Playing dead, also known as tonic immobility, is commonly observed in snakes when they come into physical contact with a predator. They impersonate death through a variety of means.
The most common way to appear dead is to change their physical appearance and movements. To appear lifeless, they go motionless for a brief time and frequently lie in unusual positions, such as lying on their backs. Aside from appearing dead, these snakes emit unpleasant odors that deter predators from attacking them.
List of Snakes That Play Dead
1. Asian Tentacled Snake
The tentacled snake is a rear-fanged aquatic snake and is the only snake species with two tentacles at the front of its head. They are tiny, ranging in size from 20 to 35 inches. They are native to Southeast Asia and have two colorations: spotted or striped, with both ranging from light tan, dark gray to brown. It spends its entire life submerged in dirty water. Even though it has venomous fangs, it is not dangerous to humans.
The Asian tentacled snake is not like other snakes that pretend to be dead. This snake is an expert at thanatosis. It spends the majority of its life motionless.
It simulates death by becoming rigid to increase its camouflage, seemingly imitating a dry stick of wood. He relaxes then when the danger has passed. This snake can remain motionless for up to 30 minutes. It maintains a rigid posture while hunting.
2. Eastern Kingsnake
The eastern kingsnake is also known as the Chain kingsnake. It is a harmless snake of the colubrid species found in Mexico and the United States. They are large-bodied snakes, with adults ranging from 36 to 60 inches.
They are resistant to the venom of native venomous snakes, and they also eat lizards, amphibians, small mammals, and turtle eggs, which they kill by constriction. They have a black body with thin yellow to pale bands running their length, forming a chainlike pattern and a shiny appearance.
When confronted, the common kingsnake will usually hiss at the potential attacker before beginning the fake-death technique. Before launching into its act, the common kingsnake adds a few fillips; he uses a tail vibration to mimic a rattlesnake, then poops and smears fecal onto the enemy by wriggling frantically. He then curls up into a ball and pretends to be dead, hoping to scare off the intruder.
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3. Dice Snake
The Dice Snake is a nonvenomous snake of the Colubridae family primarily found in Africa, Europe, and Asia. The maximum length is thirty-nine to fifty-one inches. Their coloration ranges from greyish green to brownish or almost black with some dark spots on its back, and the belly is sometimes orange or bright yellow with black spots, resembling dice, thus the name.
Dice snakes are terrestrial and prefer living near water sources, particularly in the woods. When they are threatened, they play dead as a last resort to protect themselves from predators. They also emitted a foul-smelling secretion from their cloaca.
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4. Eastern Hognose Snakes
Eastern Hognose snakes can be found all over the world, and they all perform thanatosis. However, it is found primarily in the eastern half of the United States and prefers woodland habitats. They can grow up to 46 inches in length and feed on salamanders, frogs, rodents, toads, lizards, eggs, and small snakes.
These snakes get their name from their upturned scale on the tip of their snout, and they use it to dig in loose sand and soil. By nature, they are only mildly venomous. When confronted with something they perceive as dangerous, these snakes put on quite a show.
Compared to other snakes, they do a much better job of selling the act. When attacked, it hisses loudly in preparation for a vicious snake, sucks in air, and aggressively spreads its skin around its head and neck in imitation of a cobra.
If that doesn’t deter the opponent, the hognose snake takes a different approach: it rolls over on its back, tongue hanging out of its mouth, and finally freezes in place while excreting an extremely foul odor from its body to resemble a dead and rotting animal. Even if the predator tries to roll it onto its belly, the hognose snake goes into a convulsion and flips back.
5. Grass Snake
The grass snake is also known as the ringed snake or the water snake. This snake is a wetland species, but it is also found in dry grasslands and gardens, particularly near ponds. It can be found primarily from England to the eastern Mediterranean and beyond. They hunt amphibians, small mammals, and birds, as well as fish.
They lack venom and defend themselves by pretending to be dead to fool the predator. Due to its flexibility, grass snakes can curl into a ball and sink into the tight grass or slide into cracks with narrow width. It rolls over to show the clear black and white checkerboard markings on its underside and plays dead by hanging its tongue out and rolling its eyes over its skull.
It then adds a stink bomb to his death by emitting a foul-smelling and foul-tasting musk from their anal glands- possibly making itself less appealing to eat while also repelling the threat.
6. Large-Eyed Bamboo Snake
The Large-Eyed Bamboo Snake is a venomous rear-fanged snake known as the Chinese false cobra. This snake is found primarily in Asia. They have a wide range of colors, ranging from brownish to almost blackish, with short crossbars.
This snake is known for its death feigning behavior. When it comes into contact with large animals or humans, it pretends to be dead. It can remain motionless for up to ten minutes. Following this pause, the snake moves its tongue for about a minute before fully resuming and moving along.
7. Rinkhals Snake
Although not a true cobra, this snake is also referred to as the ring-necked spitting cobra. Individuals from the highveld are typically grey to blackish, with two or three white bars on the chest. It prefers wetlands where it can feed on frogs.
Rinkhals Snake only plays dead as a last resort in defense. When threatened, it will most likely flee, but if cornered, it will generally stand its ground, form a hood, and spit, flicking the head forward to mimic a strike, much like a Cobra.
To act dead, it turns upside down, mouth gaping and tongue lolling. It may even twitch his tongue to ensure that it picks up dirt to add to the realism. To keep predators at bay, it becomes utterly motionless in front of them.
8. Texas Indigo Snake
The Texas Indigo snake got its name from its iridescent ventral scales, which appear blackish-purple in bright light. These snakes can grow up to 7 feet long and can be found all over Texas. They are not venomous; instead, they prey on venomous rattlesnakes and are immune to their venom.
These giant snakes are known to impersonate death when threatened. Unlike other snakes that play dead, Texas Indigo snakes coil their bodies first and then become immobile. They even part their jaws to give the appearance of slackness.
While playing dead, the snake wiggles its tongue; however, the snake’s tongue remains motionless in some cases. Suppose they are manipulated by hand during this thanatosis. In that case, they will rotate their bodies to remain belly down, but otherwise will remain still and believe that this will weaken the attention of their predators.
Why Do Some Snakes Play Dead?
1. To draw prey
The vast majority of snakes do not pursue prey. Instead, they prefer to remain motionless in wait for their prey to approach, also relying on camouflage to stay hidden while they do so. The snake strikes quickly and decisively when its target is within striking distance. The Asian tentacled snake, for example, is known to hunt fish by waiting.
2. To protect themselves from potential predators
Several snake species impersonate death by going into a comatose state with no apparent movement and emitting a foul odor from the body to appear non-threatening.
Most predators abandon their pursuit since they believe it might be covered with diseases and parasites. The snake usually waits until the threatening animal has lost interest or isn’t paying attention before springing to life and fleeing.
Many different types of snakes play dead; this condition is known as thanatosis. They roll over to lie on their back, mouth open, looking dead, and then remain motionless, waiting for the predator to give up and leave.
Some even emit a foul odor to imitate the smell of a deceased animal. Predators quickly lose interest in dead prey, so snakes that use this strategy often escape unharmed. However, some snakes use this technique to attract prey.
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.