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Are There Any Snakes That Play Dead? (Yes!)

Many people assume that snakes will go out of their way to chase or charge you. This couldn’t be further from the truth! Snakes will do almost anything to get away from you. And for some species of snakes, they will even play dead. In this article, we will be looking mainly at a particular species of snake that is known to play dead as a survival adaptation.

So without further delay, here’s the eastern hognose.

The Eastern Hognose

Eastern Hognose | credit: Hunter Desportes | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Perhaps one of the most famously known snakes for death feigning is the Eastern Hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos). Eastern hognoses are native to North America and can be found as far north as Ontario, Canada and as far south as South Florida and Texas.

Eastern hognoses get their name from their pig-like snout. Hognose snakes have a specialized scale on the tip of their nose that gives their snout an upturned look. Their snout can also help them burrow into loose, dry soils.

Eastern hognose snakes live in more dry habitats, like sandy pine forests, fields, and on the edges of forested areas. These types of habitats have dry soil that allow them to burrow and lay their eggs.

When threatened these snakes put on quite the theatrical production. They will flatten their neck, almost resembling a cobra, and hiss. If this doesn’t work, Eastern hognoses will start a dramatic death-feigning behavior. Eastern hognoses will roll onto their back, sometimes making several rotations, before stopping and dropping their mouth open, allowing for their tongue to hang out.

Some Eastern hognoses may even put on this act for up to 45 minutes! While the Eastern hognose is arguably the most well-known, there are also several other species of Hognose snakes that are very similar to the Eastern hognose. These are the Western Hognose (Heterodon nasicus) and the Southern Hognose (Heterodon simus).

Other snakes that play dead

Hognose snakes are not the only types of snakes that play dead. In fact, there are species of snakes that death-feign all over the world. There are even a few species that can be found throughout North America and the United States.

Common Kingsnake

Eastern Kingsnake | credit: Greg Gilbert | Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Scientific name: Lampropeltis getula

Common Kingsnakes are a widely distributed snake that can be found throughout much of the United States and Mexico. These snakes are also very popular pets, and there are nine subspecies of Kingsnake. While they do not put on as much of a spectacle as the Eastern Hognose, Kingsnakes are known to roll over several times into a ball and wait for the threat to leave.

Garter snake

Scientific name: Thamnophis spp.

There are several species of Garter snakes, and many people in the United States and Canada are familiar with these snakes due to their widespread distribution and that they are pretty common. Garter snakes are found virtually all throughout North America and Canada. These snakes when threatened will release a foul musk, and then may even play dead, turning onto their back and going completely limp.

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Why do snakes play dead?

Playing dead is an instinctual defense mechanism, also known as death-feigning. Some species of snakes and other animals may play dead in the face of a threat if they do not have any other way out. While most snakes will bite if they feel cornered as a way to defend themselves, it can be risky. Playing dead can be a safer, less energetically taxing way to dissuade a predator.

Most snakes that play dead are non-venomous, and therefore have fewer defense mechanisms. When playing dead, snakes will put on quite the show! They will often roll over onto their backs, let their head go limp and open their mouths. Some snakes will even release a putrid odor from their cloaca. For extra dramatic effect, they might roll a few times, looking like they are writhing in agony before their “death”.

Playing dead is a way for the snake to let its predator know that they are not a threat, and some predators won’t eat dead animals, so playing dead makes them look far less appetizing.

Why do snakes turn upside down?

There are two main reasons why a snake would turn upside down. The first reason is that the snake could be injured or suffering a neurological injury or illness. This is obviously a cause for concern for pet owners, and should be addressed immediately.

However, for a few species of snakes, turning upside down may all just be an act! Snakes that play dead, like the Eastern hognose snake, are talented actors and put on a show when threatened in hopes to dissuade a predator.

How long do snakes play dead?

Most snakes will play dead for as long as it takes for whatever is threatening them or bothering them to leave. They will keep an eye on their predator, and may start to turn back over if they think the danger is gone. However, if they see that the predator is not actually gone once they’ve righted themselves, they will start their whole act over again.

This act can go on for several minutes, and in some cases, close to an hour!