Not all snakes are at the top of the food chain. A surprisingly large number of animals, such as hawks, eagles and honey badgers, hunt snakes as their food source. Even some species of snake, such as California kingsnakes and king cobras, eat other snakes.
Some snakes camouflage themselves or scare predators away with bright colors. Others use warning signals, such as hissing, hooding, rattling, and striking. Some snakes will release a foul-smelling musk, or even play dead (such as garter snakes). Snakes, even if they have venom glands, will usually only bite as a last resort.
We’re going to look at which predators kill snakes and the various ways that snakes protect themselves against predation. We’ll look into techniques that snake use to hide from predators, and if that doesn’t work, how they scare predators off using time-tested intimidation tactics.
Which Predators Kill Snakes?
Several animals and birds hunt snakes as part of their diet. These include:
|Birds:||Hawks, falcons, eagles, secretary birds, and certain species of owls will hunt snakes as they form part of their diet.|
|Cats:||Certain species of cats, such as bobcats and even the domesticated house cat, catch and kill snakes sometimes.|
|Mongoose:||Although not their main sustenance, mongooses do kill them. They’re immune to some kinds of snake venom.|
|Honey badgers:||These are carnivorous mammals related to the weasel. Honey badgers regularly kill and eat snakes.|
|Alligators and caimans:||Both have been reported to kill snakes, although snakes don’t make up a part of their usual diet.|
|Humans:||People are the main predator of snakes. Many humans kill snakes on sight, primarily out of fear.|
How Do Snakes Hide from Predators?
Avoiding detection, if successful, is an effective way of avoiding harm. That’s why snakes have figured out ways to avoid predation.
One of the most basic, but effective, defense mechanisms that snakes employ is camouflage. Camouflage helps snakes to avoid being seen by enemies in the first place, so that they don’t have to defend themselves.
Many snakes have developed a certain coloration to enable them to blend in with their environment. That’s why brown, black, green, and tan are very common snake colors.
So, how do snakes camouflage? It depends on the species and the environment in which it lives. Here are some examples:
|Sidewinder rattlesnakes:||The horned rattlesnake, as they’re also known, is found in desert regions in Mexico and the southwestern U.S. It’s a creamy pale brown in color and blends in perfectly with the sand. These snakes also bury themselves in the desert sand when they want to remain hidden.|
|Rough green snakes:||They’re bright green, so they camouflage very well into the grass, which is their natural habitat. Rough green snakes also climb trees and hide well in piles of leaves.|
|Green tree pythons:||The green tree python is an arboreal snake that is perfectly camouflaged by the coloration of the tree.|
|Copperhead snakes:||With their tan, brown and coppery coloration, copperheads blend into wooded areas. They hide in plain sight on the forest floor, amongst wood, dirt, and fallen leaves. Here’s how to identify a copperhead snake.|
Some snakes can also burrow into the soil to escape predators. One of the most famous examples of this is the Hognose snake.
Both Western and Eastern varieties have upturned snouts, which they use for digging into the ground. Though they primarily use this ability to hunt for toads, they can also burrow away from danger if the need arises.
Most snakes don’t burrow, but can tunnel into the ground using burrows that have already been dug by rodents and other animals.
If camouflage doesn’t work, and the snake can’t hide, the next step is to flee. If far enough away and it believes it can get away safely, the snake will move away as quickly as it’s able to avoid danger.
Aposematism, or aposematic coloration, is the opposite of camouflage. Instead of blending in with their surroundings, aposematic animals are bright shades of red, yellow, and orange.
These bright colors are a warning. Venomous coral snakes, which are banded with red, black and yellow, are an example of aposematism.
Some non-venomous snakes have evolved to mimic venomous snakes very successfully. This discourages predators from attacking, under the impression that they’re dangerous snakes. Here are some examples:
|Kingsnakes:||Several different species of kingsnakes display red, yellow, and black bands to mimic the coral snake.|
|African egg-eating snakes:||These snakes are harmless, but closely resemble deadly saw-scaled vipers, which share their geographic area. They can even stridulate by rubbing their scales together to recreate the viper’s characteristic warning sound.|
|Smooth snakes:||Smooth snakes can flatten their heads when threatened, according to PLoS One. This causes their heads to appear triangular in shape, mimicking vipers such as rattlesnakes.|
|Rat snakes:||Rat snakes, among others, vibrate their tails in the grass to create a sound similar to that of a rattlesnake. It’s a common behavior in the colubrid family of snakes.|
6) Warning Signals
If a snake, despite its best efforts, is confronted by a predator, the next step is to ward them off. It’ll do this by giving off a warning signal, which could be a noise, a visual display, or releasing a scent.
|Hissing:||This is a sound that’s made by forcing air through the glottis, a hole in the snake’s mouth. Almost all snakes hiss as an indication that they’re angry and about to strike.|
|Rattling:||Rattlesnakes have keratin segments on the end of their tails, which they vibrate to make the characteristic rattling noise.|
|Look larger:||Some snakes, such as cobras and hognose snakes, stretch out the skin on their necks to form an intimidating “hood” when threatened. This makes the snake look bigger and more threatening to predators.|
|Musking or Feigning Death:||Some snakes can release a foul-smelling musk to deter predators. Hognose snakes go a step further and combine musking with playing dead. This can fool predators into thinking they are diseased and should be avoided.|
Flicker-fusion is a defense mechanism employed by snakes that are banded (horizontally-striped). Examples include the banded water snake, coral snake, and the banded krait.
According to Current Zoology, banded patterns confuse predators when the snake is moving quickly. It creates a kind of visual illusion called “motion blur”, which can cause the predator to lose track of the snake, or even believe that it’s moving in the opposite direction.
8) Pretending To Strike
If a predator gets too close, snakes will often strike out with their heads, as if they’re going to bite.
It’s used as a scare tactic more than an actual attack. Striking is often accompanied by hissing and other warning signals, such as hooding.
9) Spitting Venom
Venom-spitting is a defense mechanism unique to spitting cobras (Hemachatus haemachatus and some species in the genus Naja). They can actually shoot venom from their fangs at predators.
Though this won’t ‘always’ harm a predator, it is enough to deter them from attacking. And if it gets in the predator’s eyes, it can blind them.
If all of the above has failed to dissuade a predator from attacking, there’s only one option left: biting.
Now, you might think that in venomous species – such as cobras, rattlesnakes, mambas and the like – biting the predator would be an obvious choice. The king cobra produces enough venom to kill an elephant, after all.
However, even venomous snakes do not bite predators, unless they have no other option. They will try to avoid confrontation, and will only bite if they feel that their life is at risk.
Venom is a precious resource, and a snake doesn’t want to waste it. Even non-venomous snakes prefer not to bite as it puts them into direct confrontation with the predator, which can be dangerous.