Snake | Description, Facts, & Types (2024)



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Also known as: Serpentes, serpent

Written by

James A. Peters Curator and Supervisor, Division of Reptiles and Amphibians, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1966–72. Specialist on the taxonomy of snakes. Author of Dictionary...

James A. Peters,

Van Wallach Curatorial Assistant, Museum of Comparative Zoology, Harvard University. Coauthor of Snakes of the World.

Van WallachAll

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timber rattlesnake

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Also called:
Related Topics:
blind snake
worm snake
venomous snake

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Top Questions

How do snakes move?

The four different ways that snakes move are serpentine locomotion, “concertina” locomotion, “caterpillar” or “rectilinear” locomotion, and sidewinding locomotion.

Do snakes have ears?

Snakes have no external ears, but they retain a few vestiges of an internal ear, which are connected to other skull bones in such a way as to permit the transmission of some earth-borne, and perhaps a few aerial, sound waves of low frequency.

How fast do snakes grow?

The rate of growth in snakes is correlated with the availability of food and temperatures high enough to permit full metabolic activity. When all factors are optimal, snakes grow surprisingly fast. It has been suggested that all snakes grow rapidly until they reach sexual maturity, after which time growth slows but very seldom stops completely.

What is molting in snakes?

For molting in snakes, the replacement cells for the skin grow on the same cycle and cohere into a complete unit. When this unit is functional, the snake’s eyes become a milky blue, the old skin loosens all over the body, and the snake rubs loose the old skin around the mouth and nose, then crawls out of the rest of it.

What physical trait sets snakes apart from other reptiles?

Snakes differ from other reptiles in being limbless and having a greatly elongated body and tail. Snakes also lack movable eyelids and external ear openings.

snake, (suborder Serpentes), any of more than 3,400 species of reptiles distinguished by their limbless condition and greatly elongated body and tail. Classified with lizards in the order Squamata, snakes represent a lizard that, over the course of evolution, has undergone structural reduction, simplification, and loss as well as specialization. All snakes lack external limbs, but not all legless reptiles are snakes. Certain burrowing lizards may have only front or hind limbs or be completely legless. Unlike lizards, snakes lack movable eyelids, which results in a continuous and often disconcerting stare. Snakes also lack external ear openings. Internally, they have lost the urinary bladder. The visceral organs are elongated, with reduction of the left member in relation to the right; the left lung is greatly reduced or even lost entirely. However, snakes possess increased numbers of vertebrae and have developed two novelties among vertebrates: a tracheal lung in the neck region and a venom-conducting system for subduing prey.

Did You Know?

The world’s longest snake is the reticulated python. How large is it?

Snakes are thought to have evolved from terrestrial lizards as early as the Middle Jurassic Epoch (174.1 million to 163.5 million years ago). The oldest known fossil snake, Eophis underwoodi, was a small snake that lived in southern England about 167 million years ago.

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Snakes and humans

Snakes are misunderstood and often maligned, primarily out of ignorance about their true nature and position in the natural world. All snakes are predators, but venomous snakes (that is, biting snakes that use their fangs to inject toxins into their victims) have given an inaccurate reputation to the entire group, as most people cannot tell the dangerous from the harmless. Only a small percentage (fewer than 300 species) are venomous, and of those only about half are capable of inflicting a lethal bite. Although snakebite mortality worldwide is estimated at 80,000–140,000 people per year, the majority of deaths occur in Southeast Asia, principally because of poor medical treatment, malnutrition of victims, and a large number of venomous species. Although there are about 8,000 venomous snakebites per year in the United States, the average number of annual fatalities is less than 10 or so per year—fewer than are attributed to bee stings and lightning strikes. In Mexico, 10 times as many people die annually from bee stings as from snakebites.

Snakes can control the amount of venom they inject and may bite aggressively for food or defensively for protection. Snakes have a limited amount of venom available at any given time and do not want to waste it on nonprey organisms. As a result, about 40 percent of bites suffered by humans are defensive in nature and “dry” (without envenomation). Statistics show that the vast majority of snakebites occur while either catching and handling captive snakes or trying to molest or kill wild ones. In either case, the snake is only defending itself. Rattlesnakes, for example, are venomous, and large ones are quite dangerous owing to the amount of venom they can inject. However, most are shy and retreating, and none will attack a person unmolested. When approached or molested, they will coil up and rattle as a warning to be left alone, striking only as a last resort. Most cases of reputed snake attack are based upon encroachment by a person into the snake’s territory, which makes it feel trapped or cornered, or provocation of a snake during the breeding season. Even in these scenarios, only two snakes have a reputation as dangerous aggressors: the black mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis) of Africa and the king cobra (Ophiophagus hannah) of Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, snakes are inoffensive under the vast majority of circ*mstances. People are rarely indifferent about them, generally exhibiting emotions that range from religious awe and superstitious dread to repulsion and uncontrollable fear. It is interesting to note that, although most people profess to fear or hate snakes, one of the most visited areas of any zoo is the snake house—proof that snakes are mysterious and fascinating, even if they are loathed. Given their exquisite colours, patterns, and graceful movements as they crawl, swim, or climb, some snakes can be considered among the most beautiful animals.

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In common parlance, venomous snakes are often referred to as “poisonous snakes.” This phrase is not technically correct, because the term “poisonous” only applies to organisms that unload their toxins when another organism consumes them. Very few snakes are truly poisonous. One of the most common, yet harmless, poisonous snakes in North America is the garter snake (Thamnophis), whose body has the ability to absorb and store the toxins of the newts, salamanders, and other poisonous prey it eats.

Nearly every culture since prehistoric times (including various present-day cultures) has worshipped, revered, or feared snakes. Serpent worship is one of the earliest forms of veneration, with some carvings dating to 10,000 bce. Although Satan is depicted as a serpent in the biblical account of the Creation, snakes are revered by most societies. A vast global compendium of superstitions and mythologies about snakes has sprung up. Many stem from the snakes’ biological peculiarities: their ability to shed their skin is associated with immortality; their ever-open eyes represent omniscience; their propensity for sudden appearance and disappearance allies snakes with magic and ghosts; a phallic resemblance embodies procreative powers; and the ability to kill with a single bite engenders fear of any snakelike creature.

The hides of six snake species (especially pythonss and wart snakes) are commonly bought and sold in the skin trade. The number of rattlesnakes used for their skins is minor in comparison. Hundreds of thousands of live snakes are collected for sale in the international pet trade. Nearly 100,000 ball pythons and 30,000 boa constrictors are imported annually into the United States. The removal of such enormous numbers from the wild threatens the survival of these species, and many snake populations are in decline as a result of capture and habitat destruction. The release of nonnative pet snakes into the wild has also led to the introduction of several invasive species, including the Burmese pythons that have devastated small mammal populations in the Florida Everglades.

Van Wallach

Natural history

Most snakes do not spend much of their time doing anything but resting. A snake’s primary activity is concerned with either thermoregulation or finding live food, which often involves passive waiting rather than active searching. The thermoregulation problem varies with latitude and altitude. The actions and reactions of a snake in temperate North America are distinct from those of one living in the American tropical lowlands but are similar to those of another living at higher altitudes in the Andes of Ecuador. No matter where they live, snakes are subjected to pressures from the living (biotic) parts of the environment as well as from the physical, nonliving (abiotic) parts. But the amount or degree of challenge to the snake from different segments of the environment changes drastically depending upon the region it inhabits. An individual living in the hot, humid tropics of Africa, with comparatively constant temperatures close to optimum throughout the year and ample moisture from both rainfall and the surroundings, faces environmental problems that are overwhelmingly biotic, involving competition with other members of its own species for food, the challenge from other species of snakes and perhaps other vertebrates for possession of the ecological niche, and constant pressure of the predators that find it a tasty morsel. On the other hand, the common adder, or European viper (Vipera berus), living north of the Arctic Circle in Europe, is the only snake present in the area and lives practically unchallenged in its niche. However, its survival is challenged continually by its physical environment, and death from overheating, freezing, or dehydration is a repetitive threat. These differences between animals from different parts of the world are reflected in their life histories, and it is neither possible nor legitimate to speak of the “life history of the snake” unless one speaks of only a single region or species.

Snake | Description, Facts, & Types (2024)


What are 5 characteristics of a snake? ›

snake, Any member of about 19 reptile families (suborder Serpentes, order Squamata) that has no limbs, voice, external ears, or eyelids, only one functional lung, and a long, slender body. About 2,900 snake species are known to exist, most living in the tropics. Their skin is covered with scales.

What are the 3 types of snakes? ›

Types of snakes include: constrictors such as pythons and boas; venomous snakes such as vipers and elapids; and non-venomous predators such as colubrids.

How many days do snakes live? ›

How Long Do Snakes Live? Snakes reach sexual maturity within two to four years, depending on the species and living conditions. In perfect conditions, adult snakes live anywhere from 20 to 30 years, with natural predators and the encroachment of humans severely limiting the number of years most snakes live.

What is the biggest snake facts? ›

The green anaconda is the largest snake in the world, when both weight and length are considered. It can reach a length of 30 feet (9 meters) and weigh up to 550 pounds (227 kilograms). To picture how big that is, if about five ten-year-olds lie down head to foot, they'd be about the length of this huge snake.

How do snakes sleep? ›

Snakes don't have eyelids, so they have to sleep with their eyes open. Despite this, their brains still shut down when sleeping, just like other animals. A sleeping snake may look like it's glaring at you, but it's actually unconscious!

What food does a snake eat? ›

What do snakes eat? All snakes are carnivores. Their diet depends on the species. Some eat warm-blooded prey (e.g., rodents, rabbits, birds), while others eat insects, amphibians (frogs or toads), eggs, other reptiles, fish, earthworms, or slugs.

What do snakes do every day? ›

Some are active at night, others during the day. Snakes are predators and eat a wide variety of animals, including rodents, insects, birds' eggs and young birds. Snakes are cold-blooded and must move to a suitable surrounding environment to regulate their body temperature.

How smart are snakes? ›

Among the multitude of vertebrate species, snakes rank rather low in terms of intelligence as we laypeople understand the word. According to some zoologist/s, only the king cobra shows a glimmer of intelligence.

How do snakes smell? ›

Snakes have a special, super-charged smell sensor called the Jacobson's organ. It sits right above the roof of a snake's mouth. When a snake flicks its forked tongue, it gathers chemicals from the air. The Jacobson's organ can then “smell” these chemicals when the snake brings its tongue back into its mouth.

Can snakes hear voices? ›

They can hear – just not as well as you or I. Snakes can only hear low frequencies, roughly below the 600Hz mark, whereas most of us can hear a much wider range. Snakes probably hear muffled versions of what we do.

What snake attacks the most? ›

The killer of the most people

The saw-scaled viper (Echis carinatus) may be the deadliest of all snakes, since scientists believe it to be responsible for more human deaths than all other snake species combined.

What is a female snake called? ›

Snakes are known simply as "males" or "females," with no name distinction between them based on gender. Young snakes, however, do have separate designations of "snakelet" for a baby, "neonate" for a newly-born offspring or "hatchling" for a newly-hatched snake.

What is the friendliest snake pet? ›

Corn Snake – Corn Snakes are known for their docile nature and friendly temperament. They are easy to care for and can live up to 20 years.

Do snakes have teeth? ›

Long teeth are present in snakes that need a good grip on their prey, such as soft‐bodied or bulky prey or snakes feeding underwater. Short teeth are associated with hard and/or long prey items that usually do not involve penetration of the prey.

How many bones do snakes have? ›

A small snake like the 10 cm long thread snake has about 200 vertebrae and the same number of pairs of ribs, for about 600 bones. A large snake like the 7 m long giant python has up to 600 vertebrae, for about 1800 bones in all. Here's a skeleton of a "normal" sized snake.

How many snakes can swim? ›

Did you know that all snakes can swim? Some can swim better than others and some prefer to be near or in the water. When we see a snake swimming in the water, we often think of the water moccasin, also known as the cottonmouth.

What do snakes really eat? ›

All snakes are carnivores. Their diet depends on the species. Some eat warm-blooded prey (e.g., rodents, rabbits, birds), while others eat insects, amphibians (frogs or toads), eggs, other reptiles, fish, earthworms, or slugs. Snakes swallow their food whole.

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