Snakes are not social creatures. Most species of snake live alone, and don’t spend significant amounts of time with other snakes. However, they do interact occasionally. Snakes need to mate and may share the same territories.
We’ll look at why snakes need to interact with one another, and the various methods of communication that they use. You’ll also find out how snakes communicate with predators and humans, and whether snakes can hear other snakes hiss.
Why Do Snakes Need to Communicate?
Regardless of whether an animal is social or solitary, they will need to communicate with others of their species from time to time.
Snakes reproduce sexually. Males and females must come together to mate, and to do this, they must communicate with one another. They must indicate their location in the world, as well as their sex, and their willingness to mate. Competing males also need to decide between themselves who has the right to mate with the female.
Most species only interact with other snakes during mating season. However, some species in temperate climates – such as rattlesnakes, rat snakes and garter snakes – also come together in the winter. Brumating (hibernating) together in communal dens can help snakes maintain their body heat better than if they were alone.
Some snakes may also communicate the boundaries of their territory to other snakes, and warn them away. Having another snake in the area would reduce the amount of prey available to that snake, and it would also mean that if a female entered the area, there would be competition.
Finally, snakes also need to communicate with predators, to scare them off.
How Do Snakes Communicate Using Pheromone Signals?
Snakes do not use visual or sound signals to communicate with other snakes.
Pheromones are chemicals which snakes produce using special glands. They secrete these pheromones through their skin, and deposit them on the ground (though some have also been found to be airborne). The pheromones are species-specific. For example, a rattlesnake won’t respond to pheromones left by a garter snake.
The chemical makeup of the pheromones changes as the snake ages, and becomes sexually mature. When a snake detects pheromones deposited by another snake, it will instantly know whether the other snake is male or female, and whether they are ready to mate.
If a male snake picks up on a pheromone trail left by a sexually receptive female, he will follow this trail until he finds her.
How Do Snakes Detect Pheromones?
Snakes detect pheromones using a specialized organ called the vomeronasal organ, otherwise known as the Jacobson’s organ.
It is located inside the snake’s head, somewhere between their eyes and nostrils. But they don’t “sniff out” the pheromones using their nose; instead, they use their tongue.
Snakes stick out their tongues and “flick” them in the air, to catch odor particles, including any pheromones deposited by other snakes.
These particles are mixed with fluids in the mouth, and then pass through special ducts to the vomeronasal organ. The organ then interprets these odors and sends signals to the brain.
According to Frontiers in Endocrinology, male snakes without a vomeronasal system are unable to detect or respond to pheromones.
Once a male snake has followed the pheromone trail of a female, he must communicate his wish to mate with her. There are various ways that snakes may do this.
Scientists still haven’t discovered exactly how this method of communication works, but we do know that it varies between species.
Some male snakes will gently bump their bodies against the female snake. He may touch his chin to the back of her head, or crawl on top of her body. In some species, such as European and Asian rat snakes, the male may even gently bite the female’s neck.
Boa constrictors and other primitive snakes go a step further. These species have “spurs” next to their cloacas, which are the evolutionary remnants of legs. The males may use these spurs when mating, to stimulate the female.
There aren’t many circumstances when a male snake would need to interact with another male directly. However, they may come into contact if both snakes want to mate with the same female.
Snakes can’t talk. So, to compete for a lady snake’s affection, male snakes fight. They lift their front halves off of the ground and “wrestle,” wrapping their bodies around each other and trying to bring the other one down. It looks almost like an arm wrestling contest. Eventually, the weaker snake will be driven away, leaving the stronger male to mate with the female.
Sometimes, male snakes fight even when there are no females around. This sort of fight usually revolves around territory rights. The unsuccessful male is forced to leave, and the victorious snake wins the right to hunt prey in the area, and mate with whichever females wander into the territory.
Not all species of snake engage in male-male combat behavior. Garter snakes, for example, clamor over the female in one large “mating ball.” Some males may even release female snake pheromones, according to Reed College. This fools other males into trying to mate with them, distracting them from the true female.
Can Snakes Hear Other Snakes Hiss?
Almost all snakes in the world can make a hissing noise by forcing air out of their glottis (the end of the trachea). However, research suggests that snakes cannot hear their hisses.
Snakes do have inner ears, and can hear certain noises. They specialize in picking up ground-borne vibrations. This helps them to identify when potential predators, such as large mammals, are approaching. While they can hear some airborne sounds, they can’t hear them very clearly, and the sound must be quite loud for a snake to detect it.
Also, snakes are adapted to hear only low-pitched sounds. Most snakes hear sounds in the range of 80 to 600 Hz most clearly, though some species can hear sounds up to 1,000 Hz. The frequency of the average snake hiss, however, is well above 2,500 Hz. This is far outside a snake’s hearing range.
Therefore, we can conclude that snakes do not use their hisses to communicate with one another. The only exception may be the king cobra, whose hisses are so low-pitched that they overlap with snakes’ hearing range, and sound more like growls.
Male king cobras have been observed to “growl” at one another during combat, suggesting that they may be able to hear each other. However, additional research is needed before we can determine that they do use these sounds to communicate.
How do Snakes Communicate with Predators?
When snakes aren’t hunting, eating, sleeping or mating, they’re probably trying to avoid predators. There are many kinds of animal which prey upon snakes, including birds of prey and mammals. Snakes in tropical environments may even be at risk of predation by large reptiles such as alligators.
Mostly, snakes rely on camouflage to try and avoid being spotted by a predator. If this doesn’t work, they must communicate with the predator, and ward them off. Snakes have evolved some quite impressive defense mechanisms.
These include, but are not limited to:
- Rearing up, spreading out their ribs, or flattening their heads and necks out to make themselves look bigger
- Rattling their tail: this behavior is not limited to rattlesnakes, as many other snakes also vibrate their tails when threatened
- Striking, often with their mouths closed, and the biting as a last resort
Predators are often intimidated by these defensive displays, and choose to leave the snake alone, and seek a less aggressive source of food.
Can Snakes Communicate with Humans?
Humans and snakes have quite a complex relationship. Some of us keep snakes as household companions, and do our best to take care of them. Others dislike snakes, and kill them on sight, out of fear. Some cultures even hunt snakes for their meat or their skins.
The only way in which snakes communicate with humans is by treating us as if we’re any other predator. If they can’t escape from us when encountering us in the wild, they’ll show us their defensive techniques in an attempt to scare us off.
Snakes which have been bred into captivity (such as corn snakes) do not tend to fear humans as much. They will typically allow us to handle and interact with them without demonstrating defensiveness, and do not see us as a threat.
However, because they aren’t social creatures, they can’t communicate with us in any other way. They don’t wag their tails to show us that they’re happy. The only thing that we can use as an indicator of their happiness is how healthy and calm they are.