Yes, snakes are intelligent. They can track their prey, know their boundaries, and communicate through chemical messages through Jacobson’s organ.
Snakes can “recognize” people through the person’s scent, but not in the same capacity as dogs or primates. Nevertheless, a snake has enough level of intelligence to:
- Track and hunt prey
- Remember cues
- Cooperate with each other
- Control their venom
Today, we will explore how intelligent snakes are and what makes them one of the most formidable hunters in the wild.
Do Snakes Think?
Snakes not only process sensory information, but they also have emotions.
David Holtzman, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester, discovered that snakes have a capacity for learning. The result of his study is in stark opposition to what many other snake experts claimed.
Dr. Holtzman also found out that snakes mostly rely on sight to get around and that their brains process sensory information to make decisions.
In his study, Holtzman used 24 captive-bred corn snakes. His challenge for these snakes was for them to get out of a plastic tub, through a hole. He mounted cards on the tub walls and floor to give visual and tactile cues to the snakes.
His team found out that if snakes are coaxed in the right direction to escape, they recall how the cue cards are positioned. The snakes found their way out more quickly than their first time in the tub in the next trials.
Holtzman shared that the snakes took 700 seconds to find the hole the first time but only about 400 seconds the second time. Some are smart enough to learn it well that it only took them 30 seconds to find the hole after several sessions.
Here, we can see that snakes have developed memory skills through what we call ‘operant conditioning’ – or learning through repetition. (Other animals that have been trained using operant conditioning include birds, dogs, cats, and rats).
Related: Do Snakes Cuddle?
Can Snakes Remember a Person?
Yes and no. Snakes remember a person through their scent. However, the snake does not have enough brainpower to remember a person in a deterministic way.
What humans can do, however, is to train a snake to tolerate human presence.
What snakes have, like many other animals, is episodic memory. It is the ability of an animal to associate its feelings with an event or location. If a snake experienced pain in one location, it would not go back there. Episodic memory is key to an animal’s survival.
Since snakes have poor eyesight and hearing, they rely on their sense of smell. If they do not get hurt every time they can smell a human, then they do not respond with fear or aggression.
However, snakes do not have big enough of a brain to process memory, much less recognize their owners.
One study sought to put the issue to rest. The findings indicate that snakes can discriminate between familiar and unfamiliar humans. However, snakes can only do this in enhanced environments, such as in human homes where pets are kept as snakes.
Can Snakes Understand You?
Despite their capacity to think, hunt, and hide, snakes do not understand humans.
Their brains aren’t powerful enough to comprehend words, and it’s unlikely that they communicate with one another beyond rudimentary mechanisms.
However, as with most animals, they probably can understand body language to some extent. They understand ‘flight or fight’ responses because it’s built into their hunting and defense DNA. They will see something and assess whether it is a threat based on whether it is moving towards the snake at a threating pace, or possibly retreating.
Are Snakes Smart Enough to Hunt?
Yes, snakes are smart enough to hunt. But they do not hunt in ways that mammals do.
A snake hunts primarily with its sense of smell. A snake flicks its tongue in and out to “smell” the environment.
What makes it smart is that it knows the scent of food. The smell it gets is what drives it to a prey’s location.
Some snakes, like the pit viper, have special heat sensors. They can detect the size of an animal from this heat vision. The bones on their jaws also pick up vibrations from moving animals, giving them an advantage.
These sensory abilities are things we humans don’t even have – so they have an advantage over us, in some ways!
While these tools are present in many snakes, it does not constitute a high level of intelligence. If anything, it can be said that a snake is a smart hunter because it is patient, and it can process information to its advantage.
The debate about this, however, is that snakes hunt with instinct rather than logic. Mammals, on the other hand, can “plan” their attack. One can see an example of coordinated attacks with lions and wolves that hunt in groups.
Still, one cannot argue that snakes are not smart enough to hunt. Although snakes do not think, their brains are hardwired to process information from other sensory organs. They know when to strike, and when they do, it is precise.
Are Some Snakes Smarter Than Others?
Yes, some snakes are smarter than others. Not all snakes make a nest, but King Cobra does. As such, many scientists are in consensus that King Cobra is the smartest of them all.
Going back to the experiment of David Holtzman, he was able to prove that corn snakes can perform better than other breeds.
Holtzman also noted that the age of the snake has an impact on its degree of intelligence. In his study, he said that juvenile snakes, those who are three years old below, are more adaptable. They are also more resourceful. The old ones, however, are confused and had difficulties interpreting the visual cues.
Snakes are intelligent creatures but not on the same level as mammals. As cold-blooded reptiles, the size of their brains is what limits their capacity to think and remember. However, what they lack in intelligence, they make up with power. They have venom, powerful jaws, a heat sensor, and a heightened sense of smell. Put all of these together, and what the world gets is an intelligent and dangerous hunter.