If you’re into lizards, you’ve most likely already heard of the concept of autotomy. This notion defines the lizard’s ability to sever its own tail and drop it like a bad habit. Lizards typically do this to avoid predators when everything else fails.
For instance, the lizard will always attempt to run at first. But if the predator has already caught it, the reptile will release its tail in a desperate attempt to set itself free.
The tail has built-in automatic nerves that pump signals into the muscles. This causes the amputated appendix to wiggle on the ground for several minutes, distracting the potential predator and allowing the lizard to Houdini out of there. Now that you know all this, the next logical question comes to mind: Can snakes practice autotomy as well?
Let’s have a look!
Anatomy of Snake Tail
One would say that snakes don’t have tails. The entire snake is basically a tail with a mouth and eyes. Fortunately, we can actually distinguish the snake’s tale based on its anatomy. The tail is an elongation of the snake’s body and consists of a mix of vertebrae, ligaments, and muscles, and it’s of different sizes.
Some snakes have longer and thinner tails than others, and they use it differently, depending on the species. Most snakes use the tail for balance, while others use it for constricting the prey, grabbing onto tree branches, warning intruders, or as body support.
Cobras use the tail as support to elevate their body to make themselves appear larger and intimidate potential attackers or contenders.
Rattlesnakes possess ringtails, which they shake when threatened, producing an ominous sound, reminding of the snake’s venomous nature. And then you have copperheads, which use their yellow tail tips to attract prey.
So, this innocuous appendix has a variety of uses, depending on the species and environment. Given the tai’s role in the snake’s daily functioning, can snakes afford to lose it? Let’s check it out!
Can Snakes Lose Their Tails?
No, they cannot. Not intentionally, anyway. I’m absolutely positive that this straightforward answer is more confusing than it should be, and I understand why. The internet is extremely divided on this topic. Apparently, snakes can lose or not lose their tails, depending on who you ask or what you read. So, let me clear up the confusion for you.
The act of intentional tail loss is called autotomy. Only lizards and some species of amphibians can exhibit this behavior. The problem is that colubrid snakes get mentioned a lot when it comes to this topic, garter snakes in particular. One reason for the confusion is the concept of pseudoautotomy.
This isn’t difficult to comprehend, given that you already know what autotomy is. Pseudoautotomy is merely the act of mimicking the tail loss without actually losing it. Instead, the snake wiggles its tail violently, similarly to how an amputated tail would move. This distracts the predator as the tail takes the spotlight, allowing the snake to make its grand escape. With the tail still attached to the body.
The predator will naturally follow the tail, which essentially means following the snake, but at least the animal won’t attack the snake’s head or other vital organs. It may bite into the tail, leading to forced amputation, but the snake will survive.
Why Snakes Can’t Regrow Their Tails
Now that we’ve determined that snakes cannot lose their tails voluntarily let’s talk about the regeneration aspect of it. It’s common knowledge that many lizard species can regrow their tails once lost. The regeneration process may last several months or a year, or even more, and the tail is never the same again. It’s typically shorter, less colorful, and less useful compared to the original one that the lizard was born with.
This is the main reason why tail autotomy, albeit a life savior in some circumstances, also has its long-term downsides.
But snakes cannot autotomize their own tails, unlike lizards. That’s because the autotomy process revolves around specific biological mechanisms where the vertebrae, nerves, ligaments, and muscles work in tandem to ensure precise amputation. Lizards also have several other anatomical mechanisms in place to stop the bleeding and keep the severed tail wiggling for a while.
Snakes lack all these mechanisms, so they cannot lose their tails intentionally. This brings me to an important disclaimer: read more than the article titles if you decide to research the topic on the internet yourself. Many people claim that some snakes can lose their tails and invoke the garter snake as an example. However, garter snakes cannot lose their tails voluntarily, either.
It’s true that many garter snakes have been observed in the wild with missing tails far more frequently than other species. But it’s the explanation that matters here. We’ve already discussed the concept of pseudoautotomy, but there’s another potential explanation for the confusion. And that is the fact that garter snakes are often hosts to a parasite called Alaria mesocercariae, which only infects the tail. The parasite’s activity eventually causes caudectomy (tail amputation), which is responsible for the observation.
Glass Snake and Tail Regeneration
Now that we’ve settled things on the topic of tail loss in snakes, you might feel the drive to invoke the glass snake as an exception. This species can lose its tail voluntarily and it can regenerate it to a point. So, what gives? Well, the main difference between the glass snake and other snakes is that the glass snake is actually a lizard. Its original name is the glass lizard, with the glass snake being an alias.
When it comes to the process of tail regeneration, the process is identical to that of lizards in general. The mass of new cells will then separate into groups, depending on their biological purposes. Some will turn into bone, others will grow into muscles, while others will form the nervous and circulatory systems in the new appendix.
While this is a welcomed ability in a world filled with predators, the tail loss, along with the regenerative process that follows, is really taxing for the animal. This is for several reasons, including the fact that lizards store fat in their tails. Losing the tail means losing the fat reserves and the ability to store fat anymore fat until the new tail emerges.
The tail’s absence will also impact the lizard’s movement and camouflaging abilities. And the new appendix won’t be as functional or look the same as the old one. These downsides are common among all reptiles that practice caudal autotomy.
On the bright side of things, the glass snake is one of the protagonists in the field of regenerative medicine. Who knows, maybe we’ll develop the ability to regrow our limbs, too; all thanks to the glass lizard snake and other reptiles like it.
Can a Snake Survive Without its Tail?
Snakes can typically survive without their tails, but this is a complex question with an equally complex answer. The more honest answer would be: it depends. That’s because losing the tail doesn’t come with aesthetical disadvantages only. There are a variety of practical downsides to losing one’s tail, including:
- Lower hunting prowess – The tail plays a critical role in hunting. Snakes use their tails to constrict their prey, go into hot pursuit and accelerate at impressive speeds, or even attract potential prey with their brightly-colored and deceiving tails. Without it, many snakes may have difficulties hunting and feeding properly.
- Lack of communication with other snakes – Many snakes use their body language to communicate with other members of their own species. The tail is an important part of that behavior, and its absence will leave snakes unable to transmit their intentions anymore. This can lead to territorial conflicts and confusion between them, potentially resulting in severe physical damage and death.
- Predator deterrent – A variety of snakes, like the rattlesnake, use their tails as warning signals against predators. Without that, they won’t be able to be as effective at keeping predators away.
- Balance and stability – Many snakes use their tails for balance and stability, especially arboreal species like pythons, boas, and many others. Losing their tails would be catastrophic for them in terms of mobility and even survival.
Aside from these considerations, we also need to think about the wound’s severity. If the wound is severe enough, the snake might bleed out or experience infections along the way. You would think that wound severity can’t have degrees to it, given that we’re talking about amputation and amputation is amputation. It can’t get any more severe than that. Well, actually, it can, and it all depends on the location of the amputation.
The higher towards the body that the tail is severed, the higher the damage and the less likely the recovery. This takes us to the next point.
Will a Snake Live if Cut in Half?
No, it will not. Snakes are not worms. Worms are simpler organisms that can regenerate their bodies and even survive without a head. Snakes are more complex animals with a central nervous system and complex organs.
A forced amputation across the snake’s midsection would sever the spinal cord, rendering the brain unable to care for the snake’s main vital systems. This will lead to a quick death. But complete amputation isn’t necessary to kill the snake, either. Even if the spinal cord remains intact, the cut may be deep enough to cause irreversible organ damages and profuse hemorrhage. These alone are enough to kill the snake.
And since we’re here, yes, decapitating the snake will also kill it, despite some misconceptions that are still alive and well for some reason. A headless snake is still dead, no matter how active its body might remain. The body’s wiggly movement post-decapitation is just the result of automatic nervous impulses keeping the muscles active. The nervous activity will eventually stop.
Snakes are amazing and unique animals, but they haven’t gone the lizard path. These 2 species have evolved separately, and what may apply to one species might not apply to the other. So, don’t get it mistaken, snakes cannot lose their tails. They can survive without their tails, and some species may even regenerate them, but they cannot practice intentional autotomy as some lizards can.