How Do Snakes Hunt?

What makes snakes such great hunters?

When feeding your snake live prey, you may have asked yourself, how does your snake track this animal? 

How do snakes hunt?

Snakes are smell-reliant hunters. They pick up chemical information with their tongues by flicking them in and out. Some snakes also track their prey by sensing body heat and ambushing or stalking. Once caught, snakes use venom, constriction, or a combination of the two to subdue and eat their prey.

how do snakes hunt

How Do Snakes Use Their Senses While Hunting?

Smell

Though snakes use multiple senses to hunt their prey, they primarily get their information from the smell.

They do not smell through their noses, but with their tongues.

When flicking their tongues in and out, snakes pick up chemical information from prey or potential mates.

They also use their tongues to feel around the surrounding area.

Snakes have forked tongues, which means they also sense which direction a smell is coming from.

The chemical information is then transferred from the tongue to an organ on the roof of the mouth called the vomeronasal or Jacobson’s organ.

The organ helps the snake interpret smell information and tell what type of prey is nearby.

Detecting Body Heat

Snakes sometimes sense body heat through special receptors on their heads.

This is especially helpful for snakes which hunt at night.

These receptors are best developed in pit vipers, which receive their name from their heat-seeking pits.

Eyesight

Though it is not their best asset in hunting, some snakes do have good eyesight.

The quality of a snake’s field of vision depends on where their eyes are located on their head: some snakes have a better front-facing vision while others with eyes on either side of their heads have a wider field of vision.

Night-hunting snakes also tend to have a well-developed night vision. 

However, most snakes have specialized eyesight, which helps them detect movement.

They often move past prey animals which are standing completely still. Snakes also do not blink.

These behaviors may have led to the myth of snakes hypnotizing their prey into stillness.

Other

Snakes are capable of hearing and seeing some colors, but these senses are not as developed.

They do not pick up sounds through their ears, mostly relying on their skin and jawbones to receive sound and vibration.

They also may use their lung as a sound receptor.

What Hunting And Tracking Methods Do Snakes Use?

Most snakes rely on stealth and ambush to catch their prey.

Since they need external heat to fuel their bodies, snakes are slower in general and stay inactive for most of their day.

This helps them to conserve energy for quick strikes against prey, as well as eating and digestion.

Bigger snakes, like the anaconda, exclusively hunt by ambush.

Snakes will hide, often using camouflage, in areas where they expect prey to be.

They then strike out once the prey is in striking range of their hiding spots.

Some large tree snakes jump or drop onto their prey from above.

Some of these tree snakes anchor themselves to tree branches and hoist their prey into the trees to eat in safety.

Some juvenile snakes use the brightly colored ends of their tails as lures to attract prey.

This behavior is not usually seen in adult snakes.

There are also snakes which forage.

These snakes move more actively and regularly around their territory, looking for young and vulnerable prey.

This is not an energy-efficient way to hunt for all snakes, meaning it tends to be a better method for smaller snakes.

Foraging also works better for snakes when prey is slower-moving or still in eggs or nests.

Any individual snake may switch between these techniques, depending on season or amount of available prey at any one time.

How Do Snakes Kill Their Prey?

Once snakes have caught their prey, they have two main methods of killing: venom and constriction. 

Venom

Venomous snakes either inject their toxins into prey by biting or spit it at high pressure from holes in the tips of their fangs.

Snakes like cobras, vipers, rattlesnakes, and coral snakes are considered venomous.

Snake venom comes in two main types with subtypes in each.

There are four different types of neurotoxin found in the venoms of other snakes.

Neurotoxins specifically attack neural pathways in the body.

There are four different types of neurotoxin found in snake venom.

There are three types of cytotoxin found in snake venom:

  • Phospholipases: These compounds rupture cell membranes by attracting and binding fat to the cells.
  • Cardiotoxins: These bind specifically to muscle cells in the heart, preventing muscle contraction and leading to arrhythmia or death.
  • Hemotoxins: These destroy red blood cells or induce blood clotting and coagulation within the body.

Constriction

While venomous snakes sometimes use a combination of venom and constriction to kill their prey, snakes which use it as their primary killing method, like boa constrictors, do not have venom.

Constriction in snakes involves pulling their prey into themselves, wrapping around the animal in a coil, and squeezing.

While it was once thought constriction killed prey animals through suffocation, constrictors squeeze primarily to stop blood flow to vital organs like the heart and the brain.

The snake easily monitors the prey’s heartbeat when wrapped around the animal, beginning to eat once the heart has stopped beating.

Conclusion

We hope you have enjoyed learning about how snakes hunt their prey.

Snakes use multiple senses to hunt their prey.

However, they primarily rely on smell and the chemical information they get from their tongues and Jacobson’s organs.

While some snakes forage, most snakes use stealth and ambush, a hunting method which uses as little energy as possible in a cold-blooded animal.

Once they catch their prey, a venomous snake will use their venom, a nonvenomous snake will use constriction, or a snake will use a combination of the two to kill their prey for eating.

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