You may know snakes as fearsome, slithery, and scary creatures, but did you know that they’re some of the most adaptable animals on Earth?
Snakes occupy close to every ecosystem in the world, as they can swim, climb, crawl, and even hibernate when the weather demands them to.
Today, we will discuss the snakes’ behavior, habitat adaptation, and how they’ve learned to cohabitate with humans, despite our obvious incompatibilities. Let’s jump straight to the point!
Habitat of Snakes
Snakes have adapted to numerous types of habitats, and some can even occupy different habitats thanks to their unique evolutionary advantages.
Some of the top environments where you can encounter snakes include:
- Deserts – Desert-specific snake species are generally smaller and come with lighter coloring than those living in other habitats. The smaller body surface leads to less water loss, while the lighter colors help with better camouflage for protection and hunting reasons. The light coloring also absorbs less light, keeping the snake safe from overheating. These species don’t need as much air humidity as snakes living in rainforests and more temperature climates.
- Forests – Forests are usually the home of arboreal snakes, primarily constrictors. These species spend their time elevated on branches and trees, which give them the ideal vantage point over the predators and prey lurking beneath. Arboreal snakes come in many colors, but most showcase shades of green with various patterns meant for camouflaging purposes. Combined with the reptiles’ ability to remain still for long periods, this color adaptation can render the snake invisible to its prey. It also doesn’t hurt that the foliage protects the snakes from birds of prey roaming the sky.
- Wetlands – Snakes can inhabit any body of water, including rivers, creeks, marshes, swamps, you name it. Most snakes rank as semi-aquatic animals, as they also travel on land but always remain near the water. These species have adapted to a more aquatic environment and have become adept water hunters. Their diet has changed accordingly, as most water snakes prefer to eat snails, fish, crustaceans, and anything else they can find in their ecosystem. They also hunt land animals, should any wander close enough to their habitat. The anaconda is the most notorious species thanks to its size and the ability to eat large prey like deer, wild boars, antelopes, and even alligators.
- Mountains – Mountainous snake species have evolved thicker scales and skin to protect them from the colder temperatures at their current elevation. Their diet has also adapted to the local fauna, as has their behavior. Most mountainous snakes are rock-dwellers, spending their time underground in personalized burrows. They only come out to warm up and hunt and will go back in at the first sign of danger. The snakes’ thicker skin also allows them to traverse rugged terrain without hurting themselves, while the earthy coloring protects them from predators.
- Urban areas – Numerous snake species have adapted to urban living not because they love humans but because they provide them with food. Snakes can be found both in urban and rural areas, where they can find rodents and other food sources that people rank as pests. This makes these snake species beneficial as they operate as Mother Nature’s pest control crew. The problem is that some of these species are also venomous, which can spoil their relationship with humans. Cobras and the coral snake are such examples.
The only habitat that reptiles have not yet conquered is the Arctic one. They’re also unlikely to move there anytime soon because the snake’s physiology is incompatible with the extreme temperatures of the Arctic.
The long nights would also rob the snake of the necessary UVB radiation that would support its vitamin D synthesis, causing the reptile to experience calcium deficiency and MBD as a result.
Geographical Distribution of Snakes
Snakes have adapted to pretty much all ecosystems, aside from the Arctic one.
Their amazing adaptability and resilience have allowed them to thrive even in the harshest conditions, provided they can meet their biological and physiological requirements.
However, there are some factors that influence the snake’s ability to adapt to its ecosystem, including:
- Climate – This is the most important one because it dictates whether the snake can live in that region or not. Snakes are cold-blooded animals, so they cannot survive in extremely low temperatures and a freezing climate. While some snake species can enter a hibernating state to overcome the cold season, they still need high temperatures to ‘return to life’ and resume their normal lifestyle. Climates with high temperatures are more manageable because snakes find ways to cool off by looking for shaded areas or digging burrows in the ground. But arctic-like regions are incompatible with the reptile lifestyle.
- Vegetation – The available vegetation typically informs the type of snake you’re likely to meet in that area. This is because snakes adapt their feeding behavior, defensive mechanisms, and coloring to their native ecosystem. For example, forest and grassland snakes have adapted to a more arboreal lifestyle and exhibit colors that enhance their camouflaging abilities. They have also adapted to the local fauna and make use of the surrounding vegetation to cut the distance between them and their prey while remaining unseen.
- The presence of water – Snakes always remain close to a water source, whether they are semi-aquatic or not. The species that don’t require the presence of water need to rely on air humidity for the most part. The only species that diverge from this pattern are those populating arid regions with high temperatures and few water sources. Fortunately, these snakes have evolved to retain water for longer, making them better equipped to thrive in their respective geographical region.
- Soil type – This is also an important environmental characteristic, both for ground-dwelling and arboreal snakes. Some species prefer sandy substrates because they have smoother skin and use like to burrow themselves in the substrate. Other species prefer soil primarily because they’re specialized egg-eaters and many reptiles lay their eggs in the soil. Soil is also better at retaining moisture and providing snakes with cooling opportunities than sand or other substrate types.
Other factors that may influence the snakes’ distribution include altitude and available prey, as some snake species have adapted to specific prey.
This means that wherever the prey goes, that’s where the snake builds its camping spot.
Hunting and Feeding of Snakes
Snakes are primarily carnivorous animals, but some can consume insects as well, depending on the situation. Generally speaking, these reptiles can hunt and eat anything as long as they can easily swallow it.
There are 2 points worth mentioning here:
- Snake adaptability to available prey – Depending on their lifestyle, snakes have adapted to hunt specific prey. For instance, arboreal snakes can also hunt birds and bird eggs since they lay their eggs on branches to protect them from ground predators. They can even place their nests on higher and thinner branches to protect them from heavier snakes that cannot reach there. But not all birds do that, which allows snakes to gain easy access to the nests. Larger and more powerful arboreal snakes like boas and pythons can also hunt monkeys and other arboreal mammals.
- Snake hunting behavior – Snakes have evolved into 2 different categories, based on their hunting behavior: venomous and constrictor snakes. Venomous ones rely on their venom to subdue their prey. They usually bite and latch onto their prey to inject more venom, a behavior which they reserve for smaller prey, or bite and let go. They will then pursue the envenomed prey using their scent and only start eating once the prey has been completely disabled. Constrictor snakes lack venom, but they make up for it via their powerful bodies and the ability to constrict their prey. These reptiles can deliver a deadly squeeze, often cutting the blood supply to the victim’s brain or rendering it incapable of breathing.
Some snakes are also active hunters, ‘running’ or swimming after their prey, while others are more laid back, relying on their camouflage to set traps for oblivious prey.
And then you have water snakes which can hunt in the water; a feature which isn’t present in land snakes.
Reproduction of Snakes
Snake reproduction varies wildly depending on the species. To understand the snake’s reproductive behavior better, we need to look into 2 different aspects:
Snakes fall into 2 different categories: oviparous and viviparous. Oviparous snakes produce eggs, which they lay in secluded locations, usually under a rock, under the foliage, or buried underground.
This is to protect them from predators. Some snake species care for the eggs, while others do not. The number of eggs produced and the breeding frequency depend on the species.
Viviparous snakes give birth to live young, fully capable of feeding on their own. The green tree python is an example of a viviparous snake.
As an interesting side note, hatchlings are often more dangerous than adults in venomous snakes. That’s because they produce more venom and inject more venom than adults to make up for their small size and vulnerability to predators.
Snakes are solitary animals, so they prefer to live alone. They will only form pairs of groups when mating, which can make for quite the spectacle. Not all snakes mate the same, as some prefer to do it in pairs, while others are fine with groups.
Python balls are the best example of the latter, where several males entangle a female, leading to snake balls as large as a dozen specimens.
Some snake species have adjusted their mating behavior to eliminate or reduce competition. This allows some snake males to produce pheromones similar to those of a female. This results in them attracting other males and forming a mating ball of their own, except there’s no female present.
Then, the cunning snake responsible for the fake-out slithers its way out of the ball and goes for the female.
Defense Mechanisms of Snakes
Despite their ferocity and adaptability, snakes have natural predators of their own that they need to evade and adapt to. And they certainly did.
Snakes can employ numerous defensive mechanisms to avoid predation and improve their survivability.
- Camouflage – This consists of 2 primary behaviors. The first one is color-related camouflage, as most snakes use their coloring to blend in their environment. The second one is their ability to stay still because most predators identify their prey based on movement.
- Play dead – Some snake species can play dead when threatened. This works against some predators that only eat live prey, but not carrion.
- Intimidation – If feeling or hiding are no longer viable options, some snakes may resort to intimidation to scare off potential predators. For instance, cobras raise their bodies and flare their hood to make themselves appear larger. Rattlesnakes curl up in a defensive ball and ring their tail to announce their presence and intentions. Other snakes hiss menacingly or even inflate their bodies to create the appearance of a larger and more powerful snake.
- Mimicry – This is an interesting behavior that only describes certain snake species, especially those sharing space with venomous snakes. The species that use mimicry are always non-venomous. The method itself relies on the snake mimicking the coloring, pattern, and behavior of venomous snakes, which can create confusion and cause predators to mistake them for the actual species they pose as. This is one of the main features that allow people to mistake venomous snakes for non-venomous ones, which can increase the bite incidence. Two such species are the coral and the corn snake. The latter is non-venomous, but it mimics the appearance of the coral snake, which is venomous.
- Speed – Some snakes are more old-fashioned and use speed to escape predation. They might remain immobile for a while, but once the predator spots the snake and comes close, the snake may choose to run. These animals are agile and can squeeze through tight spaces, quickly disappearing into the surrounding vegetation. Some snakes even plunge from their branches straight onto the ground and slither away, no questions asked.
- Venom – Snakes use their venom for offensive and defensive tactics alike. They prefer not to bite defensively because venom glands take time to refill and the venom is better used at hunting. But sometimes, the snake has to bite to save its life, and the venom may come in handy. Even non-venomous snakes bite, as the simple shock can cause the predator to let go. Then you have spitting snakes, including the king cobra, who can spit its venom several feet away and always aims for the predator’s eyes. The venom is extremely potent and can cause severe local discomfort and even permanent blindness.
- Autotomy – Autotomy describes a lizard’s ability to self-amputate its own tail to escape predation. Many lizards drop their tails whenever a predator grabs them, although that’s not necessary. The tail has special automatic nerves that keep sending impulses into the local muscles. The result is a wiggly tail that keeps moving for up to 5 minutes or more after being cut from the rest of the body. Only some snake species can practice autotomy, unlike lizards, which almost all can do it. The tail regenerates with time but will never grow to the same size and shape again.
- Olfactory defenses – You may have noticed that some snakes start to smell awful when catching them in the wild. That’s an instinctive, natural defense mechanism, allowing the snake to produce a special secretion with an unpleasant odor. This makes the snake stink, which is usually enough to deter predators who don’t appreciate foul meals.
As you can see, snakes are extremely versatile and adaptable, which explains why these reptiles are now present throughout the Globe.
Threats Affecting Snake Populations
Aside from the natural predators that snakes have been dealing with for millions of years, they must cope with a handful of more novel threats.
- Environmental pollution – Whether it’s pollution by air or water, the result is almost always the same: all animals suffer, including snakes.
- Habitat destruction and fragmentation – This is the most devastating danger, as human expansion has necessarily diminished the natural wild world. Snakes have smaller and more fragmented habitats today than ever, affecting their population stability and adaptability.
- Illegal pet trade – Some snake species are more popular and sought-after than others. The king cobra is one such desired for its skin, venom, and trophy material. It’s imperative to discourage this practice by only buying captive-bred snakes, which is the least you can do.
Some people also hunt snakes for food or out of fear due to them being unaware of their vital role in the ecosystem.
Snakes are beneficial as pest controllers, feeding on rodents, lizards, amphibians, insects, and other animals that we consider pests.
Snakes are fascinating and unique animals that have found ways to coexist with humans in an ever-changing world. These reptiles have adapted to multiple ecosystems and come with different characteristics and behaviors.
With that said, they still require our support to overcome the hurdles associated with habitat destruction, illegal trade, and poaching, among other dangers.