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A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California

Snake Behavior - Defensive Strategies


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These are pictures and videos that illustrate some of the interesting behaviors of some of the snakes shown on this web site. (Not all interesting snake behaviors are shown here, only those from this site. More will be added here as they are added to the site.) Follow the links on the name of each species to find more pictures and information about it.

Snake Defensive Strategies
Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnake Northern Mohave Rattlesnake
Mohave Shovel-nosed Snake
When they feel they need to defend themselves, Western Diamond-backed Rattlesnakes often assume a very impressive threatening posture with the head raised off the ground, often accompanied by tail rattling and hissing. Northern Mohave Rattlesnake in a defensive threatening posture.
© Tim Burkhardt
Tired of being continually picked up and posed, this tiny but gutsy juvenile Mohave Shovel-nosed Snake eventually got angry and struck repeatedly at the camera, as you can see in this short video.
Red Diamond Rattlesnake Pacific Gopher Snake california kingsnake longnosed snake
Rattlesnakes are well-known for shaking the rattles on their tails to make a rattling sound which warns of their presence. Each time a rattlesnake sheds, another button is created on the tail. These dry, hollow buttons make a rattling sound when quickly moved back and forth. This rattling behavior might have originally developed as a way to warn large animals not to step on them. In this short video you can see and hear a Red Diamond Rattlesnake rattling. In this short video, a distressed Pacific Gopher Snake shakes its tail rapidly, which makes a buzzing sound as the tail touches the ground. Gopher snakes do not have rattles, but this tail shaking behavior might be a mimic of a rattlesnake's rattlng. Or it could be just a similar behavior that helps to warn off an animal that could be a threat to the gopher snake. In this video, a distressed striped California Kingsnake vibrates its tail. Similar to the gopher snake tail shaking, this behavior could also be a behavior that helps to warn an animal that could be a threat to the kingsnake. This video shows a Long-nosed Snake using a disgusting but effective defensive behavior - it coils up with jerky movements then smears itself with red fluid from its cloaca. After that I certainly did not want to touch the snake again.
night snake night snake rubber boa
california kingsnake
This Texas Nightsnake circled its body into a tight coil and puffed up with air. This makes it difficult to grab onto its body. When picked up, the snake remained tightly coiled. A San Diego Nightsnake coils defensively, hiding its head.
© Steven Krause.
As you can see in this video, when they feel threatened, Northern Rubber Boas often curl into a ball with their head hidden in the middle and the tail on the outside, elevated like a head, which it resembles. When a predator attacks what it thinks is a head, it will only injure the tail, which is much less life threatening to the snake. Many rubber boas have scars on their tails from such attacks. This California Kingsnake has coiled itself into a defensive pose. Its cloaca is opened with the pink insides pushed out, and a foul smell is present. This is all designed to deter a predator while protecting the snake.
sonoran gopher snake pacific gopher snake gopher snake arizona coral snake
Gopher snakes are not venomous, but in the wild they often take a vicious defensive stance when they feel threatened; they puff up their body, hiss loudly, elevate the head and neck, and sometimes even strike at the threat in order to protect themselves from harm. In this video, a newly-hatched juvenile Sonoran Gopher Snake found trying to cross a road at night is threatened by the bright light and the video camera stuck in its face so it hisses loudly and strikes at the camera before crawling away to safety unharmed. Yes, the camera survived, also.

This is another mad gopher snake video.
After I rescued this Pacific Gopher Snake from oncoming traffic, what thanks did I get? - a very nice show of its defensive arsenal - coiling, puffing up and elevating the body, flattening the head into a triangular shape, hissing loudly, shaking the tail, and striking repeatedly. When I back off, the snake crawls away, keeping its head and neck defensively arched, ready to strike quickly if necessary.

Ignore the cry of pain you hear: No photographers were seriously injured in the making of this film.
A huge Sonoran Gophersnake puts on an impressive defensive display of hissing and blowing.

This Arizona Coral Snake is writhing its body, crooking its neck, curling its tail and popping its cloaca, all to threaten or frighten away what it perceives to be an enemy - in this case, the photographer.

Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnake
These four differently-colored snakes are all the same species: Southwestern Speckled Rattlesnakes. The coloring of this species matches the color of the rocks in which they live which allows them to hide and avoid detection. This use of cryptic coloring as camouflage is called Crypsis.
Mexican Hog-nosed Snake Mexican Hog-nosed Snake mexican hog-nosed snake mexican hog-nosed snake
When threatened, Hog-nosed snakes, like this Mexican Hog-nosed Snake, roll over exposing their bellies and play dead, with their mouth open and their tongue hanging out. If picked up, they may roll back over onto their back. They will also flatten their neck like a Cobra, puff up their body, and hiss and strike at their assailant. But their most effective defensive tactic, in my experience, is when they curl up their tail and smear their own foul-smelling feces on their body, as you can see in the picture on the right. In this short video, a Mexican Hog-nosed Snake blows and hisses and strikes. Hog-nosed snakes are well-known for their strategy of rolling over and playing dead to dissuade a predator. (This faking death is called "thanatosis".) In this short video you can see one roll over and play dead, then use a combination of playing dead and hissing.
Pacific Ring-necked Snake   Northwestern Ring-necked Snake
          Pacific Ring-necked Snake                      Northwestern Ring-necked Snake

Ring-necked snakes are dull on top, but brightly-colored underneath. When they feel threatened, they emit a foul smell from their vent, and coil their tail into a spiral showing the bright red coloring. This act is called an Unkenreflex. The warning coloring (usually red) is called Aposematic coloring, and is designed to advertise to a potential predator that the snake is not safe to eat. Sometimes this is a trick used by harmless animals (called Batesian mimicry.)
Many snakes squirt and smear a foul-smelling fluid consisting of feces, uric acid, and anal gland musk from their cloaca to deter a predator or a grabby photographer. In this short video, after it is picked up, a big adult Diablo Range Gartersnake  demonstrates how it smears its nasty-smelling stuff all over me. You are fortunate that they haven't invented online video with smells yet. A large Bullsnake rears back in a defensive striking posture, then strikes with a loud hiss, and continues to make a rattling hissing sound.

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