Snakes may release a foul-smelling liquid as a warning sign or to scare away predators. Some people say that it smells like rotten eggs or is similar-smelling to the liquid released by a skunk.
Musk is a defense mechanism that allows snakes to warn off predators and threats, without having to fight or use venom. It’s more common for younger and smaller snakes to musk. However, even adult snakes musking is a common response to threats in the wild and captivity.
Not all snake species musk as much as others. Garter snakes, for example, are well-known for being flighty and unpredictable. In combination with their small size, this makes them more likely to musk than average. But what about other species? Read on to find out which snakes do and don’t musk (with quick reference table).
Why Do Snakes Musk?
Snakes musk as a form of self-defense. If you’re mowing the lawn, for example, and you have to move a snake out of the way then there’s a chance that it might musk on you.
It’s a simpler way for them to defend themselves than trying to fight you. After all, you are hundreds of times bigger than your average snake in the grass.
Why musk instead of an alternative method? First of all, musk is easy for the snake to create. It’s a natural by-product of their digestive system. Second, it’s more potent than you realize if you’ve never come into contact with it before. It’s a strong smell, which can overwhelm even the strongest stomachs. And, of course, it stops the snake from having to try fighting with their fangs.
Aside from that, snake musk also influences predator behavior. A study published in the Journal of Chemical Ecology studied predator behavior in response to snake musk, to see if it had any effect—for example, suppressing the predator’s appetite.
To test this idea, the scientists took genuine scent gland secretions from the gray rat snake, which they then transferred onto pieces of food. They found that domestic cats offered these pieces of food ate less than a control group, which were offered the same food without having been treated by musk. The smell of musk, therefore, may deter predators from eating snakes in the wild.
The reason why it influences a predator’s behavior is obvious. Imagine if you were offered two pieces of food—say, two apples. One had been rolled in a foul-smelling musk, while the other one was normal. Which one would you pick to eat? Snake musk tastes as bad as it smells, so predators will avoid anything that smells like that.
Do Snakes Smell Like Skunks When They Musk?
Yes, snake musk can smell like a skunk. It depends on the snake species, because different species have different smells. Most people describe snake musk as smelling like rotten eggs, or more generally, a foul smell.
The northern water snake, for example, is famed for having a particularly potent form of musk. Their musk smells like dead fish. Snakes in the genus Nerodia generally have potent musks, which can be very difficult to get rid of. Other people describe their musk as smelling like bad eggs.
What Is Snake Musk Made Of?
Musk is a glandular secretion that many animals create and use. Musks were used in some of the first ever perfumes, and are still sometimes used today (although synthetic musk is far more common). Snake musks aren’t used in perfume, but they’re broadly similar to deer musk, which was. It’s created in special scent glands, which are at the base of the snake’s tail, near their cloaca.
The musk itself is made of chemicals that the snake produces. The snake’s long evolutionary history has created these chemicals which are uniquely disgusting to smell, and difficult to get rid of. Plus, they’re often mixed with urates (urine) and feces, which each smells bad in their own way.
According to a paper in the Journal of Chemical Ecology, the compounds that make up snake musk are much the same across different families of snake. So, the musk that a garter snake uses (for example) is broadly similar to the musk that a boa constrictor uses. This suggests that musk evolved quite high up in the snake’s evolutionary tree, a long time ago.
What Is Snake Musk Like?
Snake musk released on its own is usually white or an off-white color. In terms of texture, it’s described as milky, oily and greasy.
It’s easy to wash off with soap, but it’s the scent that it leaves behind which is difficult to get rid of. The molecules bind tightly to the surface they’re applied to, which is what makes them so difficult to remove. Simply soap isn’t enough to get rid of them on the first pass.
Which Snakes Musk and Which Don’t?
All snakes musk, but which ones are notorious for it, and which will only musk occasionally? Below we’ve put our findings in a table, and afterward explored each species’ behavior in more detail.
|Snake Species||How Often Do Snakes Musk?|
|Corn Snakes:||Frequently when young; infrequently when they get older.|
|Milk Snakes:||Frequently. Pueblan milk snakes, in particular, are most likely to musk.|
Do Ball Pythons Musk?
Ball pythons don’t frequently musk, as they’re more comfortable with people than many other species. They don’t use projectile musk, however, preferring to pass musk the same way that they go to the toilet. People report that it smells worse than, but similar to, their urates.
Do Corn Snakes Musk?
Corn snakes do musk, especially when they’re young. However, they don’t musk as much as other species like garter snakes. The most likely scenario for your corn snake to musk is where they’re uncomfortable in a new environment. If you think your corn snake may have musked on you, it may have simply been the snake going to the toilet.
Do Garter Snakes Musk?
Garter snakes musk more frequently than other common pet snakes, i.e., corn snakes and ball pythons. That’s because they’re smaller than most other common pet snakes, which means they have to defend themselves with musk rather than their tiny fangs. Their musk supposedly has an unpleasant but sweet odor.
Do Kingsnakes Musk?
Yes, kingsnakes musk. If you were to go outdoors to try and capture one, they’d combine their defense mechanisms to try and get you to leave them alone. They’d try and bite you. But they’d also shake their tail as they release their musk.
This is a behavior that they developed over thousands of years—they’re imitating the far-more-dangerous rattlesnake. But shaking their tails also helps them spread musk around when they’re threatened, making it more effective.
Do Hognose Snakes Musk?
Hognose snakes can musk, although it’s less likely that they will than it is in other species. They release their musk in combination with their death display.
If you threaten a hognose for long enough—and despite their efforts to bite you, you won’t leave them alone—then they’ll flop onto their back and pretend that they’re dead.
At the same time, they’ll release their musk as well as any feces or urates they have ready. This foul-smelling combination makes them less appealing to potential predators, for obvious reasons.
Do Milk Snakes Musk?
Young milk snakes musk more frequently than most snakes. Pueblans, especially, are notorious for musking even once they grow up. Unfortunately, milk snakes are flighty enough as it is, which is why a milk snake’s cloacal scent gland sees so much use. Because of their temperament, there’s a chance that your milk snake might keep musking no matter how much time you spend with them.
Do Boa Constrictors Musk?
They do. Despite being more than big enough to fend for themselves, boa constrictors will musk if they’re alarmed and frightened. It’s a much more potent smell than that of urates or feces. However, it’s so rare that they will that many owners don’t even know that they can.
Do Female Snakes Musk?
Yes, female snakes can musk, just as males can. The glands that snakes use to musk aren’t exclusive to males. The glands themselves are located inside the cloaca, specifically in the proctodeum. This is the part of the cloaca that’s nearest to the opening (the vent). Since both males and females have cloacae, and they’re broadly similar in structure, both sexes have the same glands available to them.
Which Snake Has the Smelliest Musk?
The two worst snake species are ringneck snakes and water snakes. Ringneck snakes are unusually small, which would explain why they rely on their musk to scare predators away. Water snakes are scary enough as it is—people confuse them with water moccasins, which are a different snake—but there seems to be something about their diet of fish which makes their musk worse than most.
A mention has to go to the long-nosed snake. These snakes aren’t commonly seen, either in the wild—because they’re so shy and retiring—or in the pet trade, because they refuse to eat a rodent-based diet in captivity. If you do threaten one, though, it has a unique method of musking.
When they musk, they use a uniquely foul combination of musk, feces, urates, and blood. Not content with getting it on you, they’ll then writhe around in it to make themselves smell as bad as possible. It works, as the predator threatening them will probably leave them to it.
Snake Musk Removal
The worst thing is that the smell is difficult to get rid of. Snakes make their musk challenging to remove on purpose, to confuse and frighten predators that might want to attack them again.
Simply scrubbing at the affected area with soap, or even bleach, isn’t enough to get rid of the smell. Some people even report that the smell of musk is reactivated, long after the ‘attack,’ by the clothing in question getting wet. Fortunately, there are a few ways that you can get rid of it.
1) Wash the Area Repeatedly
The first thing you should try is to wash the area repeatedly. This is sometimes enough to get rid of the smell. As we said, the severity of the smell depends on the snake species—for some, it will be more than enough to repeatedly wash the area.
Use a washcloth to scour the area harder than you would with your bare hands, which should help you get rid of the smell more quickly. Give it a try before purchasing anything from the list below.
2) Use Lave Soap to Get Rid of Snake Musk
Lave soap is a kind of heavy-duty hand cleaner. It looks like a regular bar of soap, but contains pumice, a soft form of rock. Pumice can scrape away and somewhat absorb thick, greasy and difficult to remove substances: things like tar, engine grease, thick oil and the like.
It’s manufactured by the same company that makes WD-40, and is a favorite of mechanics and people in similar lines of work that need to remove oil and grease from their hands.
Because it contains pumice, it’s far more effective than regular soap at removing snake musk.
3) Metal Soap Gets Rid of Musk
Metal soap is commonly used by fisherman and others who spend lots of time working with or touching strong-smelling things. It’s made from simple stainless steel, which is surprisingly good at getting rid of odors.
You apply a small amount of dish soap or similar to the bar and rub it between your hands, just as you would a regular bar of soap. You can do the same with musk elsewhere on the body.
How to Stop a Snake from Musking
Snakes musk because they feel like you’re a threat. As such, the best way to prevent them from musking is to teach them to be comfortable with you. There are a few ways to do that:
- Don’t react angrily when they musk. If you get angry with them—maybe throwing them back down into their enclosure or moving them around too fast, or gripping them too hard when they musk—all you’re doing is teaching them that you are a threat. All that will do is encourage them to musk more. React calmly instead.
- Make their enclosure more comfortable. A snake in a clear glass case with nothing else in it will feel perpetually threatened. Snakes like to have hiding places, and to have lots of ground cover for them to sit under. They also don’t like to have enclosures that are too big, or too small.
- Learn how to handle them better. If your snake tends to musk you when you try to pick them up, it’s because they don’t like the way that you handle them. You should hold them with confidence, without gripping or grabbing them. Don’t move them around too fast and frighten them.
- Handle them regularly. With regular handling, even the least friendly snake can warm up to an owner. Handle them regularly, and at times when they’ll enjoy it, i.e., not when they’re hungry and not while they’re digesting.
- Wait for them to grow larger. Smaller, younger snakes tend to musk more frequently than older, bigger ones. And with time, your snake will become more used to you—not necessarily seeing you as a friend, since snakes don’t work that way, but at least not seeing you as a threat. This takes time, though, for them to learn.
Unfortunately, it’s not always possible to stop a snake from musking. With garter snakes or milk snakes, for example, they’ll musk even if you’ve owned them for years. And even other species, depending on the snake’s temperament, will do the same. All you can do is follow correct handling and enclosure guidelines to minimize their stress.