There are eight primary causes for this self-mutilation in snakes.
Perhaps you've found this page after seeing images of a snake trying to eat itself online, or maybe you even caught your own pet in the act. Either way, you're in for a pretty unsettling and horrifying sight.
It defies logic for snakes to bite or swallow their own tails, but such bizarre occurrences have been documented. In order to explain this puzzling behavior, we will discuss why snakes consume their own kind.
You can watch this video to get a sense of what we're talking about before continuing, but it contains some graphic violence and is not suitable for young viewers.
In the event of a snake consuming its own body, what would happen?Image
What happens when a snake eats itself, for those who haven't seen it before and who didn't dare click on the link above:
The first, and more intuitive, explanation is that snakes will grab the end of their own tail and begin chowing down on it.
Once the snake has the tail in its mouth, it swallows it whole, mimicking the way it would eat a prey animal.
On the other hand, snakes can bite into their own flesh, sinking their fangs in like they would with a prey animal.
As early evidence of this pattern of behavior, consider the ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake eating its own tail.
The ouroboros has been around since at least Ancient Egyptian times, and it has always been seen as a positive symbol. While this may sound like a good idea in theory, the snake benefits in no way when it actually occurs, leaving us to wonder what motivates them.
Right now, let's take a look at that.
Possible causes of snake self-mutilation.Image
Although snakes eating themselves is well-documented and fairly common knowledge, the exact cause remains a scientific mystery.
There's probably more than one factor at play when a snake tries to ingest itself, but a lack of forethought and a relatively small brain size are likely contributors.
That is to say, a snake's actions are governed by its instinctive reactions to stimuli in its environment; however, if the snake is sick, its normal reactions may be disrupted. This malfunction can cause abnormal behavior, like the snake trying to devour itself.
Possible causes include, but are not limited to, the following:
1) Thermoregulation issues
Like all other reptiles, snakes have no ability to regulate their own body temperature and are therefore classified as "cold-blooded."
They are dependent on the ambient temperature to maintain a consistent internal temperature, making them what we call "poikilotherms." For this reason, snakes and other reptiles frequently bask in the morning sun.
If a snake gets too hot, it can't cool off by sweating or panting like mammals can. Instead, it must find some shade.
However, if a snake is overheated and has no way to cool down, it can become disoriented and confused, and in this state, it may mistake its own tail for prey and try to eat it.
This occurs more frequently in captivity than it does in the wild because captive animals have less freedom to move to different temperatures. This is especially the case if the tank light is left on for too long or if there is nowhere for them to hide where it is cool.
Second, a rapid metabolic rate
If a snake is overheated and unable to cool itself, it may experience hypermetabolism. Because its body is tricked into thinking it is hungry, a snake in this condition may try to eat anything it comes across.
Hypermetabolism in snakes causes them to hunt and eat prey they normally wouldn't bother with, or to hunt even when they aren't hungry. In this state, it might mistake its own tail for food and try to eat it.
When a snake's metabolism speeds up and it loses the ability to regulate its temperature, it may become disoriented and try to eat its own tail out of hunger and confusion.
In addition to trying to eat themselves, stressed snakes may try to eat other snakes as a symptom of their mental illness.
Stressful conditions for snakes include, but are not limited to, confinement in a too-small tank, too-frequent handling, an inconsistent feeding schedule, an overly hot or dirty enclosure, and other environmental factors.
Displacement behaviors are a common response to stress in animals; in the case of snakes, one such behavior may be an attempt at self-eating.
It's also possible the snake is starving due to insufficient feedings.
It's easy to see how not eating can cause you to feel foggy-headed, bad-decision-make, and irritable. Similar to how a starving human can easily mistake their own tail for prey, so can a starving snake.
Reducing Body Fat
This is an interesting theory: when shedding their skins, snakes sometimes try to eat themselves.
When they shed, they lose the protective caps over their eyes. They might even try to eat their own tails right now, thinking they're tasty.
Small aquarium (6)
A snake may mistake its own tail for a prey animal or an enemy if it is kept in a tank too small for it to fully extend its body.
It's not hard to imagine how this could increase the likelihood of such behavior occurring in the context of impaired vision, heightened metabolism, stress, or hunger.
7. Instinct for predation
Since they are predators, snakes are hardwired with the urge to kill and eat other animals. This predatory instinct is muted, but it is never completely extinguished, when they are kept in tanks and fed food they don't need to hunt for themselves.
Then, the snake's predatory instinct is awoken when it sees its tail, possibly when it is stressed or confused, and the snake attacks its own tail, mistaking it for prey.
Some snakes prey on others because they are more likely to try to eat themselves, and this theory is supported by the observation that certain snake species are more likely to try to eat themselves in the wild.
Rat snakes, king snakes, garter snakes, and ribbon snakes are some of the most vulnerable snake species.
8. Being afflicted with a disease or getting older
It's also been noted that snakes with advanced age or chronic health problems are more likely to strike out at themselves. The cause of this is unknown, but if your pet snake is on the older side, you should be prepared for this behavior.
Is it risky for snakes to try to consume their own kind?
Will you need to be concerned if your snake tries to eat itself?
No, this is not the same as a baby sucking its thumb.
It's easy for a snake to get stuck if it tries to swallow itself. Many snakes have evolved backwards-pointing teeth to prevent prey from escaping from their jaws, but these teeth also make it difficult for the snake to release its grip when it has started eating itself.
Snakes are susceptible to suffocation because they can't breathe with their own body jammed down their windpipe. Self-biting snakes can sustain serious injuries from their own teeth punctures and possible blood loss. And even if the snake lets go, infection can set in.
It's possible the snake will go into shock if it keeps eating itself; if that happens, it'll die a rather unpleasant and gory death.
If your snake is trying to eat itself, what should you do?Image
Obviously, then, if you come into a room and find your pet snake trying to swallow its own tail, you need to act quickly, possibly to save its life.
Since overheating is a possible cause of this behavior, turning off the tank light and providing the snake with some breathing space should be the first step. You can also try placing it in a bowl of water or spraying it with water.
By doing so, the snake may free itself, averting the impending disaster; however, its backwards-facing teeth may make this process difficult, in which case the snake will require assistance.
Your best bet is to get the snake to a vet as soon as possible, as it's probably not a good idea to try to pry open its mouth yourself. This has actually happened, so the vet has a good chance of saving the snake before it's too late.
Don't worry too much if your snake bites its tail or any other part of its body just once and then lets go after realizing its mistake. However, if this starts to happen frequently, there may be an underlying health issue that needs to be addressed by a veterinarian.
In what ways can you stop a snake from devouring its own tail?
As snakes chowing down on their own rear ends is never a good thing, preventing this behavior is preferable to trying to save snakes that have already committed this terrible sin.
This means your snake's habitat should be warm enough for it to feel secure, but cool enough for it to relax if it gets too hot. It would benefit from having its own personal pool of water in which to immerse itself.
Many snakes are photosensitive, so make sure to provide it with adequate periods of darkness in addition to light. Imagine how you'd feel if a light were left on all the time; nocturnal snakes, in particular, have the same reaction.
Don't forget to feed the snake on a regular basis, and give it plenty of food. Avoid excessive contact with the snake, and keep it away from noisy environments.
Finally, you should provide adequate space in the snake's tank for the particular species you are keeping.
Simply put, snakes are much less likely to try to eat themselves if they are healthy, content, and well-fed. If you want to reduce the likelihood that your pet snake will engage in this disturbing behavior, try to give it the best environment possible.
Do poisonous snakes have the ability to self-medicate?
You might also be curious as to whether or not a venomous snake can poison itself by biting its tail; the answer is no.
If a snake bites itself, the venom is neutralized by its own antibodies before being excreted by the kidneys as harmless protein.
If a venomous snake bites another member of its own species, the venom will have the same effect as it would on any other animal, and the bitten snake may die.
A Few Closing Remarks
If you watched the video at the top of this post, you know that the sight of a snake trying to eat itself is, to put it mildly, disturbing. However, while this is a possibility, it is thankfully quite uncommon, making it highly unlikely that you will ever witness it in real life.
However, as a snake owner, you should know the possible causes of this behavior so you can create a safe space for your snake. And, if the worst should happen, and your snake begins to eat its own tail, you'll be prepared.
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