Snakes are known to exhibit a multitude of awkward behaviors from the perspective of someone who’s not accustomed to reptiles in general. They can smell with their tongues, shed their skin, eat their tails, and mimic each other if that brings them some advantages.
Today, we will discuss another interesting behavior that may not be exclusive to snakes, but it’s fascinating nonetheless: the ability to play dead. Do snakes do it, how, why, and when? Let’s check it out!
Feigning Death in Snakes
Feigning death is known as playing possum, and it isn’t a snake-specific behavior. Also, not all snakes use it. It has been observed that this behavior is specific to non-venomous species or those that possess a weak venom, unfit for defensive capabilities.
The snake will mostly play dead when surprised by a predator or simply surprised and scared in general. So, in a sense, the play-dead behavior is a last resort tactic, only used when all other defense mechanisms have failed.
Snakes are usually in good contact with their environment and can detect any intrusion in their vicinity quite early.
But this isn’t always the case because many snake eaters have evolved to circumvent these reptiles’ radar-like detection capabilities. So, it’s not uncommon for snakes to be taken by surprise by their attackers or simply by other animals simply passing by. This includes humans.
When that happens, the play-dead behavior may kick in instantly. This causes the snake to relax its muscles completely and control its breathing by lowering its heart rate temporarily.
Most snakes also produce a foul odor meant to resemble a rotting corpse. This tactic works great against animals that don’t consume carrion but not so great against those that do.
For this reason, snakes only rely on their play-dead behavior when all other means of defense have failed. Speaking of which, what other defense behaviors do snakes have in place?
Other Ways Snakes Defend Themselves
Snakes have a variety of defense mechanisms, depending on the species, the environment where they’ve evolved, and their adaptation to the surrounding fauna and predators.
- Camouflage – Pretty much all snakes rely on camouflage to keep a low profile in the wild, no matter the species. Some species are far more proficient than others in this sense, and the specific coloring and body markings depend on the environment itself. For instance, rattlesnakes like in desertic environments, so their coloring and color pattern allows them to blend in the sand and rocky layout. Then you have green boas that prefer to live in trees, so their bodies are completely green to match the canopy.
- Mimicry – This is a defensive tactic specific to non-venomous species and relies on the snake mimicking the appearance of other snakes, which are usually venomous. This can lead to confusion because predators no longer know which snakes they can or cannot attack. As an example, corn snakes mimic the appearance of coral snakes, the latter being highly venomous, while corn snakes are not. The mimicking behavior also doesn’t stop at coloring and pattern. Some snakes even mimic other snake species’ lifestyles and movements to fool their potential predators even more. Other snakes even showcase dorsal color patterns that mimic the appearance of venomous or poisonous insects.
- Warning displays – Warning displays are of 3 types in snakes: coloring, posturing, and sound-based. Color-based warning displays are common in venomous species, which tend to be a lot more colorful with distinct markings. Cobras have the recognizable spectacles on their nape, for instance. Posturing refers to the snake raising or expanding its body to make itself appear larger. The final one is sound-based and involves hissing or rattling, the latter being associated with rattlesnakes. Interestingly, all snakes can hiss as a defensive mechanism, whether they are venomous or not.
- Biting and envenomation – Contrary to popular belief, snakes are not that eager to bite. Especially venomous ones. That being said, all snakes can bite, whether they can inflict any serious damage or not, and venomous ones are particularly dangerous. They use their venom to deter the predator, a behavior that often results in death, especially when dealing with highly venomous species. Interestingly, though, not all venomous bites are actually venomous. Most snakes prefer to hold on to their venom to use it for hunting purposes, so they will inflict dry bites (no venom.) Others will only inject a little, enough to create discomfort. And, finally, younger snakes are typically deadlier than adults due to them not being able to control the amount of venom injected, so, they inject everything.
- Fleeing – This is generally the first defense line that the snakes will employ to keep themselves safe. Fleeing the scene is always preferable because it saves the snake from a lot of trouble. This is why most snakes always have a backup plan in case they’re surprised by a predator. They always tend to stick around their main escaping route, either near tall vegetation, in close proximity to their burrow, near a body of water for semi-aquatic species, etc. Some snakes are quite good at fleeing, as they are capable of reaching speeds up to 12 mph on land. Others can launch themselves from trees into the ground below, where they can then make their grand escape.
- Olfactory defenses – Many species can produce a foul smell when attacked, even without playing dead. The intent isn’t to mimic the odor of a corpse but to produce sufficient olfactory discomfort that the predator will simply give up the hunting.
There are also some snake species that can actually project their venom through their fangs into their attackers’ eyes. Cobras fall into this category, as they are able to spit their venom up to 4-8 feet, depending on the situation.
And that’s not all. It turns out that they also possess extreme precision mastery, as they are able to hit their attackers’ eyes with incredible accuracy.
The venom can cause significant local pain and inflammation and can even lead to blindness.
Snake Species That Play Dead
There are numerous snake species that play dead. The most popular ones include hognose snakes, rat snakes, grass snakes, indigo snakes, gopher snakes, and many more.
Most of these species, and many others, also produce a corpse-like perfume to create the impression of a rotten corpse.
Interestingly, just because these species have the ability to play dead doesn’t mean that they’ll use it in all scenarios. Snakes are fairly intelligent animals that are capable of adapting to their environment and, consequently, the threats they’re facing.
So, a snake can tell almost immediately if playing dead is the right move, depending on the danger ahead. In some cases, it may decide that posturing and hissing or fleeing are better options because the attacker they’re facing is known not to care whether the snake is dead or alive.
In that case, the snake’s best option is to flee or intimidate the attacker. Sometimes it works, other times, it doesn’t, which is the case with all defense tactics.
Unfortunately, snakes don’t have the ability to lose their tails intentionally, as lizards do, for an additional defense mechanism.
However, they will survive if the predator amputates their tail in the attack and the snake manages to get away.
While we can’t include this among the snake’s defensive strategies, it’s certainly proof of the reptile’s amazing adaptability and hardiness.
Other Animals That Play Dead
Believe it or not, there are numerous animals that can play dead intentionally when threatened.
- Opossums – This is the very animal that the play-dead behavior got named after (playing possum). Opossums can become stiff and unresponsive, falling on their side and producing a foul odor to shock any nostrils coming their way.
- Beetles – Some beetle species can play dead in mid-air, falling to the ground and remaining motionless until the danger has passed. This generally works because the beetle gets lost in the surrounding vegetation, more than a direct result of the play-dead behavior. That’s because most insect-eaters don’t care whether their meal is dead or alive.
- Snails – We don’t tend to associate snails with play-dead behavior, but that’s precisely the snail’s main defensive tactic. It’s its only defensive tactic if you think about it. Snakes will retreat into their shells at the first sign of danger, becoming invisible to their predator. However, this behavior doesn’t work because the predator believes that the snail is dead, but because it doesn’t recognize the snail as food, to begin with. All that the predator sees is a solid shell that doesn’t resemble anything nutritious. Naturally, specialized snail predators have learned to circumvent this illusion and will take the snack out of its shell either way.
- Frogs – Some frog species can freeze up almost instantaneously when sensing danger nearby. This deters predators that don’t eat carrion but will make the frog less visible and noticeable as well.
- Birds – Few bird species also play dead when threatened. Such is the case of the tern, which often falls to the ground and remains still for a while when a predator reaches its nest.
The fact that the play-dead behavior is so spread out throughout the animal kingdom is proof of its efficiency and reliability.
If it didn’t work, we would’ve had no animals displaying it today.
Not all snakes play dead, but many do. Most importantly, out of those that do, some are venomous.
So, next time you spot a dead snake in the grass, don’t get too close to check its pulse.