Snakes are fascinating creatures that both capture our imagination and fill our nightmares. Here we take take a look at their diet and how they eat


What do snakes eat?

All snakes are carnivorous (meat-eaters) and eat a wide variety of small mammals, birds, reptiles, fish, amphibians, insects and eggs.

In addition, many snakes are opportunistic, tackling anything they can overpower. Some consequently predate unusual animals, such as those that are protected by scales, shells or spines.

There are records of African rock pythons eating pangolins – also called scaly anteaters – and porcupines, and it is well known that anacondas regularly include caiman crocodiles in their diets. Similarly, Florida’s invasive Burmese python has been recorded preying on small alligators.

Despite being protected by hard shells, many tortoises, especially the younger ones, also fall prey to snakes. For example, puff adders are known to eat leopard tortoises in Southern Africa, and hatchlings are probably snatched quite often. Indigo and rat snakes feed on young gopher tortoises in North America, and the remains of baby angulate tortoises have been found in the faeces of Cape cobras in South Africa.

Snakes digest tissue and bone, but not fur, feather or scale, so evidence of their diet can be found in their excrement, if people have the inclination to look!

Tony Phelps

How do snakes expand their jaws so they can eat large prey?

Snake skulls are finely tuned. The two lower jaw bones are connected by ligaments, and together with the super-elasticated skin, this provides immense flexibility. A snake can expand its gape enormously. When combined with backward-facing teeth, it allows the predator to swallow large prey relative to its size. If a snake tries to eat something too big, it may attempt to regurgitate its meal, but this can cause internal injuries.

Can snakes taste what they eat?

Yes, but their sense of smell is better. Flicking their tongue enables snakes to take a wide sample of the scents around them, which are interpreted by the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of their mouth. These smells give snakes information for hunting, avoiding predators and finding mates. Though their sense of taste is relatively poor, they are able to taste bitter foods, which helps them avoid poisonous prey species.

How do snakes breathe while eating?

Snakes usually breathe through their nose, or snout. However, when consuming prey, they switch to using their mouth. The end of a snake’s windpipe, or glottis, is located at the base of its mouth, behind the tongue. Handily, the glottis can move sideways or protrude far forwards, to ensure the reptile is still able to breathe with its mouth full. Just as well really, as snakes cannot chew and have to swallow their food whole, which is often a long and slow process.

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Laurie Jackson


Main image: © Getty images