The visual image of a snake eating its own tail, known as Ouroboros, is famous throughout the world. Used to represent the concept of infinity, the symbol is based on real reptile behavior.
Snakes usually bite themselves due to confusion. They sometimes mistake their tail for food. Also, a snake in captivity may mistake its tail for that of another snake and attack it. Other potential explanations revolve around ill health, either physical or mental.
Can a snake bite itself and die is another question entirely. The answer depends on the breed of snake in question. This article will expand upon the cause of this strange behavior in snakes.
Do Snakes Bite Their Tails?
You would be forgiven for assuming that this behavior is an urban myth. After all, what would a snake possibly achieve from eating their hindquarters?
It’s true, though, as PetMD explains. It is not a commonplace behavior. When a snake bites their tail in error, they will recoil from the experience. If they continually do so and it becomes a habit, there is something more serious happening.
Why Do Snakes Try to Eat Themselves?
There are many reasons why snakes attack themselves. These revolve around the following:
- Environmental stress and disorientation
- Confusion as to what constitutes food
- Aggression toward what they perceive to be another snake
- Old age, or another deteriorating health condition
Let’s take a look at each of these in more detail.
Possibly the most common reason why a snake would eat its tail is stress and agitation. This is likely if the snake is living in captivity.
Snakes are easily stressed. They like to live a certain way and need a habitat that meets their needs. A snake uncomfortable with the temperature in their terrarium, for example, will quickly become stressed. This stress can turn to disorientation, and a snake may eat their tail in such a circumstance.
Other things that could cause stress for a snake include:
- A terrarium that is too small or large
- An erratic or unappealing feeding schedule
- The substrate that does not feel organic or natural
- An insufficient alternation between light and darkness
- Excessive handling
A captive snake that you cannot see is usually a happy and contented snake. Most reptiles would rather hide and burrow than expose themselves to humans.
2) Food Confusion
Confusion and excitement surrounding food is another common explanation for snakes biting themselves. This could take many forms:
- The snake is hungry, and this is making them disorientated. They are instinctively biting anything that moves in the search for food. This is most likely when a pet snake is kept in captivity, where they cannot hunt.
- The snake is so hungry that they eat themselves for nourishment. In the case of pets, this may be due to a lack of feeding. In the wild, a snake may be unable to hunt due to a health problem.
- The snake’s metabolism is running wild. This sometimes happens after eating, especially in captivity. A wild snake would not eat one mouse, for example. They would eat an entire nest of mice. This is instinct, as the snake does not know when it will get to eat again. They are in a feeding frenzy and will try to eat anything that moves.
- In some cases, the snake may also be mistaking their tail for that of another snake. This behavior is common in cannibalistic breeds, such as kingsnakes.
Snakes have a complicated relationship with food. It’s easy for a snake to grow confused where food is concerned, and hurt themselves. If you keep a snake in captivity, watch out for this behavior.
3) Misplaced Aggression
Another reason why a snake may bite itself is through sheer aggression.
This is not the snake striking out against themselves. Instead, they are mistaking their tail for another reptile in their territory. After all, snakes are solitary by their very nature.
This is particularly likely if your pet snake’s terrarium is too small. If they cannot stretch out appropriately, they may mistake their own tail for another snake.
4) Poor Health
Finally, some snakes begin biting themselves when they start reaching the end of their lives. This could denote a neurological condition, or it may suggest that the snake is in pain.
If this applies to a pet snake, take them to a vet. There may be something that can be done for your reptile, or a decision may be necessary. If you notice a wild snake biting themselves, however, walk away.
Call animal control if you are worried about the snake’s wellbeing. Approaching the reptile could result in a snakebite, or they may have an infectious disease.
Are Any Snake Breeds Prone to Eating Themselves?
According to The New Encyclopedia of Snakes, one breed of snake is particularly prone to eating themselves. This is the American rat snake (pantheropis obseleta.) At least two cases have been recorded of American rat snakes eating themselves to death.
Why Do Rattlesnakes Bite Themselves?
The Christian missionary E. Stanley Jones popularized the image of a rattlesnake biting itself. Jones memorably claimed that “a rattlesnake, if cornered, will become so angry it will bite itself.”
Jones was preaching at the time, suggesting that he was speaking metaphorically, but he had a point. A rattlesnake can bite itself out of sheer excitement, leading to confusion. The noise generated by a rattlesnake’s tail could provoke a predatory response, such as biting.
Will a Snake Die if it Bites Itself?
Different snakes have differing levels of resistance to their own venom. More often than not, however, poisonous snakes have some degree of resistance to their own toxicity.
This will be particularly prevalent when it comes to a snake biting itself. Unless the snake has a neurological problem, they will usually bite once and realize their mistake.
This means they will rarely issue enough toxins to do serious harm. Being bitten by another snake of the same species, however, may do a little more damage. Two fighting cobras, for example, could end with a fatality.
Of course, there is more than just the venom of a bite to consider. When a snake sinks their jaws into prey, it can cause serious puncture wounds and bleeding.
This could lead to a snake bleeding to death after being bitten – regardless of any toxins. This is why snakes should always have their own terrarium, as opposed to sharing.
Do Snakes Feel Pain?
Snakes feel pain in the same way as a human. Wild snakes dedicate themselves to avoiding just that. This is why human instinct is sometimes referred to as, ‘the reptile brain.’
This is the part of our brain that warns us of danger. It’s why we instinctively do not put our hands into the fire. Snakes act on instinct, basically only thinking, “can I eat that?” or “will that eat me?” They are not keen on attracting any attention from a predator.
This means that snakes can feel pain from excessive heat in their terrarium. They can feel pain from pressure upon their bones. And yes, they can feel pain from biting their tail. This is why it’s concerning when they continually do so.
Why Do Snakes Eat Their Own Eggs?
This is usually because a snake is attempting to regain energy lost during reproduction. If the snake is feeling exhausted or lazy, they are more likely to eat their eggs.
It’s a matter of instinct for efficiency. The snake wants to find the fastest possible source of food so they can breed again. This may be their eggs – or even their own young.
How to Get a Snake to Stop Biting Itself
The simplest way to stop pet snakes from biting themselves is to ensure they are comfortable. Every snake breed has different needs for their habitat, and they are very particular creatures.
Ensure the temperature, lighting, substrate and noise levels of a terrarium match your snake’s needs. Discuss this with a specialist before you bring your snake home to remove any risk of stress.
Also remember, if you see a snake biting itself in the wild you should not attempt to help. If you prize that snake’s tail from its jaws, they’ll wrap around something else. More often than not, that will be your own fingers or hand.
Snakes biting their own tail is strange behavior. Anything more than an accidental nip is so rare that it’s newsworthy when it happens.
If you keep a pet snake that is regularly biting itself, the reptile is in trouble. Speak to a professional about the behavior, and put a stop to it.
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