How do snakes defend themselves?
Questions About Snakes

How Do Snakes Protect Themselves from Predators?

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 use their coloring to camouflage themselves or scare predators away with bright colors. They utilize a wide range of 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 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. We’ll look into techniques that snake use to hide from predators, and if that doesn’t work, how they scare predators off using intimidation tactics.

Which Predators Kill Snakes?

Several animals hunt snakes as part of their diet. These include:

  • Birds: Certain birds of prey have no problem chowing down on snakes. Hawks, falcons, eagles, secretary birds and certain species of owl will hunt snakes as part of their diet. Even road runners (small ground-dwelling cuckoos) eat small snakes.
  • Cats: Certain species of cat, such as the bobcat and even the domesticated house cat, catch and kill snakes occasionally.
  • Mongooses: Although mongooses don’t primarily feed on snakes, they can and do kill them on a regular basis. They’re even immune to some kinds of snake venom.
  • Honey badgers, a carnivorous mammal related to the weasel, regularly kill and eat snakes.
  • Alligators and caimans have been reported to kill snakes, though they don’t make up a part of their usual diet.

Believe it or not, humans are the biggest predator of snakes. Though we don’t usually eat them, many humans kill snakes on sight, out of fear. Even non-venomous snakes are often killed when they’re mistaken for dangerous species.

How Do Snakes Hide From Predators?

1) Camouflage

Like many other animals, one of the most basic 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 coloration to help them blend in with their environment, which is why brown, black, green and tan are very common snake colors. There are, of course, some brightly-colored snakes, but we’ll discuss them later on.

So, how do snakes camouflage? It depends on the species and the environment in which it lives.

  • The Sidewinder (horned rattlesnake) is found in desert regions in Mexico and the southwestern US. It’s a creamy pale brown in color and blends in perfectly with sand. These snakes go one step further and bury themselves in the sand when they want to stay hidden.
  • The smooth and rough green snakes are both bright green in color. They camouflage exceptionally well into the grass, which is their natural habitat. They also climb trees and hide very well among the leaves.
  • Copperhead snakes, with their tan, brown and coppery coloration, blend in well in wooded areas. They can hide in plain sight on the forest floor, amongst wood, dirt, and fallen leaves. Here’s some information on how to identify a copperhead snake.
How do snakes camouflage?

2) Burrowing

Some snakes, though not all, 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 of this snake 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 do not burrow, but they can tunnel into the ground using burrows that have already been dug by rodents and other animals.

3) Fleeing

If camouflage doesn’t work, and the snake can’t hide, the next step is to flee. Most snakes, especially those who aren’t at the top of the food chain, are exceptionally fast. If the snake is far enough away and believes it can get away safely, they’ll flee from predators to escape danger.

4) Aposematism

Aposematism, also called aposematic coloration, is the direct opposite of camouflage. Remember those brightly-colored snakes that we mentioned earlier? This is where they come in.

Instead of blending in with their surroundings, aposematic animals are brightly colored. Usually, shades of red, yellow or orange are involved.

These colors act as a sign which says “stay back: I’m toxic.” Venomous coral snakes, which are banded with red, black and yellow, are a great example of aposematism. Other non-snake examples include the yellow jacket wasp and the poison dart frog.

5) Mimicry

Some non-venomous snakes have evolved to mimic venomous snakes quite successfully. This discourages predators from attacking, under the impression that they’re dangerous.

  • Several species of king snake display red, yellow and black bands to mimic the coral snake.
  • African egg-eating 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.
  • Many snakes, such as smooth snakes, can deliberately flatten their heads when threatened, according to research in the scientific journal PLoS One. This causes their heads to appear triangular in shape, mimicking vipers such as rattlesnakes.
  • Many species of snake, such as rat snakes, vibrate their tails in the grass to create a sound similar to that of a rattlesnake.

6) Warning Signals

If a snake is, despite their best effort, confronted by a predator, the next step is to ward them off. They do this by giving off a warning signal, which could be a noise, a visual display, or a scent.

  • Hissing. This is a sound 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. Snakes well-known for their hiss include the hognose, Russell’s viper and king cobra. Some snakes, such as the saw-scaled viper, stridulate (rub their scales together) to make a hissing noise.
  • Rattling. Rattlesnakes have keratin segments on the end of their tails, which they vibrate to make the characteristic rattling noise.
  • 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.
  • Like skunks, 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 avoid them.

7) Flicker-Fusion

Flicker-fusion is a defense mechanism employed by snakes which are banded (horizontally striped). Examples include the banded water snake, coral snake, and the banded krait.

According to research in 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 it’s moving in the opposite direction.

8) Striking

If you own a pet snake, you’ll be all too familiar with striking as a defensive mechanism. If a potential predator gets too close, snakes will often strike out with their heads, as if they’re going to bite.

They will rarely actually bite when doing this; 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 shoot venom from their fangs at predators.

Though this won’t necessarily harm a predator, it is enough to deter them from attacking. And if it gets in the predator’s eyes, it can blind them.

Do Snakes Bite Predators?

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.

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. Why?

Venom is precious, and they don’t want to waste it. Even non-venomous snakes prefer not to bite, as it puts them into direct confrontation with the predator, and can be dangerous.

If you see a snake in the wild, you don’t generally have to worry about being bitten. Snakes will not confront or chase you – they want you to go away. If you leave them alone, they’ll leave you alone.

All snakes bite, but the only time they’ll bite is if you try to interfere with them. So, never try to kill or harm a wild snake. If it’s on your property and you suspect it’s venomous, call animal control to have it dealt with professionally.