Unlike lizards and other types of reptiles, snakes are exclusively carnivorous, meaning that they cannot process any type of plant matter.
This being said, snakes have wildly varied diets, depending on the species, environment, available prey, and the animal’s adaptation prowess.
So, today, we will discuss snake food, hunting tactics, and nutritional requirements to peek into the world of the most fascinating predators on earth.
Let’s get straight to it!
Diet of Different Snake Species
As I’ve already stated, snakes exhibit varying feeding preferences depending on their habitat and what’s available.
Here are some examples to consider:
- Gaboon viper – This African venomous snake prefers mammals like rats and bats but can settle for anything it can catch. It’s not uncommon for these vipers to eat other snakes, frogs, lizards, and birds if given the opportunity. The main hunting method relies on a combination of ambush and venom. The viper’s extra-long fangs (up to 2 inches, making them the largest snake fangs in the world) will deliver a deadly bite, capable of disabling the prey within minutes.
- Garter snake – Garter snakes qualify as opportunistic predators that won’t refuse a good meal when it presents itself. While small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians are always on the menu, the Garter snake isn’t bound by the presence of such prey. They can also eat slugs, insects, and earthworms if the situation requires it.
- King cobra – The king cobra is among the most feared venomous snakes in the world due to its venom and aggressive demeanor. This species is among the few in the world that qualify as a legitimate snake killer. That’s because king cobras prefer to consume other snakes, including venomous ones and including other king cobras. An interesting fact here: the cobra can consume snakes larger than their entire body. That’s because the cobra’s potent stomach acid begins to dissolve and digest the prey while the snake is still eating it.
- Anaconda – Anacondas rank as some of the largest constrictor snakes in the world, and they have a matching diet. These water monsters are known to consume antelopes, capibaras, deer, and even crocodiles, cheetahs, and other land or water predators. The adult anaconda has no natural predator, given its sheer size, strength, and deadly teeth.
- African rock python – This is another giant constrictor with a personalized diet made up of mammals, reptiles, birds, eggs, etc. These large and powerful constrictors don’t shy away from eating prey considerably larger than their head.
These 5 examples should be enough to quantify the amazing dietary variety present among snakes. But there are others to consider as well, as many snake species have become proficient hunters, and specialized in a specific type of prey.
The Spotted Batwing snake and the green tree python are 2 such examples. These species have evolved a specific hunting behavior, consisting of using their tails to hang from trees in front of a cave entrance.
This allows them to pick of bats that go in or out, especially at dusk and dawn.
Hunting and Feeding Behavior of Snakes
Snakes have unique hunting and feeding abilities that separate them from the rest of the animal kingdom.
Here are the main features to highlight this point:
- Ambush behavior – Most snakes operate from the shade, staying still and waiting for the prey to wander close. Many snake species rely on ambush to surprise their prey, constrictors, and venomous species alike.
- Active chasing – Some snakes don’t have the patience or determination to wait for prey to come to them. Instead, they operate based on the principle of “You make your opportunities.” Black mambas function this way, as they typically ‘run’ after their prey. Other venomous species refrain from biting their prey and then chase it from afar, waiting for the venom to take effect.
- Venom specialists – Venomous snakes use their venom for hunting, which comes as no surprise. Different species possess different types of venom: neurotoxic, hemotoxic, or a combination of both. Some species of vipers fall into the latter category. Depending on the venom type, the bites can inflict paralysis, hemorrhage, blood clotting, and numerous other effects.
- Constrictor specialists – Constrictor snakes have no venom, so they rely on their body size, strength, and flexibility to constrict and suffocate the prey. This hunting tactic also involves the use of ambush and biting force, given that constrictor snakes use their mouths to hang on to their prey.
- The teeth – Venomous snakes possess two frontal fangs attached to venomous glands. The act of biting squeezes the venom glands and forces the venom through the hypodermic fangs and into the wound. We all know the outcome. Constrictor snakes are different, though. They don’t possess fangs, but they do have a lot of teeth. Anacondas, for instance, have their teeth curved to the back of the mouth. This means that once they bite, the prey finds it almost impossible to escape. The teeth’s positioning and shape force the prey down the throat.
- The jaw – All snakes possess flexible and detachable mandibles, which allow them to ingest prey larger than their heads. This is an amazing evolutionary feature that goes hand-in-hand with the snakes’ metabolism. They don’t eat as frequently as other animal species, so they need to at least ensure that their prey is large enough to provide them with long-term sustenance.
Snakes can also expand their esophagus and costal arch to accommodate larger prey and can exhibit a variety of hunting tactics.
Including swimming and jumping.
Impact of Habitat on Snake Diet
The snake’s habitat bears significant weight on the animal’s preferred prey and hunting tactics. Anacondas, for instance, are semi-aquatic snakes that prefer to hunt in or near the water.
This forces it to prey on the local fauna, which may include fish, amphibians, crocodiles, turtles, etc. They also hunt on land, mainly preying on animals coming for a fast but hazardous drink.
On the polar opposite, you find urban snakes that have learned to thrive near human settlements, feeding on rodents, small birds, and reptiles. Coral and corn snakes fall in this category.
Other species, like black racer, gopher snake, and rat snake, have evolved into excellent climbers, allowing them to look for bird nests and consume their eggs and hatchlings.
And we’ve already mentioned the king cobra who, despite its varied diet, prefers to feed on snakes simply because that’s the most abundant prey for them. A snake gotta do what a snake gotta do.
Nutrition Requirements for Snakes
The snakes’ nutritional requirements depend on the snake’s size, age, health, and environmental parameters. Big snakes eat larger meals or have more frequent meals to make up for the reduction in quantity.
Younger snakes also eat more often than older ones due to their more accelerated metabolism.
There are several factors that may impact a snake’s eating habits and dietary requirements, the temperature is one of them.
As cold-blooded animals, snakes depend on their environment to regulate their body temperature. So, they require a specific temperature, depending on the species, to digest their food properly.
If the temperature is too low, the digestive system will drop in effectiveness, leading snakes to no longer be able to feed.
This will lead to their appetite going down along with their metabolism; some snakes will even enter a torpor, which is a hibernation-like state.
When it comes to overall nutritional needs, snakes have slightly different requirements, but all revolve around the same ballpark. These are carnivorous reptiles that rely on calcium, vitamin D3, phosphorus, and other vitamins and minerals to stay healthy over the years.
Calcium and vitamin D3 are of special concern here because snakes are naturally prone to calcium deficiency.
So, captive-bred snakes require calcium and vitamin D3 supplementation, along with a good UVB light source, to ensure proper vitamin D3 production.
Digestion and Feeding Interval
Digestion functions differently in snakes compared to mammals. Mammals rely on a combination of wall muscles and acidic juices to grind and disintegrate the food at the same time.
The snake’s stomach is simpler than that, though, as it lacks the necessary muscles to ensure the grinding effect. This forced snakes to adapt and develop a variety of enzymes and acidic cocktails that break down the food and prepare it for absorption.
The digestive process is gradual and completed in the small intestine, where the food is transported into the bloodstream. The large intestine is reserved to store undigested material and absorb water and electrolytes.
The snakes’ digestive juices are so potent that it allows the reptiles to break down pretty much everything, including hair, horns, bones, hooves, and even teeth.
The situation is even more interesting when it comes to feeding frequency. The feeding frequency in snakes depends on numerous variables, including the snake’s age, size, health status, species, and even available prey and environmental factors.
For instance, garter snakes eat several times per week, but that’s because they’re small and eat small prey. Then you have the anaconda or the python at the polar opposite, who eat several times per year.
I’m talking about large specimens that feed on equally large prey like capibaras, antelopes, wildebeests, etc.
This prey requires a lot of digestion to break down, so it’s not uncommon for these large constrictors to only have one meal every 3-5 months.
Signs of Poor Diet in Snakes
Snakes will exhibit a variety of symptoms when starving or experiencing nutritional deficiencies.
- Weight loss – Weight loss due to starvation is generally a gradual process, so you should be able to notice the signs early on. I recommend weighing your snake regularly, maybe once a week at a minimum, to make sure it’s gaining weight. Or, at least, that it doesn’t lose any. If your snake keeps losing weight on a steady basis, consider increasing the animal’s meal size or frequency. Or maybe both.
- Slow growth – This is also an important factor to consider. Just because your snake grows doesn’t mean that everything is fine. That’s because different snake species grow at different rates, depending on the environmental conditions, genetic makeup, food availability, etc. If your snake isn’t growing as fast as it’s normal for its species, something’s not right.
- Lethargy – This is typically the first sign that your snake is starving. When starving, snakes tend to become lethargic to conserve precious energy. Only you know how active your pet snake should be, based on its previous behavior, size, age, and species. If you think your snake is lethargic and you don’t observe any sign of sickness, consider adjusting the animal’s meal plan.
- Skin issues – Snakes should have vivid and natural coloring and smooth and humid skin. If the snake’s skin appears dry, flaky, and with a dull coloring, check the animal’s diet.
In severe cases, your snake may also appear thin-skinned, with the ribs protruding through the skin. This is also a sign of severe dehydration, so you should never allow your pet to reach this point.
I advise discussing your snake’s diet and feeding frequency with a vet or a certified snake pet professional.
Snakes exhibit a variety of dietary preferences, nutritional needs, and hunting tactics, depending on the species, native ecosystem, and evolutionary path.
This means that you should always assess your favorite snake’s eating behavior before purchasing it. This is to create a personalized meal plan and keep your snake healthy over the years.
This approach is also necessary to prevent snakes from experiencing nutritional deficiencies, which tend to aggravate fast and become deadly in most cases.