Corn snakes are harmless to humans. But sometimes, when they’re eating or feeling threatened, they might shake their tail like a rattlesnake. The noise even sounds a little like a rattle.
North American corns snakes make a rattling noise with their tails to scare away threats. This distracts and confuses predators. Corns make this sound by vibrating their tail against the ground.
We’ll look at precisely why corn snakes vibrate their tails. It’s all a part of their rich evolutionary history, and could be due to Batesian mimicry.
Why do Corn Snakes Rattle Their Tails?
Batesian mimicry is named after Henry Walter Bates, an English scientist from the Victorian era. He found that certain animals mimicked the behavior of more dangerous species.
Snakes are an excellent example of Batesian mimicry, and not just because some non-venomous snakes shake their tails.
The milk snake is from the same family as corn snakes. They have a banded pattern that’s similar to another snake, the coral snake, from a different family. Coral snakes are among the most venomous of all U.S. snakes.
Milk snakes, by contrast, are harmless. But even though they’re harmless, milk snakes can still scare a predator because they seem like the venomous coral snake. That’s at the heart of why corn snakes rattle their tails.
The noise of a rattle is frightening to a predator. The louder the noise, the more threatening it becomes. It’s why dogs bark, why cats hiss, and why humans raise our voices in threatening situations. Rattling the tail may scare off a cat in a backyard, for example.
And just like many animals have evolved markings and patterns to show others that they’re venomous (poisonous), rattlesnakes have developed a rattle to tell other threatening animals that they’re dangerous.
Regarding corn snakes, they still exhibit this behavior because it’s hard-coded into their DNA. You’ll notice that they only shake their tails if they feel threatened. That’s why they’ll do it if you suddenly reach into their enclosure or approach them in your yard, for example.
You’ll also notice that corn snakes rattle their tail when eating. They fear that you’re going to steal their food. Of course, you won’t, but a predator in the wild might. Tail shaking in corn snakes might scare them away.
Diverting an Attack
Even if the predator is still intent on attacking a corn snake with a rattle, it still serves a purpose. It distracts the predator and diverts their attention.
This can give a wild corn snake time to escape from a predator. Also, instead of attacking the corn’s head, they will most likely attack the source of the noise (the tail) rather than the head.
This gives corn snakes a chance to survive in situations where they otherwise wouldn’t. These snakes go on to breed and pass this behavior down to their offspring. Before long, the whole population of corn snakes learns to rattle.
How Can a Corn Snake Mimic Rattlesnake Noises?
Their rattle is a series of segments made from keratin, the same substance as nails. The rattlesnake grows them throughout their life, adding another segment each time it sheds its skin.
According to the World Animal Foundation, rattlesnakes can vibrate their tail 50 times per second. The segments vibrate against each other. Since they’re hollow, they make a loud noise.
Corn snakes can’t do this as they don’t have a rattle. What they can do is very quickly shake their tail in much the same way. Their tail vibrates against the ground, which is what makes the noise you hear.
Which Snakes Rattle Their Tails?
Many snakes vibrate their tails against the ground. They don’t all have rattles, but they shake their tails in much the same way.
- Pit vipers that are related to rattlesnakes shake their tails. These include copperheads, cottonmouths, cantils, and terciopelos.
- Rat snakes, king snakes, and gopher snakes also shake their tails.
These snakes are mostly related. Rat snakes, king snakes, and gopher snakes are Colubrids. This is a family of common snakes found in the U.S.
Colubrids are the world’s largest snake family. Not only that, but since they’re all North American snakes, many have overlapping habitats. They will have been coming into contact for thousands of years, hence how they’ve developed Batesian mimicry behavior.
I’ve Got an Aggressive Corn Snake
If you’ve only just got your corn snake, you should give them about a week to settle in. Feed them and spend time around their vivarium, not doing anything. This will help them to get used to you.
Several days after their first feed, they’ll be ready for handling and will start to calm down. Even so, follow the guidelines below to be safe:
1) Be Confident
You have to be confident when you’re handling a corn snake. If you show that you’re timid or afraid, they’ll feel like they can boss you around.
Be confident in your movements. Don’t back away in fear. Whatever you need to do—be it lift your snake out of their vivarium or pop them in the bathtub—do it with calm and confident movements.
Remember, corn snakes aren’t venomous, and even the largest adult can only give you a small bite with its fangs.
2) Be Gentle
Your confident movements should be gentle and slow. Don’t yank or throw your corn snake, and don’t ever hit them or act threateningly.
3) Give Them Room
When holding a corn snake, don’t grip it too tightly. Allow it to slip/slide through your fingers, without constricting it or making it difficult to move.
Corn snakes like to wander around, coil around your arm, and slither about exploring. By stopping them, you give them a reason to act aggressively.
4) Don’t Handle After Feeding
Avoid handling your corn snake after you’ve fed them. It can disturb their digestion, and they can regurgitate their food if they ate not long ago.
Corn snakes should be given 2-3 days without handling to digest their food. Failure to do so can cause stress in corn snakes.
5) Don’t Feed Them Directly
Use tweezers/tongs to feed corn snakes. Snakes don’t have good vision and find prey by scent. If you’re feeding them by hand, then your hands will smell of prey. This could cause your corn to bite your hand.