Snakes Are Amazing! 5 of Their Most Extraordinary Abilities

Snakes may seem simple, but they're full of surprises. reptiles4all/Shutterstock

You think you know all about these creatures, right? But they are a lot more complicated and interesting than you may realize. Some facts to prove our point:

Snakes strike at black-out speeds

We know snakes are capable of striking in the blink of an eye. But in reality, they strike much faster than that. The human eye takes about 202 milliseconds to complete a blink. A snake, on the other hand, can strike out and reach their target within 50 to 90 milliseconds. The strike is so fast that if humans attempted to accelerate even less than one quarter as quickly as a snake, we would black out.

While vipers like rattlesnakes and cobras are famous for being speedy strikers, a recent study showed that nonvenomous snakes are just as fast, or faster than, the vipers.

It's not just vipers but also non-venemous snakes that can strike at extraordinary speeds.
Even nonvenemous snakes can strike at extraordinary speeds. (Photo: Jim Cumming/Shutterstock)

There hasn't been a whole lot of research done on snake strike speeds, and non-venomous species were left in the cold. So, in a 2016 study that included the nonvenomous rat snake, researchers found out that while vipers are famous for their lightening-fast strikes, even nonvenomous snakes can move at such blinding speeds.

The researchers found that accelerations in all three species were “impressively high,” and were similar to measurements other researchers had made of snake strikes on actual prey.

Smithsonian reported on the research:

"When [study lead author David] Penning and his colleagues compared strike speeds in three types of snakes, they found that at least one nonvenomous species was just as quick as the vipers. The results hint that serpents' need for speed may be much more widespread than thought, which raises questions about snake evolution and physiology."

When you think about it, it makes sense: a nonvenomous snake still has to be fast enough to catch a speedy meal like a bird or a mouse, so they need to be just as fast as their venomous counterparts. Penning told Discover Magazine:

“Prey are not passively waiting to be eaten by snakes.” Venomous and nonvenomous snakes both have to catch prey to eat. So it’s likely that plenty of other snake species — not just the rat snake — are every bit as fast as a viper.

Snakes excel at the art of mimicry

As many as 150 species of snake have the black, yellow and red warning colors of the venomous coral snake. Is it coincidence, or have these nonvenomous mimics picked up on this handy hiding trick?

A study published in 2016 made the case for coral snake look-alikes as more than just a theory. A team from University of Michigan used genetic data from 300,000 snake specimens from museums around the world to prove that coral snake mimicry is an evolutionary strategy.

Scarlet Kingsnakes have evolved to mimic the color pattern of venomous coral snakes in order to avoid predation.
Scarlet kingsnakes have evolved to mimic the color pattern of venomous coral snakes to avoid predation. T-Immagini/iStockPhoto

According to Phys.Org, "U-M evolutionary biologist Alison Davis Rabosky and her colleagues showed that much of the apparent conflict between theory and observation disappeared when the global distribution of all snake species was taken into account. [T]hey present the first definitive evidence that the spread of coral snakes throughout the Western Hemisphere over the last 40 million years drove the distribution of the mimics."

The strategy is still playing out today. A 2014 study showed that scarlet kingsnakes found in North Carolina are still getting better at mimicking coral snakes even though coral snakes have been locally extinct for decades.

"The kingsnakes from the Sandhills that were collected in recent years tended to more closely resemble coral snakes — with red and black bands more similar in size — than did snakes collected in the 1970s, which tended to have larger black bands," explains Nature.

Not only can snakes mimic the appearance of other snake species to avoid predation, they can also mimic the appearance and movement of non-snake species, such as spiders and worms, to lure in prey.

Different species of snake have been seen holding perfectly still except for their wriggling tails, which look very much like a worm or grub to unsuspecting prey. But one snake species has taken mimicry using its tail to a whole new level.

The spider-tailed horned viper has a tail with elongated scales and a bulbous end, making it look like a plump spider. When it wriggles its special tail, birds see what seems like a quick arachnid meal. But when they go in for the kill, they're faced with an unpleasant surprise.

Snakes hear with their mouths

No external ears? No internal eardrums? No problem. Snakes don't need these trivial accoutrements to hear the world around them. They have two hearing systems, one that revolves around their perfectly evolved jaws, which are part of a system called bone conductive hearing. (Yep, their tricky jaws are used for more than just eating.)

The jaw bones pick up vibrations that are sent to the inner ear — that's the second hearing system — and the information is decoded by the brain as sound.

The jaws of snakes pick up vibrations that help them "hear" the world around them.
The jaws of snakes pick up vibrations that help them 'hear' the world around them. Tiberiu Sahlean/Shutterstock

ABC Science explains:

Basic experiments during the 1970s showed snakes could hear, but didn't explain how. Now we know. With each tiny footstep, a mouse or other prey radiates waves through the ground and air the same way drops of water ripple through a pool and produce a single drip sound.
Just as a ship bobs up and down in response to a wave in the ocean, a snake jaw resting on the ground responds to sound waves carried by the ground...The researchers used the exact equations that measure a ship's movement to model how a snake's jaw would move in response to waves moving through sand or earth. Just as a ship can move in six different directions (heave, pitch, roll, etc) so can a snake's jaw (up, down, side to side, etc). And just as a ship is more stable the deeper it rides in the water, snakes often bury themselves in sand to make their hearing more precise.

It might be surprising to think that pondering a boat on the water helped to reveal how snakes manage to hear without ears or ear drums. But the revelation could also be helpful for human medical technology. Humans also have a somewhat similar — but not nearly as effective — ability to pick up vibrations through our jaw bones. A device called the Baha System allows people to better pick up and utilize those vibrations. Perhaps by studying more of what makes snakes' bone conductive hearing so effective could improve the design of our own hearing devices.

Some snakes can fly

Snakes don't need planes to fly. Or at least glide. The five flying snakes of southeast Asia prove that.

These arboreal species have figured out a way to get from tree to tree without touching the ground. When they leap from a branch, they can contort their skeleton to spread their ribs and make their body flatten like an airplane wing. A fall is turned into something a bit more akin to flight.

They don't glide aimlessly, either. These "flying" snakes can use their heads to steer, changing direction mid-glide to land where they want. Through this aerial technique, they can reach trees as far as 80 feet away in a single launch.

National Geographic reports:

"To prepare for take-off, a flying snake will slither to the end of a branch, and dangle in a J shape. It propels itself from the branch with the lower half of its body, forms quickly into an S, and flattens to about twice its normal width, giving its normally round body a concave C shape, which can trap air. By undulating back and forth, the snake can actually make turns. Flying snakes are technically better gliders than their more popular mammalian equivalents, the flying squirrels."

Snakes have heat-seeking smarts

What would the world be like if we could see light bouncing off objects as well as how heat radiating from them? This is something quite a few species of snakes are capable of and it gives them essentially two forms of vision.

The journal Nature explains:

"Vipers, pythons and boas have holes on their faces called pit organs, which contain a membrane that can detect infrared radiation from warm bodies up to one metre away. At night, the pit organs allow snakes to 'see' an image of their predator or prey — as an infrared camera does — giving them a unique extra sense... The pit organ is part of the snake's somatosensory system — which detects touch, temperature and pain — and does not receive signals from the eyes, confirming that snakes 'see' infrared by detecting heat, not photons of light."

So a snake can use its eyes by day, and its pit organs by night. This ability to detect heat allows certain species of snakes to combine this with other senses, including that nifty hearing mentioned earlier, to home in on their prey even in the dark.

View Article Sources
  1. Penning, David A. et al. "Debunking The Viper's Strike: Harmless Snakes Kill A Common Assumption". Biology Letters, vol 12, no. 3, 2016, p. 20160011. The Royal Society, doi:10.1098/rsbl.2016.0011

  2. Callaway, Ewen. "Snakes Mimic Extinct Species To Avoid Predators". Nature, 2014. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1038/nature.2014.15397

  3. Fang, Janet. "Snake Infrared Detection Unravelled". Nature, 2010. Springer Science And Business Media LLC, doi:10.1038/news.2010.122