Snakes flick their tongue to detect chemical signals given off by nearby prey. Depending on the species, they use various capture techniques that focus on their core abilities and natural aptitudes. Snakes will then either constrict (suffocate) or kill their prey with a potent venom.
1/ Snakes ambush their prey after patiently waiting for it to come close to them. 2/ Snakes pick up a scent and follow it, eventually sneaking up on their prey. 3/ Snakes chase after and capture their prey.
You’ll notice a considerable variation in approaches between species, but all snakes use one of these three core methods. So, let’s take an in-depth look at how snakes capture their prey in the wild.
How Does a Snake Catch Its Food?
The ideal scenario is that snakes will expend minimal energy when capturing their prey.
Snakes have to make sure that they don’t use up all their energy—burning up all their caloric reserves—when hunting for food and making the capture.
Are Snakes Ambush Predators?
Ambush predators pick a spot where they can relax and wait for prey to come to them. It’s less a case of ‘how do snakes find prey?’, and more a case of ‘how does prey find snakes’?
This is the least effort that you could put into hunting. That makes it the optimal method for snakes that only need to eat infrequently.
If a snake only needs to eat every few weeks or even every few months, then they can afford to conserve energy by using ambush hunting.
It’s also useful because it makes it unlikely that a predator is going to find you. Some snakes are ambush predators, but not all. Examples of ambush predator snakes include:
- Western hognose snakes. These snakes burrow under loose soil or vegetation to hide. They then wait until some prey passes by, like a small frog or lizard.
- Reticulated pythons. These are the biggest snakes in the world and are primarily ambush hunters. A retic will wait either in a tree or on the forest floor, waiting for a small mammal—or even something as big as a deer—to wander by before striking.
These two snakes live in entirely different parts of the world. Western hognoses are from here in the U.S., whereas reticulated pythons live in southeast Asia. But the principle is the same.
Neither snake wants to use much energy and wait for weeks between meals. This means that they can sit by silently and as still as possible waiting for prey to come their way.
How Do Snakes Attack Their Prey?
There are three different kinds of snake. There are venomous snakes, constrictors, and snakes that swallow their prey alive.
Venomous snakes that bite their prey wait until their prey is either incapacitated or dead before eating it. This usually doesn’t take long, depending on the size of the prey.
One bite is enough from a venomous snake to kill typical prey like small mammals, lizards, and rodents. Their venom is toxic and stops the nervous system from functioning.
Examples of snakes that use venom to catch their prey include:
- King cobras. These are some of the most venomous snakes in the world. And to prove how feisty they are, king cobras almost exclusively eat other snakes.
- Sea snakes. Snakes, such as the black-banded sea krait and yellow-bellied sea snake, are superb swimmers. According to the Marine Education Society of Australasia, they swim up behind their prey and kill it with their venom, which is strong enough to kill a human.
These snakes can catch their prey in a variety of ways. Venomous snakes won’t constrict their prey but can be ambush predators or exploratory hunters.
For example, a venomous snake might find a rabbit hole and explore it in search of prey. When they find it, they’ll bite it, injecting their toxic venom.
You can find out more in our complete guide to America’s most venomous snakes.
How Do Constrictors Catch Their Prey?
Constrictors snake hunting tactics are quite similar to venomous snakes, but with the use of venom.
They attack prey by biting it and keeping hold of them in their strong jaws. The constrictor will then wrap around its target and squeeze as hard as it can.
Constrictors won’t choke their prey to death. The force of a constrictor’s coils is strong enough to stop the prey’s heart from beating. Examples of constrictors include:
- Boa constrictors. These snakes are long and strong. Boas can reach 13 feet, and use their length to their advantage when coiling around prey. They’re native to tropics the Americas, too.
- Reticulated pythons. If boa constrictors are long, then reticulated pythons are gigantic. These snakes may reach thirty feet in their natural southeast Asian habitat, but are an average twenty feet. Again, they use their long midsection and tail to constrict prey.
Constrictors tend to be quite long and thick snakes, the better to constrict their prey. They have different teeth to venomous snakes.
Their teeth are more like a kind of raptor or dog. Their sharp, backward-facing teeth help them grab onto prey and keep it in place, alive, while they coil around it.
Do Snakes Chase After Prey?
The third way that a snake can attack prey is by chasing after it. This isn’t that common. You might also be relieved to hear that snakes don’t ever chase after people.
They have no reason to. They much prefer slithering away in the opposite direction, trying to escape rather than to catch up with you.
Some snakes like eastern racers do chase their prey and can achieve quite high speeds. The majority of snakes, though, prefer ambush hunting or just sneaking up on prey.
This is much easier than chasing after something and uses much less energy. It’s also less conspicuous, which means that the snake is less likely to be noticed by another, bigger predator. Examples of snakes that do chase after their prey include:
- Eastern racers. There are colubrids that you can find all across America. They can chase after prey at the pace of a brisk walk, about 4mph.
- Galapagos racer snakes. These snakes chase after iguanas in their natural habitat. Nobody has measured how fast they go, but they’re fast enough to catch iguanas, which can be pretty speedy themselves.
- Black mamba. They can reach speeds of 12mph or more. That’s about as fast as an average person can sprint. Here are some interesting facts about the black mamba.
How do Snakes Swallow Prey Whole?
How do snakes eat prey larger than themselves? Well, snakes swallow prey whole by opening their jaws as wide as they can. But the in-depth answer is even more interesting.
Ask most people, and they’ll think it’s because snakes can dislocate their jaws. But this isn’t true. A snake’s bottom jaw isn’t attached to their skull by a joint. Instead, it’s connected by cartilage.
This means that they can open their jaws very wide from top to bottom. Not only that, but the left part of the jaw isn’t attached to the part on the right. This means that they can open their mouths wide from left to right, too. This also applies to a snake’s upper jaw.
Once a snake catches their prey, and it’s safe to do so, they start to swallow it whole. Their throat works in the same way as our gut, using progressive muscle contractions to move the prey along.
When we eat something, we get the help of gravity—our throats don’t need to work too hard because gravity helps pull the food down from our mouth into our stomachs.
Snakes don’t have this luxury. Their throat muscles have to pull the prey in, and it can take some time. Snakes’ throats are approximately 1/3 of their body, so there’s lots of work to do.
How do Snakes Hunt in the Dark?
Snakes don’t just rely on their eyesight. They have powerful senses of smell. They use an organ called Jacobson’s Organ to detect specific chemicals in the air.
This organ is specifically designed to pick up on pheromones and other signs of nearby prey, and it’s so good at its job that snakes can identify which prey they can smell.
You can tell when a snake is using this sense of smell because they’re flicking their tongue. Their tongue picks up the chemicals in the air and brings them to their specialist smell organ in the roof of their mouth.
It’s like a combination of smelling and tasting. This is why you’ll notice a snake consistently sniffing the air when they think there’s prey or a predator around.
By comparison, their other senses aren’t as sharply tuned. Their eyesight is fine—they can see color as well as a cat can—but their sense of hearing isn’t particularly good.
Snakes can only hear vibrations coming up from the ground so that they can hear your footsteps, but not your voice. Instead, their sense of smell is their primary weapon when it comes to hunting.
How Do Snakes Digest Prey?
Because snakes are carnivores, every meal they eat is high in calories. That’s why they can get away with eating one meal every few weeks, or every few months in some cases.
Once a snake has swallowed its prey, they commence the digestive process. Their stomach acid isn’t much stronger than that of humans, but they keep prey in their stomach for many days. This means that their stomach acid can break down almost anything. Snakes can even digest bones.
After the prey item has been stewing in stomach acids for a few days, it turns into a slurry. The snake then moves this slurry on to their guts, which do the same things as ours.
A snake’s guts absorb any nutritional content that they couldn’t absorb in their stomach. After a period of anywhere between a few days and a few months, the snake will get rid of any waste in the same way as humans.
And yes, a few months to break down food is right, especially with larger snakes that eat enormous meals and need lots of time to digest.
There are a couple of things that snakes can’t digest. These include fur, feathers, and claws. If a snake eats fur, feathers or claws, then they have a couple of options.
They could either regurgitate them or pass excrete them. Snakes have a unique body part called a cloaca. The cloaca is responsible for urination, defecation, and mating.