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Are Snakes Scavengers?

Snakes are both scavengers and hunters. It varies depending on species and environment. Generally speaking, snakes employ what is called active foraging and ambush hunting. However, they are also known to scavenge for dead animals.

Are Snakes Scavengers

Snakes typically hunt for food actively. They move around and look for prey in the wild. Sea snakes will also hunt underwater. Some other snakes will sit and wait, like large pythons, and ambush prey.

However, there are many snakes that eat dead animals if the opportunity presents itself, making them scavengers.

What is a Scavenger Snake?

Kingsnake

To understand scavenging, we need to differentiate scavenging from foraging and hunting.

  1. Scavenging is the process of finding food that is ready and available to eat. A scavenging snake is one that does not kill its food. Instead, it looks for dead animals and eat them. Any animal that does not hunt or kill its food is a scavenger.

One should not mistake scavenging with foraging.

  1. Foraging is a method by which a snake still hunts for food, albeit the food is not something that it must kill. For example, there are snakes that eat eggs such as the Dasypeltinae snake from the family Colubridae.

What these snakes do is to rely on their sense of smell to hunt for eggs. They have large mouths that can swallow these eggs, and then crack them once the eggs are in their stomachs.

  1. Hunting occurs when snakes stalk and pounce on living creatures so they can eat them. Active hunting is a process by which a snake feels vibrations on the ground for movement, and then the snake follows that vibration.

Coupled with its sense of smell and heat vision, the snake comes close and strikes the prey.

Are Snakes True Scavengers?

Kingsnake

Generally, snake is not a true scavenger. While scavenging is part of their activities, they hunt and forage as well.

A true scavenger is an animal that eats nothing but carrion (dead meat), like the Turkey vulture.

Snakes would only eat a carron if the environment is safe and it is hungry. In captivity, many snakes are scavengers because they have no choice. They are in a cage and the only option they have is to eat thawed mice or rats.

Many snakes eat carrion in captivity. Owners do not want to feed live animals to the snakes for fear of the snakes getting hurt.

Live animals also carry parasites and bacteria, which can harm the snake. Live feeding is generally discouraged as the snakes can get wounds from the prey’s bites.

What Kinds of Snakes are Scavengers?

Bushmaster Snake

In the wild, there are studies showing that pit vipers and other piscivorous snakes scavenge. They typically look for carcasses of rodents, fish, frogs, and other snakes. 

Here are the families of snakes that are known to scavenge:

  • Colubridae – these snakes include the Green Tree, Brown Tree, Freshwater, and garter snakes.
  • Viperidae – snakes in this family are the vipers such as the cottonmouths, rattlesnakes, copperheads, green vipers, etc.
  • Acrochordidae – these are aquatic snakes typically found in the eastern coast of Asia. A good example is the wart snake. Many people consider this family as a sub-family of the Coubridae.
  • Boidae – these are boas and pythons; these snakes are non-venomous, and they include the green anaconda, the Timor python, African rock python, and many others.
  • Elapidae – the elapids are venomous snakes that include the black mamba and the king cobra. There are more than 55 genera of cobras and 360 species.

In the wild, scientists noted that dead animals are scavenged rather than left alone for decomposition. Scavenging is an important aspect of an ecosystem.

The same thing happens in oceans. There are many studies showing that snakes scavenge for fish, frogs, snakes, and birds. Some pythons also eat butchered feral hogs.

Why is it that Most Snakes are not Scavengers?

black snake

When animals die, there is usually a larger carnivore that finds it and eats it, so snakes rarely find recently dead food.

As such, snakes have to forage and hunt for food. Snakes also do not like confrontation with other animals.

Although snakes are powerful, they have no limbs that would help them run. They are fast and agile but competing against other animals for food is not something snakes will actively do.

Snakes will typically fly in fear rather than approach another animal to fight for food.

Because snakes are solitary and afraid of becoming prey, they prefer to hunt live animals. If snakes would rely on carrion to survive, other animals would outsmart them.

Snakes evolved as they now are because of the need to hunt for food. They have a keen sense of smell, and some species even have a night vision or heat sensors. Pythons and boas, on the other hand, have powerful muscles that asphyxiate their prey.

This is not to say that they will not eat carron. They just do not use scavenging as their primary method for hunting food. They rely on their senses to hunt, and they will use these senses to find food.

Why Do Some Snakes Only Like Live Rodents?

Eastern Brown Snake

Many snake owners will attest to the fact that some snakes will refuse to eat a frozen rodent. They seem to like the thrill of the kill.

But science suggest snakes do like carrion meat (dead meat), so long as they can correctly identify it as prey.

There is one scientific study that focused its attention to brown tree snakes to determine scavenging behavior.

In this study, the researchers used both dead and live mice as baits. They found out that the snakes were equally satisfied by both dead and live mice.

The snakes used cues from both types of prey. With the carcass lures, the chemical cues were enough to attract the snakes. They were able to smell the prey without visual cues or vibration.

However, occasionally visual cues were needed for the snakes to realize that there was prey around the area. This includes sensing heat and sensing movement. Without seeing the live mice, the snakes did not know that there was prey around.

Overall, the study suggests that carrion is still attractive to snakes as long as they recognize it as a viable food option. If their heat sensors don’t sense the warmth of an animal or they don’t sense it moving, they only have chemical cues to go by. In cases where the dead rodent doesn’t have a strong smell, they may become confused about their prey and pass it up. But if they recognize a dead rodent as a potential food source, they’ll eat it up!

Conclusion

Snakes are both scavengers and hunters. They are also foragers. However, one cannot classify snakes as exclusive scavengers.

The primary method of snakes to look for food is hunting. Scavenging is rather an opportunistic activity, but not their main method to find sustenance. There are thousands of species of snakes, but none is a true scavenger.

Snakes develop scavenging behavior in captivity because it is what they are forced to do. Many pet owners do not feed their snakes with live food. As such, these snakes somehow lose their hunting capabilities after many generations down the line.

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