While snakes are different in many ways, they are also similar in at least as many areas. One of them is their predisposition to bite, as all snakes have this capability, and they will all use it at some point or another.
But why exactly do they do it?
The answer may seem obvious: because the mouth is all they have. It’s their only way of interacting with their environment, aside from their senses.
But let’s get more in-depth because figuring out why snakes bite can paint a clearer picture of the reptiles, depending on the circumstance.
Reasons Why Snakes Bite
Overall, there are 3 underlying reasons why snakes may choose to bite:
1. Defense and Protection
Most snakes, especially venomous ones, only bite when absolutely necessary. That’s because venom is a valuable resource without which venomous snakes cannot hunt.
They don’t have constricting abilities, so their venom is the only way of killing their prey. Because of this, most venomous snakes prefer to bite when in mortal danger, and they feel like they have no other way out of the situation.
Even in those cases, many snakes prefer to inflict dry bites, with no venom coming out, or only deliver small doses of venom, enough to inconvenience the attacker.
Other snakes prefer to spit their venom at their predator’s eyes rather than biting, but that’s a topic for another discussion.
When it comes to constricting snakes, they don’t have venom to inflict pain and other uncomfortable symptoms, so they rely purely on their jaw strength.
Depending on the snake’s size, the bite itself can be extremely painful and damaging, but that’s not always the case. That’s because even small snakes bite, despite them not being able to inflict any skin damage or any meaningful pain signal.
In that case, they rely on the surprise to deter their attackers. It’s not the effects of the bite that scare the attacker away, but the surprise of being bitten suddenly.
By the time the attacker realizes that the bite itself is harmless, the snake is gone.
So, if the animal that’s been bitten is too large for the snake to eat, the bite itself was most likely the result of the snake’s defensive behavior.
2. Feeding and Hunting Behavior
Here, we have 3 different types of biting behavior:
- Venomous biting – Venomous snakes rely on camouflage and agility to close the distance to the prey and inflict a debilitating bite. Venomous species don’t have any way of incapacitating the prey any other way. Depending on the snake species, the prey’s size, the venom type and quantity injected, and the location of the bite, the animal may be incapacitated on the spot, or it may take a while. In the case of the latter, the snake will pursue the prey at a distance using its smell and heat pits to detect its body warmth. When the venom takes effect, the animal will collapse, and the snake will catch up. Meal ready.
- Constrictor biting – Constrictor snakes don’t have any venom, so they rely on 2 tools to kill their prey: jaw strength and constricting ability. Constrictor snakes only use their mouths to catch the prey and drag it towards them. They will then coil around the animal, using their body muscles to squeeze the life out of their victims. They won’t let go of the animal until they no longer sense any heartbeat.
- Regular biting – There are snakes that are neither venomous nor constrictors. Instead, those snakes rely on sheer jaw strength to incapacitate and kill the prey. This physiology is more prevalent among smaller snake species that feed on insects, works, and small animals that they can subdue with ease.
It’s important to know that all of these snake species can deliver painful bites, although the outcome of the bite itself varies drastically, depending on the species itself.
We’ll discuss this in more detail shortly.
3. In Response to Stress and Fear
Snakes cannot reason, so they cannot measure their behavior accurately based on the circumstances. This means that snakes have a limited set of actions that they can take at any given time.
In short, a snake will bite when threatened, stressed, scared, surprised, annoyed, etc. It’s all they know how to do, and that’s what they’ll do in most cases.
This means you should be wary of this tendency whenever handling one. The snake may feel calm and comfy on your hand but can turn around and bite suddenly if scared or simply because you don’t release it the moment it wants to.
So, you should learn your snake pet’s behavior to prevent these unfortunate events. Even if your snake cannot deliver any meaningful damage, the fact that it decides to bite you says something about its state of mind.
Stress is a common killer, especially in the reptile world, due to these animals’ vulnerability in this sense. Repeated or prolonged stress can cause health problems because it affects the animal’s immune system.
Types of Snake Bites and Venom
Currently, there are approximately 5.5 million snake bites per year worldwide, with approximately 1.8-2.2 million of them being envenomed.
The other ones can deliver a number of damages, depending on the snake itself. Some are mild, while others are severe, causing infections and even death.
We have already discussed what constrictor bites do, and they’re fairly simple in how they work. But venomous bites are far more dangerous and complex, so they’re worth discussing in more detail.
When it comes to venomous bites, you have several potential instances:
- Dry bites – The notion of dry bites refers to a bite that delivers no venom. You could argue that the bites of non-venomous snakes also fall into this category, except they don’t. Only the bites of venomous species qualify for this one. A dry bite is pretty much indistinguishable from a non-venomous bite because no venom goes into the wound in either situation. Instead, the snake hopes that the surprise of the bite itself and the subsequent pain are enough to scare and deter the predator. The venom is a too much valuable resource that the snake prefers to use for hunting. The production of the venom itself may also last several days. If the snake uses it for defensive purposes, it will inevitably starve for the coming days until the venom reserves fill back up; remember, venomous snakes cannot hunt and eat without venom.
- Hemotoxic bite – Vipers have hemotoxic bites, among other species. The hemotoxic part refers to the venom’s profile and functioning mechanism. The hemotoxic venom delivers symptoms like tissue damage, hemorrhage, immediate swelling at the bite site, significant pain, and even necrosis. The most severe cases can even lead to limb loss via amputation. Shock and death may ensue if medical treatment isn’t available shortly.
- Neurotoxic bite – Neurotoxic venoms affect the victim’s central nervous system. This leads to uncontrollable muscle spasms, paralysis, respiratory failure, and death. These are by far the most dangerous types of envenomed bites, which is why neurotoxic snakes rank as the most dangerous in the world.
- Myotoxic bite – Myotoxic venoms affect the victim’s muscles primarily. The venom leads to tissue destruction and gangrene, leading to severe muscle damage, extreme pain, loss of limb function, and organ failure. Rattlesnakes and vipers possess myotoxic venoms. It’s important to remember that no snake species possesses pure myotoxic venom. Instead, myotoxins are always part of a more complex venomous cocktail that includes a variety of proteins and components. Vipers, for instance, possess a type of venom that delivers both hemotoxic and neurotoxic effects, among other symptoms.
- Cytotoxic bite – Cytotoxic venoms are specialized to attack the victim’s cells, causing cell death. Cytotoxins are typically present in hemotoxic venoms, but not necessarily. Pit vipers and some species of cobras have cytotoxic bites, leading to severe tissue damage, necrosis, and organ failure.
This list is pretty telling when assessing the complexity of a snake bite. This complexity is the primary reason why some snakes have no antivenom available.
Prevention and Treatment of Snake Bites
Prevention and treatment are 2 separate areas, requiring an equal number of different approaches.
So, let’s treat them separately:
If you plan on traversing a snake-rich ecosystem, consider the following precautions:
- Education – First, you need to educate yourself on the potential snake species that you’re likely to encounter in the area. This allows you to take personalized measures depending on how dangerous the snakes are.
- Set up the optimal course – Have a map with you and set up a traveling course that avoids, as much as possible, areas with a high risk of snakes. Nothing beats planning in terms of avoiding danger while in the wild.
- Get protective gear – Get several pairs of long pants with you, as well as long boots, preferably impervious to snake bites. You might want to consider wearing 2 pairs of long pants at once, especially if traversing areas with dangerous snakes with very long fangs (Gaboon vipers.)
- Be aware of your surroundings – Always keep your eyes out for any movement, especially when near bushes or when traversing areas with a lot of vegetation. Snakes are masters of disguise, and you often don’t see them due to their camouflaging abilities. But they can certainly see you. Also, keep in mind that many snake species are arboreal. So, check tree branches before passing underneath as well.
- Use a flashlight – Never traverse a wild habitat without a good flashlight at hand. The flashlight allows you to detect any potential threat nearby and lets other animals know of your approach. This gives them the time to flee since most animals try to avoid human contact. Not all, but most.
It’s important to remember that even the most carefully laid-out plans can fail. The unexpected plays a major role in any plan, no matter how hard you try to remove it.
So, if all of your prevention tactics have failed and you got bit, what should you do next?
Consider the following:
- Find a safe spot – Once you’ve been bitten, retreat from the area and look for a safe spot. You want to avoid further bites, given that many snakes can bite several times. Don’t go too far because you want to keep your heart rate low.
- Call for help – The next vital step should be calling 911. This is imperative because you have no way of knowing how severe the bite is.
- Write down the specifics of the situation – Write down the hour and minute you’ve been bitten, the symptoms as they unfold, and the snake that bit you. Try to remember as many details about the snake as possible, like size, coloring, shape, markings, etc. Doing so will help the professionals figure out the antivenom to use.
- Keep calm – Remain calm until help arrives. Don’t walk or run in an attempt to find help yourself because this will increase your heart rate, boost the blood flow, and speed up the venom’s course through your bloodstream.
- Don’t attempt to DIY out of the problem – Quit any thought of fixing the problem yourself, such as sucking the venom from the wound, cutting the wound to let the blood out, or putting a tourniquet on. These measures will most likely cause more harm than good.
An important side-note here: you should be especially wary of baby or juvenile snakes, especially if you’ve determined that they’re venomous.
Contrary to the popular misconception, younger snakes are even more dangerous than adults for several reasons. One of them is the fact that younger snakes are more vulnerable to predators, which incentivizes them to inject more venom per bite.
They also won’t figure out how to adjust the amount of venom injected for a while.
Snakes have several defensive mechanisms that they will employ, with biting being pretty much the last resort. This is especially true for venomous snakes, which prefer to hold on to their venom reserves.
This being said, some snake species are more likely to bite than others. This is the case with vipers, for instance, which are known to be extra aggressive and confrontational.
So, learn what to expect from each species, and you will decrease the risk of biting tenfold. If that fails, consider the ‘Prevention and Treatment’ section to learn how to get out of the pickle.