they’ve swallowed them.
Not surprisingly, African egg-eating snakes are popular pets as they’re so harmless.
Snake Teeth Types
There are three main kinds of snake fang. Each has a similar use but works differently. Apart from that, some snakes have regular teeth too, although not for the same purpose that we do.
Let’s take a look at each of the kinds of snake teeth in turn.
1) Proteroglyphous Snake Fangs
These are regular snake fangs, the kind you’re used to seeing. They’re not that long, because they’re fixed in place on the snake’s jaw. Snakes in the Elapid family have fangs like these, including cobras, mambas, coral snakes and others.
Their fangs are hollow, which allows elapids to inject their prey with highly concentrated venom. Small ducts connect the fangs to the venom glands, which are behind the mouth and to each side of the head. The venom shoots out of the gland, through the ducts, through the hollow fangs, and into the prey, killing it or incapacitating it.
All genuinely venomous snakes use proteroglyphous fangs or solenoglyphous fangs, which are similar.
2) Solenoglyphous Fangs
Do snakes teeth retract? The solenoglyphous fangs do.
Solenoglyphous fangs are fangs that fold back up against the roof of the mouth. Only vipers like rattlesnakes have these kinds of fangs.
They’re attached to the jaw on a hinge, so that the snake can, in a way, retract them when they’re not in use. When they’re ready to strike, the snake will lower them down, and bite at you faster than you can blink.
This allows the fangs to be much longer than those of your average snake. If they couldn’t fold them back up against the roof of their mouth, the teeth would get caught on their lower jaw.
Because they can fold, a rattlesnake’s fangs can reach an incredible six inches long, which is about the length of an adult’s hand.
3) Opisthoglyphous Snake Fangs
Colubrids are the biggest snake family. They include corn snakes, garter snakes, and kingsnakes. These fangs are located further back in the mouth, which makes it harder to deliver venom.
However, it also makes it more difficult for any prey to wriggle free from the snake’s clutches, because the fangs point backward.
This gives constrictors the time to wrap themselves around their prey, which usually takes a few seconds. Some constrictors have a mild venom that incapacitates their prey, which helps.
Do Snakes Have Normal Teeth?
Some snakes have normal teeth, also known as aglyphous teeth. These are like the fangs that other predators such as cats have, and snakes that have these teeth usually have quite a few of them.
They’re not the same as the teeth we have, like molars for example. They’re like rows of incisors, all the way up along the jaw.
And, of course, snakes don’t use these teeth for chewing. They use them for catching and keeping hold of prey. The teeth point backward, just like those of rear-fanged snakes (Opisthoglyphous teeth) so that the prey can’t get away.
These teeth aren’t venomous, either, so they’re quite similar to regular teeth in that regard too.
How Do Snake Fangs Work?
Snake fangs are like small hypodermic needles. They’re ordinarily hollow or have a groove running down them, that carries venom.
If you didn’t know, snake venom is just saliva. But instead of producing saliva as we do, snakes produce highly modified saliva that contains toxins which affect both the blood and tissue.
The venom glands that produce this venom are similar to the glands that produce our saliva. And there’s not just one kind of venom; there are dozens, each of which has different effects and works differently. Snakes have developed these different kinds of venom over millions of years.
When the snake bites prey, it has muscles called compressor muscles which generate a tremendous amount of pressure in a very small space, essentially shooting the venom out through their hollow teeth.
It’s this same mechanism which makes it possible for some snakes to spit venom at you, without even having to bite you.
The venom then enters the bloodstream of whatever the snake attacked, and through their bloodstream, travels around their body quickly. That’s why venom is so fast-acting.
What Are Snake Teeth Made Of?
Snake teeth and fangs are made of enamel, just like our teeth.
Enamel is harder than bones, which is why it’s so instrumental as a tool for attacking other animals. Underneath the enamel is dentin, which is bone-like tissue, and inside that is a soft core called the pulp. The pulp connects the tooth to the jaw and is sensitive if exposed.
Snake fangs, however, are different. Snake fangs are either hollow or have a very deep, almost closed-off groove running through their center.
Either of these modifications is essential for the snake to be able to envenom their prey. However, snakes have dentine and enamel in their teeth, just like we do.
That being said, snakes don’t have pulp in a socket that attaches teeth to the jaw. Instead, snake teeth are ‘acrodont,’ which means that they’re connected directly to the bone of the jaw itself.
When Do Snakes Grow Teeth?
A snake’s teeth develop before they hatch. Without them, a hatchling snake wouldn’t be able to eat.
If you buy a hatchling snake as a pet, you feed them straight away. You don’t nurse them on milk, or baby food like a human baby. They have to eat real prey, from the moment they’re hatched.
That’s why their teeth and fangs develop before they even hatch so that they don’t starve. As the snake grows, they’ll grow in bigger teeth over time, just like how they need to shed their skin.
Snakes never stop growing bigger, and they never stop needing to regrow teeth, either.
Do Snakes Regrow Teeth?
One thing you’ll have noticed is that snakes have quite thin teeth, and you’re right. They’re quite brittle, too, compared to our teeth at least.
Their teeth break fairly regularly. If your teeth fall out—if you’re an adult, anyway—they don’t grow back, and you’ll need to visit your dentist.
According to a paper in the International Journal of Oral Science, snakes are ‘polyphyodonts.’ This means that they can continually replace their teeth over their lifetime.
Humans, by contrast, are ‘diphydonts’ which means that we only ever have two sets of teeth, one when we’re young, and one when we’re older.
It works as follows:
- New, permanent teeth grow in the jaw itself, just below or behind the tooth that they will eventually replace. These teeth are made from stem cells.
- Every few months, the snake will naturally lose a tooth or two after a particularly fearsome prey animal knocked them out.
- In the absence of the original tooth, the replacement tooth will push up into its place.
This can happen continually, for as long as the animal is alive. There’s no limit on the number of teeth that a snake can replace. That’s why if you get a snake de-fanged, you’ll have to do it again because more will grow back eventually. Here are some other interesting snake teeth facts.