Any snake owner knows that their pet isn’t like other pets. Snakes don’t jump up to see you and sniff you when you get home from work. And they won’t snuggle up with you on the sofa, either. But while they can’t love you, can they recognize you, and distinguish you from other people?
The fact that they ‘become comfortable’ doesn’t necessarily mean that they recognize you by smell, though. They could be responding to the fact that you don’t get nervous when handling them.
Do Snakes Have a Sense of Smell?
Snakes most definitely have a sense of smell. It’s much more powerful than humans. Their sense of smell relies on something called Jacobson’s organ, or the vomeronasal organ. This organ analyzes chemicals that the snake finds in the air, so that the snake can identify what they are. Our sense of smell does the same thing, but differently. These differences include:
- The snake uses their tongue to assist their sense of smell. They flick their tongue out to pick up particles in the air, before bringing their tongue back into their mouth and pressing it up against the vomeronasal organ.
- Their tongue is forked so that the organ can tell which side there are more particles on, and consequently, which direction the smell is coming from. They can then go in that direction, and should be able to locate their prey.
Not only that, but their sense of smell is stronger than humans. They need to be able to seek out prey from a distance. Because we don’t rely on our sense of smell to find food, our sense has become duller and duller over time in comparison.
How Many Nostrils do Snakes Have?
Snakes have two nostrils, just like other animals. However, if you’ve got a pet python, no doubt you’ve noticed that they have several more ‘nostrils’ at the front of their nose. They have two in the center on top of their nose, but then they have several more, radiating out. They look almost like a small, dotted mustache.
But while they look like nostrils, they aren’t. These are called heat pits. They’re small, infrared heat-detecting pits on the front of the snake’s nose. They can sense minor heat fluctuations in their environment from a small distance away. This sense helps them to find prey from a short distance away, which is especially useful if they’re hunting at night.
Curiously enough, snakes don’t use their nostrils to smell like we do. Snakes use their nostrils solely for breathing. They will move the top of their windpipe, an organ called the glottis, and place it against their nostrils from the inside of their mouth. They will then breathe directly through their nostrils, without the air coming in through their mouth at any point.
Can Snakes Smell Fear?
It’s not clear whether snakes can sense fear, at least through smell. While they can certainly sense if you’re afraid of them because of the way that you act, the idea that they can smell when you’re afraid is an odd one. It seems to be based on old ideas about sharks and other predators.
It does have some scientific backing. According to Live Science, a team of scientists sought to find out whether we do give off a unique smell when we’re afraid. They found that sweat collected from people watching scary movies prompted a different reaction in people than sweat collected during disgusting movie scenes. This suggests that we do release unique hormones or chemicals when we’re frightened.
As for whether snakes can pick up on that, that remains unclear. A study would need to be done on snakes, and how they react to people. Studies of that nature haven’t been done.
However, snakes can sense fear if somebody is handling them, or is near them. That’s because your body language gives it away. If you’re trembling and moving suddenly when you’re holding a snake, then the snake will pick up on that, and try and get away from you because you’re unpredictable. Controlling your body language and moving comfortably and confidently is the key to successful snake handling. It’s now how you smell.
What Scent do Snakes Hate?
Snakes dislike any smell that would be toxic to them. One example is ammonia, which has an incredibly pungent smell, and isn’t good for you if you ingest it. Snakes will avoid any smell like that. Some people also say that essential oils repel snakes, although the jury’s out on whether that’s really true, or just the latest DIY gimmick.
Generally speaking, anything that smells strong or bitter is likely to repel them. But they certainly don’t dislike the smell of people, unless you train them not to!
Can Snakes Smell Humans?
Snakes can most definitely smell humans. People give off a scent, whether we wash in the mornings or not. Our sense of smell has gradually become less and less sensitive over the course of our evolutionary history, so we can’t always smell what people smell like. But that doesn’t mean those smells aren’t there.
One of the best examples is the bear. Bears can smell people, and the food they’re carrying, from incredible distances. Their sense of smell is so acute that it’s thought they can smell you from a total of twenty miles. Considering that we can’t smell anything but the strongest smells from the next room, that’s a mightily impressive range.
Now, snakes don’t have as finely tuned a sense of smell as bears do. Far from it. Snakes use a multitude of senses, not just their sense of smell, to find prey that’s within ten feet or so. But in the context of recognizing your smell the smell of a human when you handle them, they absolutely can.
Can Snakes Tell Who Their Owner Is?
Snakes may be able to recognize their owner, or they may not. It’s unclear since this is something that no scientific study has looked into yet. There are both arguments for and against.
Anecdotally speaking, if you were to ask different snake owners, you would probably get a few different responses. Experienced owners will tell you that while their snakes are completely comfortable with them, if they were to hand their snake to somebody else, then the snake might react badly. This would suggest that the snake recognizes that their owner isn’t a threat, whereas the other person might be.
Reasons to believe that a snake wouldn’t be able to differentiate their owner from others include:
- A snake’s vision is much poorer than its owner’s. Snake’s lack a small part of the eye called the foveal pit. This is located at the rear of the eye, and it helps us focus on detail. Because snakes don’t have a foveal pit, their vision is blurry, sort of like what you can see towards the edge of your visual range. As such, they won’t recognize you by sight.
- Snake’s can’t hear your voice. They don’t have ears that pick up on airborne sounds like humans. We have outer ears to catch these sounds as they pass through the air. Snakes don’t, because they pick up sounds as vibrations through the ground. Because your voice doesn’t travel this way, they can’t hear it.
- A snake’s heat pit can’t differentiate between two people. All it can sense is whether there’s something warm nearby—not what that warm thing is.
The most likely explanation is a combination of factors. When the snake is first ever handled, they’ll smell the smell of a ‘human’ and be worried. They’ve never encountered that smell before, and don’t know whether it’s a threat or not.
Over time, they’ll learn that you won’t hurt them when you pick them up, so they’ll associate that food with neither food nor threats to their life. There’s a chance that they can recognize your unique scent and that you specifically aren’t a threat, but scientific backing for that idea isn’t forthcoming.
Can Snakes Remember Your Scent?
As for whether snakes can recognize your scent, that’s a different question. On the one hand, the chemicals that pour into our bloodstream when we’re stressed don’t differ person by person. Adrenaline, for example, is the same in your body and somebody else’s body.
So, if the snake were to pick up on the fact that your body was producing adrenaline, that doesn’t tell them anything about who you are.
However, according to PLoS ONE, we each have a unique odor. The scientists in the study took a sample of mice, and investigated how diet could change what they smell like. They found that mice could distinguish between the smell of normal mice, and that of genetically altered mice.
Their findings suggest that each animal has its own unique odor type, as unique as a fingerprint. Hypothetically, if we could distinguish smells far better than we can, we would be able to identify people just by their body odor. There is no science to say that a snake could do the same, at least not yet. But considering that they have a better sense of smell than we do, it’s not inconceivable.
Do Snakes Have a Brain?
Snakes do have a brain, although it’s less complex humans. Generally speaking, mammals have more complex brains than other animals. It’s because, over millions of years of evolution, many mammal species have learned how to live as social animals. Living socially requires the ability to communicate, at least in some way, as well as remember who’s who. Social structures, language, and later on tool making all led to the development of the mammal brain—and ours today.
But just because other creatures are less complex, that doesn’t mean they don’t have brains. It has fewer sections than ours does. Both mammals and lizards have central parts of the brain. These are the brain stem, cerebellum, and basal ganglia. These control basic responses like fear, fight, and flight, as well as the desire for sex.
Lizards lack two parts of the brain that we have. The limbic system wraps around the central parts of the brain, and is responsible for processing emotions. Because snakes lack this part of the brain, we can presume they don’t feel emotions like we do. Mammals also have a part of the brain called the cortex, which is like the very outer layer of the brain. This evolved the most recently, and is responsible for controlling emotions and logical decision-making, and problem-solving.
Do Snakes Get Attached to Their Owners?
Because snakes lack a limbic system and cortex, we can presume that snakes don’t feel emotions like we do. They don’t feel happiness or joy, or sadness. They may feel boredom, which isn’t an emotion per se, but an innate drive to do something useful like hunting, socializing or mating. Snakes may feel this drive, but it’s impossible to say.
What they certainly don’t feel is love. As you’ll know, love is a highly complex emotion that’s processed throughout the brain. While snakes desire to mate in the same way that we do, that’s separate to the emotional feeling we call love. As much as you might love your pet, they can’t love you back. A pet snake can become more comfortable around you.
Nonetheless, it’s clear that a snake can get to know their owner. A snake that’s used to being handled will recognize that you aren’t a threat, i.e., that you aren’t going to eat them or hurt them. Over time, they adjust their behavior to reflect that fact, by not biting or hissing at you.