How Do Snakes Smell With Their Tongue?

Have you heard about a snake’s ability to smell food when they are hunting?

Have you noticed your snake flicking their tongue around?

You may be aware of the connection between a snake’s sense of smell and their tongue, but if you don’t know the specifics, you might ask:

How do snakes smell with their tongue? 

Snakes don’t use their nostrils to smell like humans. Instead, snakes use their tongues to grab chemicals from the air, then touch their tongue to their Jacobson’s organ. The Jacobson’s organ helps the snake’s brain identify and distinguish between different scents. 

Snakes rely heavily on their sense of smell because of their limited vision and hearing abilities.

Keep reading as we delve even more into how snakes smell with their tongue.

how do snakes smell with their tongue

How Do Snakes Smell With Their Tongue? 

Since snakes don’t have a typical nose like humans or many other animals, it might be hard to understand how snakes smell.

While they do have nostrils, they are not used to pick up smells in their surroundings, as we do. 

Instead of smelling through their noses and nostrils, snakes pick up smells using their tongues.

You might have noticed your snake, or videos of snakes, flicking their tongue in and out continually.

This is because the tongue is used to collect chemical particles from the air.

These very tiny particles are the stuff smells are made of.

The tongue is moist to collect better the tiny particles floating in the air.

After sticking their tongue out to collect the particles, they bring it back into their mouth, touching their Jacobson’s organ.

The Jacobson’s organ is a unique sensory organ located on the roof of the snake’s mouth.

Snakes aren’t the only animals in the world who have a Jacobson’s organ.

Many amphibians, reptiles, and even some mammals like horses and cats have this sensory organ. 

The only difference is snakes and lizards use their tongue to deliver the particles directly to the Jacobson’s organ, where other animals do not. 

Once the tongue touches the Jacobson’s organ, the organ deciphers the particles and sends the information to the snake’s brain, working together to tell the snake what it is smelling.

With this information, the snake can track down prey to get their next meal or identify predators in their vicinity, keeping them safe.

Their sense of smell also comes in handy during the mating season, where males detect pheromones put off by females.

For snakes in captivity, they smell their owners and often identify the owner’s scent with food and good things. 

When someone new comes into your home, or if you come into contact with a new snake and see it continually flicking its tongue, you will now understand the snake is merely figuring out if you are a predator or prey. 

How Good Is A Snake’s Sense Of Smell?

Humans rely on not just one of their senses but use sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste together to get a great picture of our surroundings and make decisions.

Snakes don’t have the same luxury.

They are not equipped with a great sense of sight or hearing, heavily relying on their senses of smell and touch to navigate the world around them. 

Because their other senses are lackluster, their sense of smell is excellent.

Not only are their tongues and the Jacobson’s organ hard workers collecting and analyzing particles, but the tongue also is adapted to continue to trail a scent.

This is especially important when the snake is tracking its prey.

They zero in on a scent and navigate through their environment to find their next meal. 

The tongue and Jacobson’s organ have to work quickly with the brain to process the information to stay with their prey as it moves throughout the area.

The sense of smell is arguably the most important for a snake, something they rely heavily on to eat, stay away from predators, find a mate, and navigate their environment. 

Because they rely so heavily on this sense, it has to be very good. 

How Do Snakes Sense Heat?

Besides their incredible sense of smell, researchers have found snakes have another trick up their sleeve when it comes to tracking prey. 

Certain snakes like vipers, pythons, and boas can “see” in the dark because they can sense heat put off by their prey. 

These snakes have holes on their faces, called pit organs. 

These pit organs have a membrane able to detect infrared radiation from bodies at distances up to a meter away.

Think of this like an infrared camera installed in these snakes.

The pit organ gives the snake an image of the animal, whether predator or prey, 

This extra sense helps these snakes stay safe from predators and hunt down prey when there is little to no light. 

Rather than using information from their eyes, the pit organ is part of the somatosensory system of the snake detecting heat, not light photons. 

These cavities of the pit organ are located on either side of the snake’s head. 

What Are A Snake’s Nostrils Used For?

If the snake isn’t using their nostrils to take in scents like humans, you might be wondering why they even have them.

Snakes use their nostrils to bring in oxygen to their lungs.

Oxygen is vital for the snake to live, so even though the nostrils don’t smell, they are still critical to keeping the animal alive and thriving. 


Snakes are fascinating creatures, and the way they smell the world around them makes them all the more interesting.

Since you now know how snakes smell with their tongue to grab particles on the air, you will probably think differently when you see your snake flicking their tongue in and out when you walk by them. 

By recognizing behavior and how their bodies work, you’re stepping up and being a great and caring owner. 

If you enjoyed this article check out how snakes show affection.