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The Animal Science Blog is the place for conversation and discussion about scientific and technological topics related to pets, livestock, and other animals. See how cutting-edge advances help - or hinder - species around the world.

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Snakes: Clever and Deadly Behaviors

Posted August 24, 2009 12:01 AM by Vi Pham

"Red touches black – friend of Jack, red touches yellow – you're a dead fellow." It's a simple little rhyme, but it could save your life.

Rhyme and Reason

There is very little difference in appearance between venomous coral snakes and non-venomous milksnakes. Most have black, red, and white or yellow bands. They have similar shapes and sizes, too. Generally, both are found on the ground.

The red and yellow bands touch on coral snakes. The red and black bands touch on milksnakes. So, the rhyme above really is a useful and easy-to-remember tool for distinguishing the two types of snake.

Unfortunately, however, it only applies to North American snakes. Coral snakes that are not native to North America can have a number of different patterns, including the red-touching-black bands of the harmless milksnake.

Copy Cats…err…I mean Snakes

Milksnakes use pattern mimicry to deter possible predators. Others snakes use behavioral mimicry to scare off dangers.

The false cobra, as the name suggests, is not actually a cobra. Cobras are elapids; false cobras are colubrids. False cobras will spread their hoods and hiss like cobras in order to seem larger and more menacing. But the venom of a false cobra is not nearly as dangerous to humans. Bites have been reported to feel similar to a wasp sting, with a pain that lasts for several hours followed by several days of itchiness.

Bullsnakes resemble Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes in appearance, and can flatten their heads into a triangular shape to further the imitation. Bullsnakes can also hiss very loudly. Because their vocal folds flap back and forth when hissing, the result is a rather convincing rattling sound. Bullsnakes and many other colubrids will also imitate a rattlesnake's rattle by rapidly vibrating their tails among leaves, sticks and rocks.

Amazing Actors and Foul Fumes

Many small species of arboreal snakes (and terrestrial snakes that spend a lot of time in the trees) will mimic the movement of a branch or a vine blowing in the wind. When hiding places are scarce, arboreal snakes straighten the front portions of their bodies and wave slightly back and forth. This is particularly useful to keep from being seen by predators or prey.

Many snakes try to act larger than they really are. They do this by raising more of their bodies off of the ground. Snakes will also flatten their bodies to make them seem wider. Some snakes flatten horizontally (like cobras) while others flatten vertically. Also, many snakes will curl into an "S" position to look like they are ready to strike. Most of the time, however, these snakes actually have no intention of striking and are instead using their shape as a scare tactic.

Of course, clever imitation and aggressive displays don't always work. When all else fails, some snakes (like hognose snakes) will feign death. Hognose snakes roll onto their backs and lay still with their mouths open. Some will make a more dramatic performance by rolling several times and writhing on the ground. They can also rupture blood vessels in their mouths and emit a foul-smelling musk and fecal matter. If turned onto their stomachs, these snakes usually roll to their backs again, as if to insist they are dead.

Many other species of snake can also emit foul musk and secretions. This is usually accompanied by tail-flailing that spreads the substance and smell.

Hidden Hazards

Usually, these behaviors have been observed by people who accidently come across a snake. Most of the time, because of a snake's ability to blend into its surroundings, people cannot see where the snake is. This is why auditory threats like hissing and rattling are important.

Effective camouflage may play a big role in why so many people around the world are bitten by venomous snakes each year. Without being able to see the snakes, people cannot effectively avoid them.

The pictures below are examples of snakes using their patterns to blend into their surroundings.



What's Next?

My next blog entry will be about how snakes get from place to place, and the five modes of locomotion.

Thanks for reading!

Other Blog Entries

New Animal Attractions
Reptiles: A Scaly Introduction
Snakes: They're All Around
Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 1)
Snakes: A Family Affair (Part 2)
Snakes: Do The Locomotion (Part 1)
Snakes: Do The Locomotion (Part 2)

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Join Date: Jun 2009
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#1

Re: Snakes: Clever and Deadly Behaviors

08/25/2009 3:43 PM

I still don't like snakes... Eeeee ;)

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#2

Re: Snakes: Clever and Deadly Behaviors

08/26/2009 12:01 PM

I'm not particularly afraid of snakes but if i was hiking through the Adirondack or Catskills what would be the most dangerous snake i could encounter? Are there any venomous snakes in the Northeastern part of the US?

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#5
In reply to #2

Re: Snakes: Clever and Deadly Behaviors

08/27/2009 9:19 AM

From what I can find, there are only three species of venomous snake that you would encounter in Northeastern US. Although populations of these species can probably be found in both the Adirondack and Catskills regions, their presence over the rest of Northeastern US varies.

Northern Copperhead - Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen
Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake - Sistrurus catenatus catenatus
Timber Rattlesnake - Crotalus horridus

The timber rattlesnake is potentially one of the most dangerous snakes in North America, but it has a surprisingly mild temperment.
All three species are not aggressive unless provoked and will try to stay out of your way.

And of course if you ever do spot a snake (venomous or not) during your hike, even though they may be a non-aggressive species, please keep a safe distance away!

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#3

Re: Snakes: Clever and Deadly Behaviors

08/26/2009 10:34 PM

...another variant of your jingle: "RED on BLACK, venum LACK; RED on YELLOW, kill a FELLOW"

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Re: Snakes: Clever and Deadly Behaviors

08/27/2009 8:14 AM

I've heard a lot of different versions, but I've never heard one with the "venom lack" phrase

though I do suppose it's easier to find more rhymes for black than for yellow

thanks for reading!

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#6

Re: Snakes: Clever and Deadly Behaviors

10/28/2012 5:35 AM

copperheads are abundand here in western pennsyvania,but are rarely seen beause of there tendicy to live near water in remote areas away from humans. this year has seemed to be the exception...it appears they've been moving closer to homes and away from the water... during the summer, my friends and myself have seen copperheads for the first time. usually under timber and logs... i was restacking lumber that had laying on the ground for two years ago.. i was supprised to find a copperhead nest under the pile...i think the rodent population has exploded in this area,, as i soon found out as colder temperatures set in. we don't tell the women this for obvious reasons, but we do watch where the kids are playing.

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