If you’ve got a pet snake, you’re probably wondering whether it’s male or female. Unfortunately, sexing a snake is not straightforward. They don’t present much sexual dimorphism (visual differences between males and females). Usually, the only noticeable differences between male and female snakes are on the inside.
The two most effective methods of sexing a snake are probing and popping. Probing involves inserting a probe into the snake’s cloaca (genital cavity) and measuring the depth that the probe reaches. A substantial depth suggests that the snake is male. Popping involves manually everting the snake’s hemipenes using your thumb. The absence of hemipenes indicates a female.
There are ways to identify male and female snakes visually, but they vary between species and are not always accurate. We’re going to explain the anatomical difference between male and female snakes and take you through the two main sexing methods.
What are the Differences Between Male and Female Snakes?
Before we start, let’s examine how male and female snakes differ regarding anatomy.
Snakes, for the most part, reproduce sexually. The male produces sperm, and it’s his responsibility to pass this sperm on to the female. The female snake contains ova (female reproductive cells) which the male’s sperm has to fertilize.
For this to happen, mating has to take place. Male snakes possess two hemipenes (penises) which must be inserted into the female’s cloaca to transfer the sperm. From there, it’s the female’s responsibility to grow the babies. She does this either by growing live young or by laying eggs, which then hatch at a later date.
In most mammals, it’s easy to see these anatomical differences from the outside. However, in snakes, it’s not so simple. A male snake’s hemipenes are stored inside his body (more precisely, inside his tail). So, for this reason, they’re invisible from the outside most of the time. A male’s hemipenes only evert (turn outwards) when he’s ready to mate.
How to Tell if Your Snake is Male or Female
Both male and female snakes have a cloaca, located on the underside of the snake, at the base of the tail. The cloaca serves several purposes: snakes urinate and defecate out of it, and it also contains their sex organs. When ready to mate, his hemipenes pop out of the cloaca, and he inserts them into the females.
Male and female cloacas look exactly the same from the outside. It’s only internally that the differences can be found. To observe these differences, there are two main methods.
Both of these methods must only be attempted by experienced snake keepers. If you’ve never probed or popped a snake before, ask a veterinarian or herpetologist to help you.
1) Cloacal Probing
Probing is the most intrusive way of sexing a snake. However, it is also the most accurate. It’s easily and quickly carried out by vets, herpetologists, and experienced reptile keepers.
It requires inserting a thin, metal “sexing probe” into the snake’s cloaca, and measuring how deep it goes. A deeper probe indicates the presence of “hemipenis pockets,” meaning the snake is male.
- Purchase a sexing probe kit. These are available in various thicknesses depending upon the size of the snake. You can get an 8-piece probe kit with a case on Amazon by clicking on this link.
- Lubricate the probe well, using K-Y jelly or petroleum jelly.
- Find the snake’s cloaca. It’s located on the snake’s belly, at the base of the tail. Gently bend the snake’s tail to see where the two openings are.
- Insert the probe, very gently, into one of the two openings, going towards the tail. Slide the probe slowly and carefully. Stop when you feel resistance.
- Place your thumb on the probe to measure how far it went, then pull it out slowly.
If the probe was able to be inserted further than the width of your snake, your snake is male. If the probe went down only two or three scales, she’s probably a female.
Cloacal probing can cause injury to your snake if done incorrectly, so always seek help from someone experienced.
2) Cloacal Popping
Cloacal popping is less invasive for your snake than cloacal probing. However, it is slightly more challenging to accomplish. It involves manually trying to evert the snake’s hemipenes, using your thumb. If no hemipenes are present, of course, your snake is female.
- Hold your snake with its belly facing you, and find the cloaca. Ask someone to hold the snake, if necessary.
- Place your thumb on the snake’s tail, near the cloaca.
- Using gentle pressure, “roll” your thumb towards the snake’s cloaca. If your snake is male, the hemipenes will evert (pop out).
It sounds simple, but popping is rather tricky to get the hang of. It’s easy to apply too much pressure, not enough pressure, or pressure in the wrong place (too far from or close to the cloaca).
Many people mistakenly identify their snakes as female because they haven’t got the technique quite right. Ideally, practice on a snake that you know is male, under professional supervision.
Do Male and Female Snakes Look Different?
If you aren’t able to have your snake professionally sexed, you may be wondering: do male and female snakes look different? Is there any way of visually determining the gender of my snake?
The answer depends on your snake’s species. Some species of snake look almost identical regardless of gender, whereas others have noticeable differences.
Let’s have a look at three ways that you can get an idea of your snake’s gender by looking at it.
Male vs. Female Tail Shape
Because of the differences in male and female snake anatomy, their tails look slightly different. The difference can range from quite extreme (for example, in hognose snakes) to subtle (ball pythons).
In brief, males tend to have longer tails than females. Their tails taper (become thinner) much more gradually, too. Females tend to have shorter tails which taper off abruptly after the cloaca.
According to the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society, this is due to snakes’ reproductive anatomy. Their tails need to be quite long to have room to store their hemipenes.
A snake’s tail begins at the cloaca. So, to examine its tail, first hold your snake belly-up so that you can see where the cloaca is. Then, stretch out your snake’s tail and find the mid-point between the cloaca and the tail tip.
Examine the thickness of this midpoint. If the circumference of the snake at this point is less than half of the snake’s circumference at the cloaca, it’s likely to be a female.
If it’s more than half, it’s a male. You can also count how many subcaudal scales there are before the tail starts to get thinner. If it’s more than six scales, it’s probably male.
Male vs. Female Pelvic Spurs
Pelvic spurs (anal spurs) are small protruding pieces of bone which are located near a snake’s cloaca. Interestingly, they are the vestigial remnants (evolutionary leftovers) of legs. It’s thought that the ancestors of certain snakes had legs, which have “devolved” into tiny nubs over the years.
Spurs are not present in all species but can be found in most species of boa and python. Some examples include the ball python, green tree python, Brazilian rainbow boa, and boa constrictor. Many other species of pet snake do not have spurs at all, such as corn snakes and hognose snakes.
In many species with spurs, particularly boas, you can tell the gender by the size of these spurs. Boa constrictor males have much larger and more prominent spurs than females. Female boa constrictors sometimes lack spurs altogether.
However, in some species, it’s not possible to determine gender by examining the spurs. Some female ball pythons, for example, have spurs which are just as big as males’.
Male vs. Female Size
Finally, in most species, either the male or female tends to grow larger than the other. This can range from a barely noticeable difference to a significant one.
As a general rule, females tend to be larger than males, according to a study in the Animal Behavior journal. Scientists believe that this is because larger females can grow larger eggs (and larger babies). Juvenile snakes which are larger tend to have higher rates of survival.
Ball pythons are one example of sexual size dimorphism. Though the babies are the same size, female ball pythons tend to grow much larger during adulthood.
Males tend to reach 2-3 feet in length, whereas females reach 3-5 feet. If your ball python is an adult (at least three years old), measuring it might give you some idea of whether it’s male or female. Boa constrictors are the same: females usually reach 7-10 feet, whereas males remain at 6-8 feet.
This doesn’t work for every snake. In some species of snake, males and females are equal in size. Corn snakes and rat snakes are two examples. In others, such as rattlesnakes, the males grow larger.
Male vs. Female Snake Temperament
You should be familiar with the visual and anatomical differences between male and female snakes. However, you may still be wondering whether there are any temperamental differences between the two genders. Are male or female snakes more aggressive, for example?
We can confidently tell you, based on our experience, that there is no difference between temperament in male and female snakes. Both male and female snakes have the potential to be tame, friendly snakes that tolerate handling well.
As long as they’re housed separately (one snake per tank), you won’t notice any difference between males and females. Of course, all snakes have distinct personalities, even members of the same species. However, these differences are not gender-based.
Instead, they usually come down to one or more of the following factors:
- Some species of snake are naturally more docile than others. Corn snakes, for example, are generally more placid than green tree pythons.
- Just as we can pass traits down to our children, so can snakes.
- If you handle your snake frequently, they’ll become tame as they get used to you. Unsocialized snakes tend to be more fearful and defensive around humans.
As long as you treat your snakes well, socialize them appropriately and respect any signs of stress, you’ll end up with a friendly pet snake.
Which Gender of Snake is Best For a Pet?
Though it might not be straightforward, sexing your snake is possible with persistence and expertise. If you’re inexperienced, take your snake to a reptile veterinarian or herpetologist for help.
If you’re considering getting a pet snake, you may be wondering: should I get a male or female? The answer, honestly, is that there’s not much difference. Male and female snakes of the same species generally look and behave almost identically. They have equal care requirements in terms of heating, humidity, and food. Their temperaments are exactly the same, and they both make great pets.
The only reasons you might need to consider a snake’s gender are:
- Breeding. For breeding, you’ll need both a male and a female snake of the same species.
- Size. In some species of snake, one gender is larger than another. Female ball pythons, for instance, usually grow larger than males. If you’d like your snake to remain small, you’d be better off getting a male. In African egg-eating snakes, females are usually easier to source food for than males, as they’re larger and can eat larger eggs.
- Cost. Sometimes, female snakes can be slightly more expensive than males.
- Cohabiting. We never recommend housing snakes together, as they can fight and spread illnesses to one another. However, if you’re planning to do this anyway, you’ll need to ensure that all snakes are the same gender. This will prevent unwanted breeding. Generally speaking, female snakes are less likely to fight than males.
Other than the above reasons, there’s no real reason to worry about which gender of snake you end up with. Both males and females make equally attractive and charming pets to share our lives with.