While most snakes eat rodents and small animals, some species feed on ants. Even so, ants do not constitute the main meal for any snakes. More often than not, snakes will seek out other foods to complement their diet of ants.
The size of the snake is a major determinant as to whether it would feed on ants or not. Primarily, the smallest snake species are the most likely to seek out ants and eat them. It is highly improbable to find a relatively big snake, such as a boa constrictor, eating ants.
Read More: What Do Boa Constrictors Eat?
Also, it is not uncommon for juveniles of certain snake species to feed on ants and other insects until they grow bigger. For example, younger garter snakes, corn snakes, and milk snakes tend to eat insects until they are old enough to swallow rodents.
Which Species of Snakes Eat Ants?
There are several species of snakes that feed on ants. They are mostly small snakes that belong to the snake families Anomalepidae, Leptotyphlopidae, and Typhlopidae. However, even among these snakes, ants are not the main meal. More often than not, the snakes have to complement the ants with other foods like arthropods and spiders. The following are snakes that feed on ants.
1. Blind snakes (Anilios nigrescens)
Blind snakes belong to the families anomalepids and typhloids. They are tiny snakes that resemble worms with their cylindrical bodies, blunt heads, and short tails. They are also slender and hardly grow to more than 30cm.
Anilios nigrescens are referred to as blind snakes because of their degenerate eyes that are located beneath opaque head scales on their head. Therefore, it is assumed that they cannot see properly.
This species of snake is arguably the greatest consumer of ants out of any snake species. Besides their small physique that makes it impossible to consume bigger animals, these snakes also tend to live close enough to ant colonies. They primarily eat ant larvae and pupae. While it is not scientifically proven, it is believed that the chitinous bodies of adult ants may be harmful to the snake’s digestive system.
Blind snakes access ants by slithering into ants’ nests cautiously to avoid detection. Ants are territorial and don’t take it kindly when an outsider trespasses into their colonies. So, these snakes have to be on the lookout to avoid being noticed and attacked by adult ants, possibly fatally.
Some blind snakes adapt a quick wolfing mechanism. This is a survival mechanism that the snakes use while in the nests to avoid capture. Once the snake has wolfed down at least three of four bites, it darts out of the nest and flees, safe from imminent death from ants.
Evolution and adaptation have enabled some blind snakes to develop protective mechanisms against ants. These species squirt out a mixture of excrement and a clear liquid containing a defensive chemical that keeps ants away.
Apart from ants, blind snakes also feed on termites and other soft-bodied arthropods. They also consume insect eggs when they run into them.
2. Thread snakes (Leptotyphlopidae)
Thread snakes belong to the snake family of leptotyphloids. They bear similarities to blind snakes, especially appearance-wise: they are slender, short, and shiny- you would be forgiven to mistake them for earthworms. They are also known as slender blind snakes.
Just like blind snakes, thread snakes are burrowers. The snakes find ants by following pheromone trails that these insects leave behind as they move to and from their nests.
This snake species prefers ant eggs, larvae, and pupae for the same reasons as blind snakes. Even though most species of thread snakes prefer ants, they also consume other insects and arthropods, such as cockroaches, beetles, crickets, fly maggots, centipedes, and millipedes.
3. Smooth Green Snakes (Opheodrys vernalis)
Smooth green snakes are insectivores, and their main diet consists of insects, including ants. They are relatively small, growing to a length of 30 to 66 cm. Also, they live in vegetated areas and are mostly found on the ground beneath rocks, logs, and other debris. You can also spot them climbing low bushes.
Besides ants, pheodrys vernalis also eat crickets, grasshoppers, caterpillars, spiders, centipedes, snails, and amphibians.
Related: Do Snakes Eat Bugs and Insects?
Why Do Snakes Eat Ants?
First of all, snakes are carnivorous animals. This means that their diet is strictly dependent on other animals. Most snakes consume rodents as their main food, with smaller animals and birds on the side. Bigger snakes such as the boa and anaconda eat bigger mammals like monkeys and wild pigs.
So, what factors influence these snakes to eat ants?
1. The size of the body
Larger snake species consume larger prey. For these species, consumption of ants may be a hobby or by chance. This is because the ants’ nutritional proteins are not substantial to the huge body sizes. Therefore, it is the smallest of snakes, such as blind snakes, that eat ants.
Seasons also determine a snake’s diet. Most snake species will eat whatever animal is in abundance at the time. Therefore, if there is an abundance of ants in a particular season as opposed to other animals, then snakes will resolve to eat them. However, this only applies to insectivorous snakes.
3. Geographical Location
The location of the snake influences the diet of snakes. Snakes hunt in their ecological niche. You would not find a snake going out of its environment to hunt in a new one.
For example, aquatic snakes live on fish and other water animals. These water snakes would have a hard time surviving on land because it is not their niche. Similarly, a tree python’s main diet consists of birds because they are easily available.
In the same way, snakes that live close to ant nests are likely to eat ants. Blindsnakes, thread snakes, and green snakes live and forage on the ground, where anthills are mostly found.
How Do Snakes Find and Consume Ants?
Snakes possess different mechanisms that they use during foraging to find food. Some have a heightened sense of smell, and others have heat sensors on their heads. To find ants, most insectivorous snakes follow trails left by the ants as they move around.
When ants are moving to and from their nests, they leave behind a chemical trail known as pheromone, which they use to communicate with each other. Snakes that forage on the ground follow these trails to find ant nests.
When snakes find ants, they feed on them by sucking the contents of the larvae, pupae, and mature ants. Since the exoskeleton has no nutritional value, they do not ingest it.
How Ants React to Snakes Invading Their Nests
When a snake trespasses into an ant’s territory, ants first determine whether it’s friendly or a foe. If the intruder is a foe, they start to evacuate their young and the queen immediately.
Just like an army, the ants leave behind a few to mount a scathing attack on the intruder. Ant bites can be deadly enough to kill a snake as small as a blind snake or a thread snake. They do this to protect the colony.
If the ants identify an intruding snake as friendly, they can allow it into their nest to take shelter. In the symbiotic relationship formed, the snake gets rid of intruders, and the nest stays safe. The communication mode used by the ants and the snake is the ants’ antennae. The ants touch the snake with their antennae to communicate their appeal for security.
Only a few snake species eat ants. The majority feed on rodents and other small animals. Snakes that feed on ants primarily belong to Anomalepidae, Leptotyphlopidae, and Typhlopidae snake families. They include blind snakes and thread snakes.
Other snake species have the occasional ant as a snack and out of necessity, but they generally cannot survive wholly on an ant diet. If you decide to have snakes as pets, make sure to understand their species and their dietary needs.
Joe is a freelance writer for FaunaFacts. Joe has written extensively about snakes for the site, but also contributes content about a range of animals.