Snake FAQs

How do you tell a male from a female snake?

To determine sex, snakes are usually probed with a metal instrument in their cloacal opening (the opening at the base of their tail from which eggs are laid, where the snake defecates, and where copulation occurs).  This is a difficult procedure and should only be done by experienced, well-trained herpetologists.

It’s easy to kill or injure the snake if done improperly.  Basically, if the probe is able to insert just a short distance towards the tail, it’s a female.  If  the probe can be inserted a greater distance, it’s a male.  This is the only method, but not 100% accurate.

What is the biggest snake?

The reticulated python of Southeast Asia and the green anaconda of South America compete for “longest” snake.  Each can attain a length of over 30 feet.  Without question, however, the heaviest snake is the green anaconda.  Unfortunately, large snakes are increasingly rare due to habitat loss and poaching for skins.

What is the smallest snake?

Found on the Caribbean island of Barbados in 2008, the threadsnake takes the honors of the smallest snake in the world, so far.  It is small enough to fit on an adult’s thumbnail.  Most likely, it will be the smallest snake ever found.  A snake smaller than the threadsnake would be hard pressed to locate food items small enough to eat.  The threadsnake’s diet is primarily the larvae of ants.

What is the most dangerous snake?

This is a common question with different answers.  Does it refer to a snake with the most potent venom or the one that kills the most humans?  How about a large constrictor that can coil around a person and suffocate him in two minutes?  Even the most venomous snake’s bite usually allows time for medical help before it’s too late.

Most sources agree that the most venomous land-based snake is the Inland Taipan of Australia.  The saw-scaled viper from Sri Lanka, which is responsible for many deaths, would be close to the top on the dangerous snake list for many authorities. For the casual observer, all snakes should be viewed as dangerous.  We recommend that snakes in the wild be left alone.

What is the best snake for a pet?

Answering Questions
Betty answers questions at Jackson Visitor Center

As a rule, snakes and other reptiles don’t make good pets.  Unlike mammals, they don’t need or seek interaction with their human captors, preferring to stay hidden – feeding, breeding, and avoiding predators.  But there are some people who have a genuine interest in the care and study of snakes.  First and foremost, proper housing and food requirements must be provided.  Younger snake keepers need to convince Mom to allow a section of her freezer to store mice, the likely diet for most snakes.

Owning a snake can be a long term relationship since some can live in captivity 20 years or more.  Because snakes are exotic pets, they’re not something that can be returned to the wild.  In many cases, the snake is not native to its captive area.  Even a native snake released locally may not be able to fend for itself, eventually starving to death.  Also, it could infect local snakes with diseases contracted while in the care of humans.

Snakes hatched and raised in captivity make better pets, healthier and easier to feed.  One website,, has listings of captive bred snakes for beginners or experts.

How do you recognize a venomous snake?

In the U.S., with the exception of the coral snake, all venomous snakes have triangular heads that get their shape from the venom glands on either side of the skull.  These pit vipers are also recognized by “pits” between their nostrils and eyes, as well as vertical pupils (as on a cat) in their eyes. In North America, only the coral snake, found in some southern states, has round pupils.

What’s the difference between poison and venom?

Venom is injected into prey.   Poison is ingested or absorbed.

What do you do if you encounter a snake?

Although they can be surprised if sleeping or basking, most snakes are aware of approaching people.  They should be left alone and given a wide berth. Most snake bites occur when someone tries to pick them up, move them from the path, or harm them.  Snakes are different from most other animals, and observing their behavior from a non-intrusive distance can be fascinating.

What’s a pit viper?

A viper is a snake with hinged fangs that fold flat along the roof of the mouth and extend out when striking prey.  Between the eyes and the nostrils on a pit viper is a hole (pit) that gathers the infrared heat signature of prey items.  The snake can judge the location and size of a potential meal with these organs.  Since many of the pit vipers hunt at night, this heat-seeking adaptation helps them catch prey.

What do snakes eat?

All snakes are carnivorous (meat eaters).  Probably their most common prey item is rodents  Their diet may also include birds and their eggs, fish, frogs, and even other snakes.  In the middle of the food chain, snakes also serve as prey for other animals.

How many snake species are there in the world?

Around 3000, although new species are still being found.

Why do snakes have scales?

Scales help retain moisture in snake’s body and also provide protection from rough ground and sharp objects.

Where do the babies come out?

Babies (and eggs) emerge from a hole called the cloacal opening at the base of the tail.

How long can snakes live?

In the wild many snakes don’t live more than 5 or 6 years, but in captivity they can live over 20 years.

Do mothers care for their young?

Once a snake is hatched or born, they receive little or no care or protection from the mother.

Why are snakes scared of people?

Just about everything that harms or kills a snake comes from above.  So if a snake senses a human or another animal approaching, it will react defensively.  That means it will try to escape and evade the predator.

Do all snakes bite?

Yes.  They will bite to defend themselves or to eat prey.

Why do snakes shed?

Shedding is a natural process that occurs when the snake grows.  New skin forms below the older, smaller skin.  Younger, faster growing snakes shed more frequently than their older cousins.

Can you drink venom?

Definitely not recommended! Venom can be drunk, assuming you don’t have any sores or broken skin or a tooth cavity in your mouth that would allow the venom access to your bloodstream.  However, it’s a foolish and dangerous action that could end your life.

Can snakes eat themselves?

When a snake is in a feeding response, it will frequently strike anything that moves.  That includes biting its own body. But it is unable to eat itself.

Can snakes choke?

Some snakes have choked when trying to swallow too large a prey item.  Other snakes have choked when struggling prey actually gets lodged in the snake’s throat, cutting off air flow.

Are snakes subject to their own venom?

Venomous snakes usually suffer no ill effects when they bite themselves or are bitten by another snake of the same species.  I (Chuck) have personally seen this happen, and it resulted in little more than a raised welt on the bitten snake.  Since the composition of venom is a product of the snake, its body doesn’t react adversely in most cases.

Do snakes sleep?

Even though snakes have no eyelids, they have no trouble sleeping. The sleeping function is controlled by brain activity, which is found in other animals as well, including fish, dolphins, and whales.  If you’ve ever had a class in school that wasn’t stimulating, you’ve probably slept with eyes wide open as well.

Does venom destroy tissue inside out?

Venom in snakes with hemotoxic characteristics (attacking the blood system) will begin to destroy the tissue of the prey.  This action actually begins the digestion process.  When the prey item reaches the stomach of the snake, less time is required to process the food, conserving energy and permitting the snake to hunt again.

Is the snake affected by its own venom when it eats its prey?

When a snake eats its prey, the venom that has been injected into the animal has no adverse effect to the snake.  A snake’s venom is produced in its own body, a compound similar to our own saliva, and the snake’s system “recognizes” its own chemistry.

Why does it take so long for a snake to eat its prey?

It takes time to spread its jaws apart to get something down its throat without the aid of hands.  Even when the prey is past the esophagus, it’s still going down a narrow corridor into the stomach, and the muscles have to continue to squeeze the food toward the stomach.

How do organs fit into a snake’s slender body?

Internal organs in snakes have been modified through evolution to fit into a very slender body.  Snakes only have one usable lung, with the second lung virtually useless, almost absent.  Perhaps that vestigial lung will eventually disappear altogether in the future.  The heart, liver, kidneys and all other organs are also  elongated inside the snake’s body.  There’s no room for any bulkiness in such a narrow cylinder that is a snake’s body.  Even the heavy bodied snakes such as the Gaboon viper and the Anaconda will have elongated organs.  Larger snakes will have larger organs, but they, like their smaller relatives, still have the same slender structure.

Can a glass snake lose its tail?

A very confusing reptile is the glass snake, or legless lizard.  It looks like a snake should, wriggles like a snake, and is found in the same areas used by snakes.  But, on closer observation, the viewer will notice two ear openings on the side of its head.  Snakes have no ears.  The glass snake, being a lizard, will lose part of its tail to escape predators.  this tail is regrown but usually not to its former length.  The name comes from its tail, when detached from the body, breaking into multiple pieces like glass.

Is there a difference in venom between male and female snakes?

Both sexes of the same species of snake produce identical venom. But some snake venom of the same species in different parts of a state (e.g. Arizona) can be different in composition.  That’s the case with the Mojave rattlesnake.

Why do female snakes not care for their eggs or babies?

Animals that are born helpless, like birds and mammals, are the ones that are helped by their parents.  They don’t look at all like the grown up animals that their parents are.  When they are first born, they usually don’t have much, if any, hair or feathers, and sometimes have no teeth which is why the parents have to help them grow into an adult animal, bigger and stronger and able to make its own living.

Newly hatched and born reptiles look exactly like smaller versions of their parents with all the “tools” needed to catch food and behave just like adults.  They also have “instinct,” an inbred ability that allows them to know what to eat and how to eat as well as where to hide from their predators. Once they are hatched or born, they go to work right away to find food and keep out of harm’s way.

How smart are snakes?  Can they be trained?

Snakes are not as smart as dogs and cats.  They can’t be taught tricks, and captive snakes don’t recognize their handlers.  On the other hand, they have survived for hundreds of million of years because of a strong survival instinct.

How can a snake eat something big without breathing?

Even though a snake has a mouth full of food, it can breathe through a small tube on the bottom of its jaw.  Called a glottis, it looks like a small drinking straw.

Why do you wash your hands when you touch snakes?

All reptiles, including snakes and lizards, can carry germs that could make humans sick.  It is a good idea to wash your hands after handling any animal, including snakes.

Are snakes born with their pattern?

Most snakes are born with the same pattern they carry throughout their life.  However, some species when they are born or hatched have a different color from adults.  As they mature, their color changes to that of an adult snake, and they keep that color and pattern for the rest of their life.

Can all snakes swim?


Why do snakes hiss?

Hissing is a warning created to intimidate a predator, and sometimes it makes the snake look bigger.

What happens if you drop a snake?

The biggest risk to the snake could be spinal injury because the length and configuration of the spine lends itself to injury more than a compact spine.  For example, if you run a bicycle over a snake on the trail, even though the snake slithers away, it’s possible damage has been done that is not visible.  This includes separation of vertebrae and possibly separation of the spinal chord.


14 thoughts on “Snake FAQs”

    • Hi Elizabeth,
      In many cases, yes. It helps to know what type of snakes live in your area however. When a snake sheds its skin, the skin comes out inverted, much like when you take a pair of socks off by pulling from the top. If you can see the scales on the head area, that can be a help in the identification. And, since some snakes have smooth scales like most king snakes and other species have rougher scales, called “keeled scales” in many cases, like rattlesnakes and gopher/pine/bull snakes. There is usually no color patterns to help ID the skin however.
      Good question, thanks for asking!

  1. Rattlesnakes live in southeast Colorado where I live. When they shed don’t they lose some buttons? Is this a way to ID rattlesnake skin?

    • Hello again, Angela!

      Actually, when a rattlesnake shed its skin it ADDS a button or segment to the string of rattles. That’s long been an incorrect way to tell the age of a rattler, counting the segments. A snake can shed its skin many times throughout the year depending on its age and growth rate. And, frequently a rattlesnake will also lose some of those segments from slithering around rocks and other obstructions in its habitat.
      In your part of the country, the only species of rattler you are likely to find will be the Prairie Rattler (Crotalus viridis). When a snake sheds skin, it turns inside out as the snake crawls out of the old “clothing”. Something like taking a pair of socks off, pulling from the top..comes away inverted. Visually, you can sometimes see a pattern of the snake in the scale pattern. A rattlesnake has “keeled” scales which means that if you look closely, you can see a little ridge on each scale similar to the keel on a boat. But other snakes also have that type of scale such as the bull snake which shares your area with the rattlers. One other rattlesnake that you MAY see is the Massasauga rattlesnake, much smaller than the Prairie species and usually near a water source. Unlikely you’ll see that guy..I never have in the wild! Great hearing from you again. Don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any other questions. Stay safe!

  2. I know that non venomous snakes, such as king snakes eat venomous snakes. Does the venom from ingestion not harm that snake? Also, what if the non venomous snake is bitten in the process, does that harm him? I have wondered this but can’t really find good info about it.

    • Interesting, and important question. Throughout evolution, Kingsnakes have actually developed a tolerance to the venom of the snakes that live in its ecosystem. That means that they’re safe around rattlesnakes and other pit vipers, but would not survive a bite from a king cobra or black mamba. But those snakes don’t occur where the kings reign. So they are pretty much “bullet proof” in North America. Other snakes will often develop tolerance to venom and frequently survive envenomation. And, once in their stomach the venom in their prey wouldn’t normally cause any adverse effects. And, it’s been said that the same applies to humans. Some claim that they’ve consumed venom with no ill effects. Not a safe practice however…If you have a cut in your mouth or cavity the venom could enter your bloodstream with deadly results. Good question! I hope I’ve been able to answer it! Take care and be safe! And watch where you put your feet, too!

      • Wow, thank you so much for that explanation and information! This is so perfect and answers exactly what I have wondered.

  3. Chuck, that is the most useful knowledge I have been able to find regarding snakes. I live on an island off the Australian, Victoria coast, French Island and we only have two snakes, both venomous and called Copperhead and Tiger snake. I have convinced most people not to kill snakes around the house and have removed many over the years, releasing them some miles away in the National Park. I realize after reading your advice that I have not been saving them and most likely have contributed to their demise. I am very pleased to have learned this, thank you.

    • Hello Stephen,
      I, too, have been in the past, guilty for releasing snakes perhaps too far from their home range. And, I learned the dangers involved with a zookeeper that I worked with. Our intentions were honorable and if a snake is too close to human habitation or other areas where they presented a risk to either themselves or humans sometime re-locating them is the best case scenario. I’m not as familiar with the snakes of Australia but feel that their behaviour could be somewhat similar to those of our latitude. But, French Island, being only 18 x 12km in size, I don’t think the risk is as great as it would be in here with a much larger area of landscape. I feel that you did the best procedure in protecting the snakes as well as nearby humans. If allowed to remain where you found them, they would likely perish due to human conflicts, especially some who don’t have the respect and regard for snakes, venomous or not. And, keep in mind that both those species are very toxic, being related to cobras so you should exercise extreme caution if it’s necessary to re-locate. And, I’ve learned on my one trip to OZ years ago that you have more venomous snakes than we do in the U.S. Thanks for your note! I appreciate your concerns. Also, I noticed your painting of Hooded Figure with Dog…..very nice!

  4. I saw you had posted about living with 3 snakes in an RV. I have a ball python and am thinking of buying a van to live a more mobile life. Would you be able to provide any insight on your enclosures and do your snakes seem stressed from vibrations of driving?
    Thank you in advance!

    • In all the years of full-time RVing, I never noticed any stress of the snakes. Typically, we’d only be in motion a couple times a year, going to one wildlife refuge assignment and then off to another. So, I’d say stress is not an issue from what we’ve observed. More important, though, is temperature control. Pythons, being a sub- or tropical snake will need temperatures no lower than about 65deg and about 85 max. It’s important to provide a basking light, something that would present a challenge unless you have a generator to run the lights. RV parks usually have an electrical source for when you’re parked, but off the grid, I’d be worried about temperature control. Short time, it should be OK, but longer periods with erratic temperatures could put the snake at risk.

      Thanks for a good question and good luck!

    • In all the years of full-time RVing, I never noticed any stress of the snakes. Typically, we’d only be in motion a couple times a year, going to one wildlife refuge assignment and then off to another. So, I’d say stress is not an issue from what we’ve observed. More important, though, is temperature control. Pythons, being a sub- or tropical snake will need temperatures no lower than about 65deg and about 85 max. It’s important to provide a basking light, something that would present a challenge unless you have a generator to run the lights. RV parks usually have an electrical source for when you’re parked, but off the grid, I’d be worried about temperature control. Short time, it should be OK, but longer periods with erratic temperatures could put the snake at risk.

      Thanks for a good question and good luck!

  5. Don’t know if I just missed a question about coral snake but last night I saw a baby one on my porch and when I went to get a flashlight it got away. Was wondering how far does a coral snake travel from where it was born?

    • Hello Wade,
      You didn’t mention your location, but coral snakes can be found frequently in the SE and SW parts of our country. They can be common in FL, my home state, as well as in AZ, my current location. One of their favorite foods would be other snakes, lizards and maybe some insects. They are venomous from the minute they emerge from the egg. It could be possible that you may never see that snake again unless there’s an abundance of food in your particular area. Snakes, as well as other animals in nature will stay in an area that provides ample food. If there’s not much food for them around your porch, they’ll go elsewhere. So, in answer to your question, they will keep their territory as small as necessary due to less energy expended in finding a meal.
      Good question, thanks for asking!


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