Snakes are all reptiles. They belong to Class Reptilia of the Sub-phylum Vertebrata of the Animal Kingdom.
They are both poisonous and non-poisonous in nature. People usually consider all the snakes as venomous, but only about 20% of the snake species are venomous in nature.
The poisonous snakes will kill their prey by the poison while the non-poisonous ones will kill the prey by biting and then squeezing it to kill it by suffocation.
Venom helps the snakes to get on their prey and kill it very easily and later they swallow and feed on it.
On the other hand, non-venomous snakes have also developed some kind of a mechanism to get on their prey without the use of any venom that is by squeezing it and then swallowing it to feed on it.
Let’s know more about it. So, just keep reading!
How Do Snakes Eat?
Snakes don’t chew their food. They bite and hold it and then swallow it. Next they chemically digest it. So there is limited mechanical breakdown.
The snakes eat with the proper systemic movement of the mouth muscles, teeth, and parts of their skull bones. The muscles of the neck and the neck-trunk junction helps in swallowing the food.
They can swallow their food items much bigger than their own head and even bigger than their whole body.
They can highly and elastically expand their jaws as the mouth of a snake is capable of being widely opened by the free articulation of the lower jaw.
Moreover, the absence of pectoral girdle bone and the sternum bone also helps the snakes to swallow larger food items by simply moving the jaws in small steps over the food item.
Some snakes can kill their prey by crushing and then feed on it, for example: Python.
Some can kill their prey by poison and then feed on it, for example: Cobra.
Some snakes are even known to squeeze their prey by wrapping over it and then swallowing their prey directly.
They first bite and hold their prey with the help of their teeth located on both the upper and the lower jaw.
The lower jaw contains the mandible bones with the lower jaw teeth. And the upper jaw contains the maxilla, the palatine bone, and the lateral pterygoid plate where the upper jaw teeth are situated.
The maxilla contains the fangs (a pair of poison teeth), and the teeth of the palatine bones and pterygoid plate help in holding the prey while swallowing it.
The fangs if present are connected via. poison ducts with the poison glands that helps to bite and insert the poison into the prey’s body.
Moreover, the skull of the snake is very free moving and kinetic in nature. With the proper coordination of the quadrate bone, pterygoid bones, palatine bones, squamosal bones, and the maxilla helps in biting and holding the prey before the snake can swallow it.
It is seen that while feeding and swallowing of food the snake can crawl forward as they swallow the food.
They feed and swallow by means of various movements: the striking and biting movement, the esophageal contraction movement, and the undulating movement of the body.
Biting Mechanism Of Snakes
Before properly understanding the feeding and swallowing mechanism of snakes you must first learn how the snake systematically closes and opens its mouth in order to strike and then bite its prey.
After reading this post you can come back to this article and read further to properly understand the concept.
The Feeding Mechanism of Snakes
Let’s understand the feeding mechanism of snakes pointwise:
1. First, the snake will follow the biting mechanism in order to hold the prey. In doing so, the mouth gets opened and the fangs get erected, and the snake with the help of the strips of neck muscles arranged in the neck-trunk junction can throw itself forward with great rapidity and violence in order to bite its prey. They can strike and bite very fast.
2. The fangs help to insert the poison inside the prey, and the lower jaw teeth help in tightly holding the prey.
3. The teeth of the maxillae, palatines, and pterygoids help in holding the prey while it is being swallowed. They also move separately from the rest of the jaws and are used to help “walk” the jaws over prey.
4. The teeth of the lower jaw are alternately hooked further and gets easily inserted into the body of the prey.
5. As the teeth of the lower jaws are inserted, this helps the two halves of the mandibles to move forward alternately. The snake actually moves one mandible at a time. As a result of which mouth and pharynx of the snake are gradually drawn over the prey.
6. Now the prey is made slippery at the same time by the secretion of the buccal (salivary) glands. They have normal mucosal salivary glands in the soft tissues of their mouths that help them in swallowing of the food.
7. During swallowing, the larynx of the snake is projected forward between the rami of the jaws, so that the respiration can be maintained comfortably.
8. All of the above are assisted by proper co-ordination of the powerful jaw and throat muscles, little teeth on the roof of the mouth, and glands that secrete salivary juices that lubricate the prey to get inside. This results in inserting the prey inside the snake’s mouth further.
How do snakes swallow the food: (Swallowing Mechanism of Snakes)
Let’s understand the swallowing mechanism of snakes pointwise:
1. The presence of the snake’s elastic tendons, muscles, and ligaments give the jaw a gymnast’s flexibility to swallow the food.
2. As the mouth opens the lower jaw of the mouth moves down and the lower end of the quadrate bone moves forward.
3. And as the quadrate bone moves forward, this allows the squamosal bone to form a lever with the quadrate to straighten. And this action leads to the separation of the lower jaw from the base of the skull.
4. As the lower jaw separates from the skull, this ultimately leads the mouth and the throat to open wide for the entry of the prey inside.
5. The solid, elongated, sharp-pointed, and recurved teeth of the snakes help to hold the prey and prevent it from struggling as it is being swallowed.
6. Swallowing is done very slowly with the lower jaw’s two mandibles to move forward alternately over the prey.
7. The snake actually moves one mandible at a time. And as a result, the snake crawls forward as they swallow the food.
8. During the swallowing, the glottis is pushed forward between the two rami of the lower jaw so that the snake can breathe easily.
9. During swallowing, as the food passes inside through the snake’s neck, the backbone bends and pushes the food from the jaws along a substantial length of the body to the stomach.
10. Once the food is in the throat, it is pushed down by two kinds of movements. It’s the esophageal contraction movement and next the undulating movement of the body’s backbone.
11. In the esophageal contraction movement, the muscles in the walls of the esophagus contract to squeeze the esophagus and push the food down.
12. In the undulating movement, the backbone and its parts move forward over the body of the food and as a result, the food is being swallowed. This literally makes it look like the snake is crawling forward over the food inside it.
13. As the food is being swallowed, digestion begins in the stomach and is very rapid. It’s so rapid that the first part of the prey is partly digested before the hind-parts have been swallowed.
How do snakes eat large prey?
Yes, snakes can eat larger prey than the size of their head. It’s all because of their flexible muscles, ligament, and very freely moving skulls that help them intake large-sized food.
Snakes like Anaconda, Python can eat humans, cows, buffaloes, etc. which is 100 times larger than the snake’s mouth.
Snakes tend to eat rats, birds, frogs, gophers, deer, and other snakes as well.
They do not have any kind of mastication system in their mouth in order to chew and masticate the food. So, it becomes highly necessary for them to intake the whole prey.
They do not chew their food so they must eat their catch whole. Their jaw is structured in such a way that it allows the mouth to open wider than their own body in order to swallow their whole prey.
The two lower jaw parts (mandibles) move independently of one another. The lower jaw can even properly detach from the base of the skull to allow the proper entry of very large shaped animals.
Moreover, the two mandibles of the lower jaw are joined at the front by an elastic ligament that allows them to spread apart. This also allows the wide opening of the snakes mouth for the proper entry of very large shaped animals.
As we have learned in their feeding and swallowing mechanism that the muscles of their body and their hook-shaped teeth help push the food toward the stomach. This helps them swallow large-sized food very easily.
Moreover, the proper co-ordination of the various muscles and the 2 types of movements viz. the the esophageal contraction movement, and the undulating movement helps in the proper swallowing of larger prey by the snakes.
What types of food do snakes eat?
Snakes can eat preys that are larger or smaller than them. Just like Anaconda that can feed on a prey like buffalo, or a snake like the rattlesnake that can feed on an small animal like mice.
Every species of snake have a different diet. Also remember that snakes always feed on animal matter, never plant material.
Snakes can eat rats, birds and their eggs, mice, chipmunks, frogs, gophers, and other small rodents. Example: Python, Black mambas, etc.
Some species are also known to consume insects or earthworms, crickets, nightcrawlers, guppies, silversides, tadpoles. Example: Eastern worm snake, Garter snakes, etc.
Very large snakes will even eat deer, pigs, monkeys, humans, and other large prey. Example: Anaconda, Reticulated python, Burmese pythons, and African rock pythons, etc.
Snakes are also known to eat other snakes, or the members of the same species.
Kingsnake is known for the fact that it will eat other snakes, including venomous snakes like rattlesnakes. Example: Male King Cobra can eat the female King Cobra if she disagrees to mate with him.
The presence of egg-eating snakes has also been seen. The egg-eating snake will only eat eggs. Example: African egg-eating snake, Indian egg-eating snake, etc
Snakes like the Eastern indigo snake can eat just anything they can catch and fit into their mouths. Their diet includes rattlesnakes, small tortoises, frogs, rodents, birds, etc.
How long a snake can go without eating?
In very common it has been seen that snakes can stay for about six months to one year without eating. In rare scenerios, it has also been that a snake can go without eating more for a maximum of two years.
When snakes have taken a full-fledged food, they can store the energy from the swallowed food and can lower their metabolic rates by up to 70%, thus allowing them to survive prolonged periods without food.
In snakes it has been seen that during winter they can go into a period of excessive inactivity because they are cold blooded. And also during the days when their food supply is very low they can stay easily.
It’s because during such periods of inactivity they minimize their energy consumption and lower their standard metabolic rates.
They are just very good at not using a lot of energy and protein they consume because they are cold blooded reptiles.
Some snakes like the Ball python, Anaconda have been in the record for surviving for about six months without food.
Snakes like the Python can even go without eating for more than 9 months. They only eat if they are hungry, especially during shedding or illness.
Snakes like the Red-tail Boa needs to eat after every 1 month. On the other hand, snakes like the Eastern Brown Treesnake, Red-banded Treesnake, Pandanus Snake can eat after every 1-2 weeks.
Baby snakes need to eat more often i.e. at every few weeks. But as they grow older and become adult snakes they eat larger prey and can go for much longer periods of time without even eating any food.