How do snakes communicate?

Saint Petersburg snake

People communicate to each other using words and body language. Occasionally, they don't use spoken words, but rather digital or written words, such as in a letter or text message, perhaps an email? Although it might not seem like it, many wild animals actually have just as many ways of communicating with each other, and this is definitely the case when it comes to snakes.

Snakes can’t make vocal noises, as such, and they can’t really hear all that well. Not in the way that humans can hear, anyway. They use a combination of senses, smelling, listening, and tasting everything that is around them and analyzing the chemical reactions that then happen in the brain. They actually have an organ situated just above the mouth that allows all of this analyzing to occur. This system is called the “vomeronasal system”.

Just because they can't hear, however, doesn't mean that snakes can't communicate. They communicate with each other, as well as other animals, rather well. Some snakes, such as the King snake, will actually copy the markings of other snakes, such as the Coral Snake, in a bid to appear more frightening than they really are. When a prey sees the distinct colors that are associated with the venomous Coral snake — red, yellow, and black — they will retreat. The King snake is not venomous, but they are often confused with venomous snakes by people and other animals, and generally get left alone.

Other snakes will make a noise when they are about to go into attack mode. In the same way that a skunk would stamp its feet to warn a passing predator it might spray soon, a rattlesnake rattles its tail so that it can be audibly heard. This warns whatever is close by that the snake is feeling particularly aggressive. Some rattlesnakes in the USA are venomous, so that rattling sound should be respected and backed-away from.

Other snakes have a similar reaction to the rattlesnake, relying on sight to give off the most threatening impression, rather than sound. The Cobra is well known for having a hood that inflates and surrounds the head. When an animal, human or otherwise, sees this, they generally run in the opposite direction. They are smart to take this action. Ignoring the warning signs from a snake could result in a potentially deadly bide from a highly venomous and toxic reptile.

For the most part, snakes use that vomeronasal system to work out what's going on in the world around them, and also to communicate with other snakes and animals. Snakes are usually quite solitary animals, preferring a life alone. The only time they would come into contact with another snake (of the same species) is when it was time to mate. If one snake comes into another snake from a different species, there is a good chance that conflict would arise.

Snakes communicate with each other to tell others when it’s mating time. Females will leave chemical signals that the male analyzes with the vomeronasal system, letting them know that they are willing to mate with the best male that comes a’slithering. Males will communicate with each other in the same way, releasing chemical signals that are picked up on and translated as aggression: stay away from my woman.

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