Corn snakes are harmless. 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.
We’ll start by fully explaining why corn snakes rattle their tails. Then, we’ll take a look at which snakes rattle their tails generally, and what you should do if you have an aggressive corn snake. Even the most intimidating pet snakes can be tamed.
- 1 Why do Corn Snakes Rattle Their Tails?
- 2 I’ve Got an Aggressive Corn Snake
Why do Corn Snakes Rattle Their Tails?
So, why do snakes rattle their tails? It’s all a part of their rich evolutionary history. It seems like it may be due to something called Batesian mimicry.
This phenomenon is named after Henry Walter Bates, an English scientist from the Victorian era. He found that certain animals mimicked (i.e., copied) the behavior of more dangerous, harmful species.
Snakes are an excellent example of Batesian mimicry, and not just because some non-venomous snakes shake their tails. Take the milk snake, a snake 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 potential predator because they seem like the deadly, venomous coral snake. That’s at the heart of why corn snakes rattle their tails.
The noise of a rattle is frightening to a potential predator. Generally speaking, the louder the noise, the more threatening it is. It’s why dogs bark, it’s why cats hiss, and it’s why we raise our voices in threatening situations. Rattling the tail may scare off a cat in a backyard or garden, for example.
And just like many animals have evolved markings and patterns to show others that they’re venomous or poisonous, rattlesnakes have developed a rattle to tell other animals that they’re dangerous.
Regarding pet 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, for example.
Remember that corn snakes rely far more on movement for their vision, far more than us. They can’t necessarily see that it’s you reaching in their vivarium. It’s no wonder they’re scared.
Not only that, but you’ll also notice them rattle their tail when they’re eating. Your corn snake rattling tail while eating is because they feel threatened as if you’re going to try and steal their food. Of course, you won’t, but a predator in the wild might. Shaking their tail 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 the time to escape from a predator. Also, instead of attacking the corn snake’s head, they will most likely attack the source of the noise (the tail). This is, obviously, preferable for the corn snake.
Like all things related to evolution, it gives them a chance to survive in situations where they otherwise wouldn’t. These snakes go on to breed and pass the behavior down to their offspring. Before long, the whole population of corn snakes learns to rattle, and that’s that.
How Can a Corn Snake Mimic Rattlesnake Noises?
Rattlesnakes make their unique noise with their rattle. Their rattle is a series of segments made from keratin, the same substance that nails are made from. The rattlesnake grows them throughout their life and adds another segment after each time they shed.
According to the World Animal Foundation, rattlesnakes can vibrate their tail an astonishing fifty time per second. The segments vibrate against each other, and since they’re hollow, make quite a loud noise.
Corn snakes can’t do this—they don’t have a rattle. What they can do is very quickly shake or vibrate 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 rattle their tails. Of course, the rattlesnake does, but many other snakes do, too. They don’t all have rattles, but they shake or vibrate their tail 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 shake their tails too.
What you might not know is that these snakes are mostly related. Rat snakes, king snakes, and gopher snakes are Colubrids, a particular family of common snakes found in the U.S.
Colubrids are the world’s largest snake family. Not only that, though, but since they’re all North American snakes, many have overlapping habitats. In other words, they will have been coming into contact for thousands of years. This is plenty of time for them to have developed Batesian mimicry behavior.
I’ve Got an Aggressive Corn Snake
For a corn snake, aggressive behavior is normal, to an extent. They’re a relatively docile breed, which is what makes them perfect for a pet. But, even so, they’re still a wild animal and hardly domesticated like dogs or cats. You should help them get used to you before you try to handle them.
If you’ve only just got your corn snake, give them a week or so to settle in. Feed them and spend time around their vivarium, not doing anything. This will help them get used to you.
Once you give them 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
First things first, 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. That’s not good, because then they’ll never do what you want them to.
Instead, be confident in your movements. Don’t back away in fear or act as if you’re frightened or it’ll encourage them to keep frightening you. 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 biggest adult can only give you a small pinprick with their fangs at the very worst.
2) Be Gentle
Just as important as being confident is to be gentle. You might think that confidence means picking them up and doing things as quickly as you can, but that’s the opposite of what you need to do.
Your confident movements should be gentle and slow. Don’t yank or throw your corn snake, and don’t ever hit them back or act threateningly. This only makes them dislike you.
By being gentle, you remove the threat from the situation.
3) Give Them Room
When you’re holding a corn snake, don’t grip them too tightly. Allow them to slip or slide through your fingers, without constricting them or making it difficult for them to move. Again, this will only make them resent you.
Corn snakes like to wander around, coil around your arm or neck, and generally slither about exploring. By stopping them, you give them cause to act aggressively.
4) Don’t Handle After Feeding
You should also avoid handling your corn snake after you feed them. This is because handling can disturb their digestion, and they can easily regurgitate their food if they ate not long ago.
Give them two or three days to digest.
5) Don’t Feed Them Directly
At first, it might be a good idea not to feed them directly. Use tweezers to feed corn snakes prey. Corn snakes (in fact all snakes) don’t have great vision and find prey by scent. If you’re feeding them by hand, then your hands will smell of prey too. You can see where we’re going with this.
They might accidentally pounce at your hand, for example. This won’t hurt, but it can be a nasty shock, and the calmer you are the calmer your snake will be.
If you want a pet that always does as they’re told, train a puppy. You have to treat snakes with respect because they lack the familial and social bond that mammals can share.
Reptiles are different, and while they will grow to like you if you’re a good owner, if you do something to hurt them or threaten them, then they’ll gladly bite back.