If you own a pet snake or have encountered a snake in the wild, you’ll be familiar with the hissing sound that snakes make. All snakes can hiss, though it may be a quieter sound in smaller snakes. It’s a trait shared by wild, captive, venomous, and non-venomous snakes alike.
We’ll explain how snakes make a hissing sound, and why snakes hiss. We’ll also look at whether all types of snakes make hissing sounds and what other noises snakes make.
- 1 How Do Snakes Hiss?
- 2 Do All Snakes Hiss?
- 3 Why Do Snakes Hiss?
- 4 Why Does My Snake Hiss at Me?
- 5 Do Snakes Make Noises Other Than Hissing?
- 6 Do Snakes Make Noise at Night?
How Do Snakes Hiss?
To understand precisely how snakes make a hissing sounds, we’re going to need to understand the snake anatomy.
Snakes, like humans, have an organ called the glottis. In humans, the glottis is the opening in between the vocal cords. It opens and closes when we speak, allowing us to pronounce different words. Snakes, of course, don’t talk, so it serves a different purpose.
A snake’s glottis is located inside its mouth, underneath the tongue. It’s an extension of its trachea (windpipe).
The glottis carries out two specific functions:
- Respiration (breathing). Snakes use their nostrils for breathing. When they’re swallowing prey, this becomes difficult. Their prey is often substantial, and it stretches their mouths as they swallow. This is where the glottis comes in. Snakes can extend their glottis out of their mouth so that they can still breathe while eating a large meal.
- Hissing. Inside the glottis is a piece of cartilage (connective tissue). When a snake breathes through its glottis normally, it doesn’t make any noise. However, forcing air out rapidly causes the cartilage to vibrate. This vibration results in the hissing sound that we’re all familiar with. Some snakes, like vipers, can also produce hissing sounds when they inhale, according to the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society.
Hissing is always a deliberate action – it doesn’t happen accidentally. So when a snake hisses at you, there’s an underlying reason for it.
Do All Snakes Hiss?
All snakes have a glottis. Without it, they wouldn’t be able to breathe properly while eating. And because they all have a glottis, all snakes possess the ability to hiss. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all snakes will choose to do it. Some snakes are more prone to hissing than others or hiss more loudly than others.
Wild snakes, particularly those who are predated upon by other animals, are likely to hiss as a defense mechanism. Their hisses can be pretty loud and menacing, too. Hognose snakes are definitely in the running for “snake breed with the loudest hiss.”
When approached by a predator, they mimic venomous snakes by flattening out their necks and hissing menacingly. Other snakes known for their hiss include pine snakes and vipers (particularly the Russell’s viper).
Tame, captive-bred snakes, on the other hand, don’t often feel the need to hiss. With frequent handling, captive snakes usually come to realize that humans are not dangerous. And with no predators in their environment, they don’t often feel threatened.
However, it doesn’t matter what kind of snake you own: you will be hissed at occasionally. Let’s now learn why, exactly, snakes evolved the ability to hiss.
Why Do Snakes Hiss?
Snakes hiss, essentially, for protection. They developed the loud, menacing sound like a defense mechanism. Vipers and other venomous snakes use their hiss as a warning sound, to tell an approaching predator that they’re about to bite. A viper’s bite would be fatal to most animals, so it lets them know to back off.
Hissing has developed, however, even in non-venomous snakes. Zoologists believe that harmless snakes developed the hiss as a form of mimicry. By pretending to be venomous, predators are likely to leave them alone. Some snakes go to extreme lengths to mimic others (such as flattening their heads to imitate cobras or vipers).
So, if a snake is hissing, it’s a sign that he feels threatened or annoyed. This could be because:
- A predator is approaching
- The snake has mistaken another animal (such as you) for a predator
- The snake doesn’t want to be bothered and is hissing as a warning to leave him alone.
You may also be wondering: do snakes hiss to communicate with other snakes? The answer is no. The frequency (pitch) of a typical snake hiss ranges from 3,000 to 13,000 Hertz, according to research in the Journal of Experimental Zoology. This is outside the range of a snake’s hearing (approximately 80 to 1000 Hz). So, snakes can’t hear their own hisses or the hisses of other snakes.
Why Does My Snake Hiss at Me?
Let’s look at the reasons why a pet snake might hiss at its owner:
1) You’ve Startled Him
Suddenly picking your snake up, when he’s not expecting it, could surprise him. He’s likely to mistake you for a predator. This could also happen if you make sudden or fast movements in his presence.
A startled snake will become defensive and may hiss in response to the perceived threat. Once he realizes it’s you, he’ll probably stop hissing. However, you should always approach your snake slowly, from somewhere they can see you coming. Make slow and deliberate movements around your snake. When handling, hold your snake by the middle of his body, never by the head or tail.
2) Lack of Socialization
Socialization is vital for a pet snake. Baby snakes are instinctively primed to watch out for predators, because of their small size. They feel threatened easily, and naturally, don’t trust humans.
By handling them regularly, though, snakes learn that humans aren’t a threat. When you acquire a new pet snake, set up a regular handling schedule will help the snake become used to you, and less likely to hiss or strike at you.
Bear in mind, though, that not every species of snake can be tamed or taught not to fear us. Never attempt to catch a wild snake to keep as a pet. Snakes from responsible breeders are far more likely to become docile and placid with regular handling.
Your snake may also hiss at you because you’re handling them too often. Yes, it can go the other way, as well.
Snakes are solitary creatures. In the wild, they wouldn’t choose to socialize with other animals – especially not large apes like us. They live on their own, and the only time a large animal would approach is if it wanted to eat them.
Of course, in captivity, snakes become very used to having humans around. However, they do need their downtime as well. If you handle your snake too much, he may become stressed and agitated. Your snake may be hissing at you to indicate that he needs some alone time, and doesn’t want you around right now.
4) He’s About to Shed
Most adult snakes shed their skin a few times per year. During the period just before shedding their skin, snakes can become stressed. This is because shedding is a huge ordeal that takes a lot of energy. Not to mention, for a period during each shed, snakes can’t see very well as fluid fills the skin over their eyes.
If you choose to handle your snake during shed, be prepared to be hissed at. Snakes much prefer to be left alone while shedding. They often become reclusive and hide away while shedding, which is a clear sign to leave them alone. We never recommend trying to handle your snake during the shed cycle (unless you need to help them remove some stuck skin).
5) Recently Eaten a Meal
Snakes, as you probably know, eat large meals. As a consequence of this, it takes them a long time to digest their food – days, or even weeks.
For this reason, most snakes choose to find somewhere secluded to relax after a meal. Being disturbed or becoming stressed after eating can cause them to regurgitate their food.
Don’t handle your snake for at least two days after feeding. If you do bother them, they may hiss at you to warn you to leave them alone.
If none of the above circumstances apply to you, don’t worry. Your snake doesn’t suddenly hate you. Sometimes, snakes hiss without any identifiable trigger. If you’re wondering why a snake is hissing for no reason, you should be assured that it’s normal. Just leave him alone, and come back later.
Do Snakes Make Noises Other Than Hissing?
You might be surprised to hear that hissing is not the only noise a snake can make. Some species have developed some quite interesting methods of producing sound.
Rattlesnakes have highly specialized, hard rattles on the ends of their tails, which are segmented. When shaken, these segments collide, making the characteristic rattling sound.
Rattlesnakes use their rattle in the same way that other snakes use their hiss. It’s a warning sound, saying “stay away, I’m dangerous.” Interestingly, other snakes (like rat snakes) can mimic rattlesnakes. Though they don’t have rattles, they shake their tails amongst the grass, making a somewhat similar noise.
You may also find that a corn snake rattles its tail, even though it’s a non-venomous snake.
The King Cobra is a large, venomous snake found in Asia. It feeds almost exclusively on other snakes, making it the “king.” As well as its eating habits and characteristic “hood,” it has one other distinguishing feature.
The King Cobra’s hiss sounds unlike any other. The hissing of most other snakes has a dominant frequency of 7,500 Hz, which is relatively high-pitched.
The dominant frequency of a King Cobra’s hiss, on the other hand, is around 600 Hz. This means that when they hiss, it sounds almost like a growling dog.
3) Cloacal Popping
Two species of snake – the Western Hook-Nosed Snake and the Sonoran Coral Snake – have an interesting defense mechanism. It’s called “cloacal popping” (not to be confused with the method of determining a snake’s sex).
In response to a threat, these snakes “pop” their cloaca (anal opening). It produces a sound which is similar to the sound of passing gas.
4) Scale Rubbing
Some vipers, such as the saw-scaled vipers, also have an impressive defensive display. Rather than hissing, rattling or passing wind, these snakes rub their scales together. It’s a process known as “stridulation.”
When intimidated, the saw-scaled vipers arrange their bodies into coils and rub their scales against each other. This produces a very distinct sizzling sound, which is not dissimilar to a hiss.
Do Snakes Make Noise at Night?
If you’ve heard your pet snake making strange noises at night (or during the day), it probably has one of three causes:
- Moving around. When snakes slither around their enclosures, they may make noises by rubbing up against plants or substrate or even knocking over ornaments.
- Passing gas. Entirely separate to the “cloacal popping,” snakes can pass gas. Snake flatulence sounds like loud gurgling and can be quite startling if you don’t know what it is.
- Respiratory infections. If you can hear a wheezing, gurgling, crackling or rasping noise coming from your snake’s mouth, they might have a respiratory infection.
A hiss is a warning in response to a threat. If your snake hisses at you, you’re doing something it doesn’t like. To be on the safe side, leave them alone for a while, and try interacting with it later on.