All snakes are strictly carnivorous, eating small animals including lizards, other snakes, small mammals, birds, eggs, fish, snails or insects.:81 Because snakes cannot bite or tear their food to pieces, a snake must swallow its prey whole. The body size of a snake has a major influence on its eating habits. Smaller snakes eat smaller prey. Juvenile pythons might start out feeding on lizards or mice and graduate to small deer or antelope as an adult, for example.
The snake's jaw is a complex structure. Contrary to the popular belief that snakes can dislocate their jaws, snakes have a very flexible lower jaw, the two halves of which are not rigidly attached, and numerous other joints in their skull (see snake skull), allowing them to open their mouths wide enough to swallow their prey whole, even if it is larger in diameter than the snake itself, as snakes do not chew. For example, the African Egg-eating Snake has flexible jaws adapted for eating eggs much larger than the diameter of its head.:81 This snake has no teeth, but does have bony protrusions on the inside edge of its spine which are used to aid in breaking the shells of the eggs it eats.:81
While the majority of snakes eat a variety of prey animals, there is some specialization by some species. King cobras and the Australian Bandy-bandy consume other snakes. Pareas iwesakii and other snail-eating Colubrids of subfamily Pareatinae have more teeth on the right side of their mouths than on the left, as the shells of their prey usually spiral clockwise:184
Some snakes have a venomous bite, which they use to kill their prey before eating it. Other snakes kill their prey by constriction. Still others swallow their prey whole and alive.:81
After eating, snakes become dormant while the process of digestion takes place. Digestion is an intense activity, especially after consumption of very large prey. In species that feed only sporadically, the entire intestine enters a reduced state between meals to conserve energy, and the digestive system is 'up-regulated' to full capacity within 48 hours of prey consumption. Being cold-blooded (ectothermic), the surrounding temperature plays a large role in a snake's digestion. 30℃ is the ideal temperature for snakes to digest their food. So much metabolic energy is involved in a snake's digestion that in Crotalus durissus, the Mexican rattlesnake, an increase of body temperature to as much as 1.2℃ above the surrounding environment has been observed. Because of this, a snake disturbed after having eaten recently will often regurgitate its prey in order to be able to escape the perceived threat. When undisturbed, the digestive process is highly efficient, with the snake's digestive enzymes dissolving and absorbing everything but the prey's hair and claws, which are excreted along with waste.
The snake's heart is encased in a sac, called the pericardium, located at the bifurcation of the bronchi. The heart is able to move around, however, owing to the lack of a diaphragm. This adjustment protects the heart from potential damage when large ingested prey is passed through the esophagus. The spleen is attached to the gall bladder and pancreas and filters the blood. The thymus gland is located in fatty tissue above the heart and is responsible for the generation of immune cells in the blood. The cardiovascular system of snakes is also unique for the presence of a renal portal system in which the blood from the snake's tail passes through the kidneys before returning to the heart.
The vestigial left lung is often small or sometimes even absent, as snakes' tubular bodies require all of their organs to be long and thin. In the majority of species, only one lung is functional. This lung contains a vascularized anterior portion and a posterior portion which does not function in gas exchange. This 'saccular lung' is used for hydrostatic purposes to adjust buoyancy in some aquatic snakes and its function remains unknown in terrestrial species. Many organs that are paired, such as kidneys or reproductive organs, are staggered within the body, with one located ahead of the other. Snakes have no colenary bladder or lymph nodes.
The lack of limbs does not impede the movement of snakes, and they have developed several different modes of locomotion to deal with particular environments. Unlike the gaits of limbed animals, which form a continuum, each mode of snake locomotion is discrete and distinct from the others, and transitions between modes are abrupt.
Lateral undulation is the sole mode of aquatic locomotion, and the most common mode of terrestrial locomotion. In this mode, the body of the snake alternately flexes to the left and right, resulting in a series of rearward-moving 'waves'. While this movement appears rapid, snakes have been documented moving faster than two body-lengths per second, often much less. This mode of movement is similar to running in lizards of the same mass.
Terrestrial lateral undulation is the most common mode of terrestrial locomotion for most snake species. In this mode, the posteriorly moving waves push against contact points in the environment, such as rocks, twigs, irregularities in the soil, etc. Each of these environmental objects, in turn, generates a reaction force directed forward and towards the midline of the snake, resulting in forward thrust while the lateral components cancel out. The speed of this movement depends upon the density of push-points in the environment, with a medium density of about 8 along the snake's length being ideal. The wave speed is precisely the same as the snake speed, and as a result, every point on the snake's body follows the path of the point ahead of it, allowing snakes to move through very dense vegetation and small openings.
When swimming, the waves become larger as they move down the snake's body, and the wave travels backwards faster than the snake moves forwards. Thrust is generated by pushing their body against the water, resulting in the observed slip. In spite of overall similarities, studies show that the pattern of muscle activation is different in aquatic vs terrestrial lateral undulation, which justifies calling them separate modes. All snakes can laterally undulate forward (with backward-moving waves), but only sea snakes have been observed reversing the pattern, i.e. moving backwards via forward-traveling waves.
Most often employed by colubroid snakes (colubrids, elapids, and vipers) when the snake must move in an environment which lacks any irregularities to push against (and which therefore renders lateral undulation impossible), such as a slick mud flat, or a sand dune. Sidewinding is a modified form of lateral undulation in which all of the body segments oriented in one direction remain in contact with the ground, while the other segments are lifted up, resulting in a peculiar 'rolling' motion. This mode of locomotion overcomes the slippery nature of sand or mud by pushing off with only static portions on the body, thereby minimizing slipping. The static nature of the contact points can be shown from the tracks of a sidewinding snake, which show each belly scale imprint, without any smearing. This mode of locomotion has very low caloric cost, less than ⅓ of the cost for a lizard or snake to move the same distance. Contrary to popular beliefs, there is no evidence that sidewinding is associated with hot sand.
When push-points are absent, but there is not enough space to use sidewinding because of lateral constraints, such as in tunnels, snakes rely on concertina locomotion. In this mode, the snake braces the posterior portion of its body against the tunnel wall while the front of the snake extends and straightens. The front portion then flexes and forms an anchor point, and the posterior is straightened and pulled forwards. This mode of locomotion is slow and very demanding, up to seven times the cost of laterally undulating over the same distance. This high cost is due to the repeated stops and starts of portions of the body as well as the necessity of using active muscular effort to brace against the tunnel walls.
The slowest mode of snake locomotion is rectilinear locomotion, which is also the only one in which the snake does not need to bend its body laterally, though it may do so when turning. In this mode, the belly scales are lifted and pulled forward before being placed down and the body pulled over them. Waves of movement and stasis pass posteriorly, resulting in a series of ripples in the skin. The ribs of the snake do not move in this mode of locomotion and this method is most often used by large pythons, boas, and vipers when stalking prey across open ground as the snake's movements are subtle and harder to detect by their prey in this manner.
The movement of snakes in arboreal habitats has only recently been studied. While on tree branches, snakes use several modes of locomotion depending on species and bark texture. In general, snakes will use a modified form of concertina locomotion on smooth branches, but will laterally undulate if contact points are available. Snakes move faster on small branches and when contact points are present, in contrast to limbed animals, which do better on large branches with little 'clutter'.
Gliding snakes (Chrysopelea) of Southeast Asia launch themselves from branch tips, spreading their ribs and laterally undulating as they glide between trees. These snakes can perform a controlled glide for hundreds of feet depending upon launch altitude and can even turn in mid-air.
Although a wide range of reproductive modes are used by snakes, all snakes employ internal fertilization, accomplished by means of paired, forked hemipenes, which are stored inverted in the male's tail. The hemipenes are often grooved, hooked, or spined in order to grip the walls of the female's cloaca.
Most species of snake lay eggs, and most of those species abandon them shortly after laying; however, individual species such as the King cobra actually construct nests and stay in the vicinity of the hatchlings after incubation. Most pythons coil around their egg-clutches after they have laid them and remain with the eggs until they hatch. The female python will not leave the eggs, except to occasionally bask in the sun or drink water and will generate heat to incubate the eggs by shivering.
Some species of snake are ovoviviparous and retain the eggs within their bodies until they are almost ready to hatch. Recently, it has been confirmed that several species of snake are fully viviparous, such as the boa constrictor and green anaconda, nourishing their young through a placenta as well as a yolk sac, which is highly unusual among reptiles, or anything else outside of placental mammals. Retention of eggs and live birth are most often associated with colder environments, as the retention of the young within the female.
Cobras, vipers, and closely related species use venom to immobilize or kill their prey. The venom is modified saliva, delivered through fangs.:243 The fangs of 'advanced' venomous snakes like viperids and elapids are hollow in order to inject venom more effectively, while the fangs of rear-fanged snakes such as the Boomslang merely have a groove on the posterior edge to channel venom into the wound. Snake venoms are often prey specific, its role in self-defense is secondary.:243 Venom, like all salivary secretions, is a pre-digestant which initiates the breakdown of food into soluble compounds allowing for proper digestion and even "non-venomous" snake bites (like any animal bite) will cause tissue damage.:209
Certain birds, mammals, and other snakes such as kingsnakes that prey on venomous snakes have developed resistance and even immunity to certain venom.:243 Venomous snakes include three families of snakes and do not constitute a formal classification group used in taxonomy. The term poisonous snake is mostly incorrect – poison is inhaled or ingested whereas venom is injected. There are, however, two exceptions – Rhabdophis sequesters toxins from the toads it eats then secretes them from nuchal glands to ward off predators, and a small population of garter snakes in Oregon retains enough toxin in their liver from the newts they eat to be effectively poisonous to local small predators such as crows and foxes.
Snake venoms are complex mixtures of proteins and are stored in poison glands at the back of the head. In all venomous snakes these glands open through ducts into grooved or hollow teeth in the upper jaw.:243 These proteins can potentially be a mix of neurotoxins (which attack the nervous system), hemotoxins (which attack the circulatory system), cytotoxins, bungarotoxins and many other toxins that affect the body in different ways. Almost all snake venom contains hyaluronidase, an enzyme that ensures rapid diffusion of the venom.:243
Venomous snakes that use hemotoxins usually have the fangs that secrete the venom in the front of their mouths, making it easier for them to inject the venom into their victims. Some snakes that use neurotoxins, such as the mangrove snake, have their fangs located in the back of their mouths, with the fangs curled backwards. This makes it both difficult for the snake to use its venom and for scientists to milk them. Elapid snakes, however, such as cobras and kraits are proteroglyphous, possessing hollow fangs which cannot be erected toward the front of their mouths and cannot "stab" like a viper, they must actually bite the victim.:242
It has recently been suggested that all snakes may be venomous to a certain degree, the harmless snakes having weak venom and no fangs.. Most snakes that are considered non-venomous would still be considered harmless under this theory, because under most cases the snakes have no way of delivering much or any venom, certainly not enough to kill a human. Also under this theory, snakes may have evolved from a common lizard ancestor that was venomous, from which venomous lizards like the gila monster and beaded lizard may have also derived, as well as the monitor lizards and now extinct mosasaurs. They share this venom clade with various other saurian species.
- Elapids – cobras including king cobras, kraits, mambas, Australian copperheads, sea snakes, and coral snakes.
- Viperids – vipers, rattlesnakes, copperheads/cottonmouths, adders and bushmasters.
There is a third family containing the opistoglyphous (rear-fanged) snakes as well as the majority of other snake species:
- Colubrids – boomslangs, tree snakes, vine snakes, mangrove snakes, although not all colubrids are venomous.:209
Interactions with humans
Snakes do not ordinarily prey on humans and most will not attack humans unless the snake is startled or injured, preferring instead to avoid contact. With the exception of large constrictors, non-venomous snakes are not a threat to humans. The bite of non-venomous snakes is usually harmless because their teeth are designed for grabbing and holding, rather than tearing or inflicting a deep puncture wound. Although the possibility of an infection and tissue damage is present in the bite of a non-venomous snake, venomous snakes present far greater hazard to humans.:209
Documented deaths resulting from snake bites are uncommon. Non-fatal bites from venomous snakes may result in the need for amputation of a limb or part thereof. Of the roughly 725 species of venomous snakes worldwide, only 250 are able to kill a human with one bite. Although Australia is home to the largest number of venomous snakes in the world, it only has one fatal snake bite per year on average. In India, 250,000 snakebites are recorded in a single year with as many as 50,000 recorded initial deaths.
The treatment for a snakebite is as variable as the bite itself. The most common and effective method is through antivenom, a serum made from the venom of the snake. Some antivenom is species specific (monovalent) while some is made for use with multiple species in mind (polyvalent). In the United States for example, all species of venomous snakes are pit vipers, with the exception of the coral snake. To produce antivenin, a mixture of the venoms of the different species of rattlesnakes, copperheads, and cottonmouths is injected into the body of a horse in ever-increasing dosages until the horse is immunized. Blood is then extracted from the immunized horse and freeze-dried. It is reconstituted with sterile water and becomes antivenin. For this reason, people who are allergic to horses cannot be treated using antivenin. Antivenin for the more dangerous species (such as mambas, taipans, and cobras) is made in a similar manner in India, South Africa, and Australia with the exception being that those antivenins are species-specific.
In some parts of the world, especially in India, snake charming is a roadside show performed by a charmer. In such a show, the snake charmer carries a basket that contains a snake that he seemingly charms by playing tunes from his flutelike musical instrument, to which the snake responds. Snakes lack external ears, and though they do have internal ears, they show no tendency to be influenced by music.
The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 in India technically proscribes snake charming on grounds of reducing animal cruelty. Other snake charmers also have a snake and mongoose show, where both the animals have a mock fight; however, this is not very common, as the snakes, as well as the mongooses, may be seriously injured or killed. Snake charming as a profession is dying out in India because of competition from modern forms of entertainment and environment laws proscribing the practice.
The tribals of "Irulas" from Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu in India have been hunter-gatherers in the hot dry plains forests and have practiced this art for generations. They have a vast knowledge of snakes in the field. Irulas generally catch the snakes with the help of a simple stick. Earlier, the Irulas caught thousands of snakes for the snake-skin industry. After the complete ban on snake-skin industry in India and protection of all snakes under the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, they formed the Irula Snake Catcher's Cooperative and switched to catching snakes for removal of venom, releasing them in the wild after four extractions. The venom so collected is used for producing life-saving antivenin, biomedical research and for other medicinal products. The Irulas are also known to eat some of the snakes they catch and are very useful in rat extermination in the villages.Despite the existence of snake charmers, there have also been professional snake catchers or wranglers. Modern day snake trapping involves a herpetologist using a long stick with a "V" shaped end. Some like Bill Haast, Austin Stevens, and Jef