In the previous section I covered the history of snakes, how they got to be what they are now. But what are they? How do they live their lives, where do they live? This is what I’ll address in this section.
Snakes have a long, narrow body. Their internal organs are made to fit their long and narrow body type. Snakes have only one functioning lung, so it’s vital that their environment is clean and not polluted.
An interesting fact to know; to find out how many “vertabreas” the snake has, you can count the number of belly scales. Usually there will be a new scale for each vertebrea. It’s jaw is evolved so that the snake can swallow prey many times its size. The bottom part of the jaw is not locked together, as it is in most other animals, but it can be separated into two parts. This way its mouth can open up, swallow the prey, and then pull its jaw together again. When the snake does this, it looks like it’s yawning, opening the mouth up wide and shutting it again.
Their vision is just awesome, they don’t see like we do; rather they see heat and movements. They also don’t hear anything but very low frequencies, so talking to a snake will not work. You can shout you lungs out, the snake cannot hear you. It does however feel the vibration, so stomping your feet in the ground will definitely get its attention. If you ever seen a cobra hypnotized by someone playing a flute, you can be sure that the person is stomping his foot in the ground or similar, as the snake would not hear the flute.
The males have two reproductive organs, the hemipenes. During mating only one will actually carry sperm. With young snakes you can sex the snakes by “popping” them. That means that to check for a male you pop out the hemipenes by applying pressure to the bottom of the tail. If done wrong this can hurt the snake and make it infertile, so you should always have someone show you how to do it before attempting. This cannot be done with other then very young snakes. The males are usually a little wider around the vent area before the tail narrows down quickly (because of the hemipenes inside), while in the females the tail narrows down more evenly. But this can be very difficult to see with the naked eye, so the best way to sex a snake is by “probing”. Proping is where you stick a probe into the snake’s vent and see how far in it goes before you meet resistance. In males the hemipenes makes the probe go in further then in the female.
When it comes to birth, snakes are not good parents. The fathers are completely absent, he impregnates the female and leaves. The female then either lays her eggs, or has live babies. Pythons and corn snakes lay eggs, while boas have live babies. Some snakes lay ontop of the eggs till they hatch, actually regulating the temperature for them, while others such as the corn snake just lays them and leaves. A pregnant snake is said to be “gravid”. After the babies are born or hatched they are on their own. This might be natures way of regulating the snake population, because a snake can have very many babies! However, without any help from the parents most don’t make it. For these it really is survival of the fittest, but also a lot of luck!
Skin and Shedding
Snake skin is scaly, but not slimy which is a very common misconception. Snakes are NOT worms!
Their skin is built up by scales, which help the snake’s movement by gripping the surface. As new cells grow under the snake’s skin, the new cells push the old cells up, creating a transparent skin. When the snake grows and the top layer of skin is being pushed even further, the snake goes through a process of shedding.
The shedding has several phases; first the skin becomes rough and the snake’s belly usually turns pinkish. Then its eyes reach the “opaque” stage, its eyes turns blue and the snake is basically blind for a few days. This is because the snake is shedding the layer over its eyes. Then the snake starts looking normal again, and it’s very hard to see that it’s shedding. Next thing is to rub its skin against the surface, rocks etc, to push off the skin from head to tail. It looks like a sock thats pulled off, ending up inside out. The snake’s skin is supposed to come off in one piece. Young snakes shed often; every month or two. When they get older their grow rate decreases, and they shed more rarely. Although they do most of their growing in the first couple of years, snakes never stop growing. Adult snakes shed a couple of times a year. Shedding is also very important in getting rid of parasites.
Snakes can now be found throughout the world, the only place there are no snakes is in the arctic region. They are such adaptable creatures, there just isn’t any comparison to their success. They live in deserts, cities, oceans, lakes, forests, mountains, savannas, rain forests etc. The list could go on and on. Snakes are everywhere.
Snakes in cooler areas usually go into a sort of hibernation during the wintertime, called brumation. Unlike hibernation where pretty much everything shuts down and wakes up again in spring, brumation is what you could call “do nothing”. All the body functions are intact and the snake even moves around a little bit. However, it mostly lays there and waits for spring. Usually the snake chooses a place underground, so that it can stay as warm as possible during winter. Almost every snake that lives in an area with cool temperatures during winter brumates, otherwise it would not survive.
There are many places where snakes that are not native to the area have been introduced, and now they are thriving. In many cases this proves a real challenge to the natural ecosystem, as the new snakes push other species out, or the simple fact that humans do not want them there. This is why people who have snakes, cannot just go to the park and drop them off! I cannot stress this enough, just watch what’s happened in the Everglades in Florida. Now there are anacondas and reticulated pythons breeding in an area where they do not belong, because careless owners who were faced with snakes they couldn’t handle or didn’t want let them loose. These kinds of actions can have fatal consequences.
All snakes are carnivorous, but the diet varies greatly depending on habitat and size. Most eat rodents; mice, rats, rabbits, gerbils etc. Others eat fish, eggs, lizards and even other snakes. The very big species can eat pretty much everything from hippos to crocs.
Snakes are amazing in terms of patience, they can lay in one spot for days, just waiting for a prey to pass by. If a prey comes by, the snake will use its attack method, whether it is constriction or venom, to kill it.
Snakes cannot taste anything, and does not chew. There is more about how snakes are able to swallow a prey many times its size in the anatomy section, but basically its bottom jaw gets separated in two while eating, and muscle movements help the snake swallow. The teeth are pointed towards the back of its mouth, so when a prey is bitten it’s almost impossible for it to escape. The more the prey tries to push itself out, the better grip the snake gets. It’s so clever, and so simple. Anyone who has ever been bitten by a snake, knows that trying to pull the finger out of it’s mouth rarely works. To get your finger loose, you actually have to push it further into the mouth to get loose from the grip, and then open the mouth and your free.
If the prey poses no threat, such as a pinkie mouse, the snake will usually not bother to waste energy killing it, but rather swallows it alive.
After the snake has eaten it’s time for it to digest its food. This is very important and the snake cannot be bothered during this process. This process usually takes around 48 hours, and if the snake feels threatened, the prey is too big, or the weather isn’t warm enough it will regurgitate (throw up). Regurgitation is a serious thing for all snakes, their systems basically gets turned upside down. The best thing to do after a regurge is to wait at least ten days before trying to feed again. How often a snake eats varies from specie to specie. Very often the males (sometimes females) fast around breeding season no matter if they actually breed or not. Snakes might also not eat if they are shedding.