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Reptile & Amphibian Center

What do Snakes Look Like?

By Cheryl Lock



While certain distinctive characteristics of a snake’s anatomy are sure to give it away — long, limbless bodies, short tails and sharp jaws, to name a few — there are many other things about a snake that even an animal enthusiast might not readily know. For example, did you know that snakes are carnivorous reptiles, or that they lack both eyelids and external ears?


If you’re considering becoming a snake owner, whether or not you have the time, space and money to properly take care of this animal should be top on the list of questions to ask yourself before diving into ownership. “A snake is just like any other pet — it needs to go to the vet, get proper nutrition, it needs space, the right environment and exercise,” said Mike Wines, a herpetologist and lead reptile keeper at the Turtle Back Zoo in New Jersey. “Plus, the initial set-up can be very expensive and states have different laws on which snakes people can own. It’s best to check these laws, and with the landlord, before buying.”


Another question to consider is where the snake came from. “Was it captive bred — which is preferable — or wild caught,” says Wines. “Never buy a wild caught snake, or take one from the wild to make a pet. Leave wild ones to fill the niche they need to fill.” Remember, just because you bought the snake from a breeder, pet store or trade show, it does mean that the animal was captive bred. In general, captive bred snakes are easier to handle and have less health issues.


While snakes vary widely in both size and color, other characteristics about the animal may remain relatively equal. Once you’ve done your research and decided you’re ready to take home a snake, here are six striking characteristics that you can expect from your new slithery, scaly friend.


1. Snakes Are Legless

Snakes come in many body shapes, from the size of a toothpick to almost 30-feet long, and, although none of them have legs, that’s not what makes them snakes. “There are lizards that have no legs, too,” says Wines. “The difference is that snakes have no eyelids or external ears.”


The snake’s lack of limbs actually works to its benefit in the wild, according to Leo Spinner, herpetologist and founder and owner of The Spotted Turtle Herpetological Institute. “A snake’s legless body enables it to exist in situations that may be difficult for animals possessing limbs,” he said. “A limbless body enables a snake to make a quick getaway, reducing friction and allowing the snake to squeeze into spaces that otherwise may not be accessible.”


Some scientists believe that snakes may have lost their legs over time and were formerly designed like their close cousins, the lizards, Spinner said. “This isn’t widely accepted in the scientific community, though, because there is no fossil record showing snakes from the past with anything more than what they have now,” he added.


2. Snakes Have Scales

If you’ve ever touched a snake before, you may have noticed its unique texture. “All snakes have scales, and under their scales they have skin very similar to ours,” Wines said. This gives the snake have a strong sense of feeling throughout its entire body.


3. All Snakes Shed Their Skin

As your snake grows, he will shed his skin, including a scale that covers the eye. “They shed all at once for several reasons,” Wines said. “The first is for growth. As they grow, like humans, they need new skin to fit their larger bodies. While shedding all their skin at one time, they can also get rid of parasites, like ticks.”


When it comes to their eyes, although the snake has no actual eyelids, the transparent scale that covers and protects their delicate eyes is called a spectacle, Spinner said. “Having a spectacle rather than eye lids reduces friction in their natural environment and allows the snake to recognize movement by a potential threat, even while sleeping.” When a snake is ready to shed, the skin will turn dull and the eyes will change to a milky blue color. At this time, the snake has poor vision and will usually not eat so leave them alone until they shed.


4. Snakes Use Their Tongues to Smell

A snake has a forked tongue, which it uses along with its Jacobson’s organ (an olfactory sense organ found in many animals) to sharpen its sense of smell. In order to use it, they flick their forked tongue out, collecting particles on the air while doing so.


“When the tongue comes back in, they rub the particles along the Jacobson’s organ on the roof of their mouth,” Wines said. “That is why their sense of smell is powerful. As they travel along and smell prey in the distance, they know to go either right or left depending on which fork of their tongue smelled the prey the strongest. If they smelled it on the right side, they go right. It’s kind of like playing the hotter or colder game.”


5. Snakes Have Many Different Body Types

The shape of a snake will probably determine the type of predator it is. “Short and fat snakes are often sit-and-wait type predators,” Wines said. “They sit, camouflaged, waiting for prey to come by.”


The long and sleek variety, meanwhile, monitor through the trees and across grassy meadows for their prey. “Some have a flattened tail and lung that helps them with buoyancy for swimming through the ocean, too,” Wines said. “The body of a snake is determined by the niche they evolved to fill.”


6. A Snake’s Body Types Makes it Unique

While most snakes maintain the traditional appearance of a snake, not all snakes are created equal. For example, some can sense heat from pits in their faces between their eyes and nostrils (like boa constrictors and pit vipers). Generally, these types of snakes have evolved to eat endothermic, or warm blooded, creatures. Some snakes have live births, while others lay eggs. Some are venomous; others are not.


“There are so many differences between snakes, it is hard to describe a basic snake,” Wines said. “There are as many differences as there are species of snakes, which makes studying them a never-ending pursuit.” 



Image:  / Shutterstock

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