Outforia Quicktake: Key Takeaways
- Snakes mate in two ways: mating balls or one-on-one encounters, depending on species and environmental factors
- Both male and female snakes have a cloaca for mating and waste, with males having two penises and females able to store and select sperm
- Approximately 70% of snake species lay eggs, while 30% give live birth
- Some snakes can reproduce through parthenogenesis, or “virgin birth,” without mating with a male
- Snakes have unique abilities such as infrared heat detection, and most are non-aggressive and solitary creatures.
It’s no secret that snakes are weird. They have no limbs, they swallow food whole, and they can even see in the infrared spectrum. So, of course, their mating rituals, body parts, and the way they give birth are just as extraordinary.
Snakes mate one of two ways: either with a single partner like other animals or in a massive, half-conscious ritual called a mating ball. Sometimes they can even mate with themselves.
In this article, we’ll discuss what makes a snake a snake, how snakes mate, how they care for their young, and learn some fun facts about the many slithering snake species.
What Are Snakes?
Before we discuss how snakes mate, it might be helpful to know exactly what a snake is.
Snakes are reptiles, meaning they’re cold-blooded animals with scales. They live in a wide variety of environments. From the oceans and rivers to the mountains and deserts, you can usually find some snakes.
Because they’re reptiles, they need a fairly warm season to survive. You won’t find snakes far to the north or south.
Snakes and lizards are closely related, but snakes don’t have limbs. No arms or legs for them, just a long body with a head and tail. You can see the evolution of snakes in action, though. They have bones that used to be legs near the base of their tail but are no longer used.
Snake’s bodies are covered in overlapping scales. They have segmented skulls connected by elastic sinews. It lets many snakes unhinge their jaws and swallow large prey whole.
Snakes move along the ground by pulling themselves forward. This is done with either folds of skin or loops of their bodies.
Most snakes only have one lung that actually works. All their paired organs are arranged, one in the front and one in the back, to accommodate their body shape.
The length of their body is protected by ribs. Snakes can have hundreds of ribs, depending on their species and size. Covering the ribs are strong muscles that help them move, coil around prey, and give their organs extra padding.
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So How Do Snakes Mate?
The exact mating ritual for a snake depends on what species of snake you’re looking at. Generally, snakes mate in one of two different ways.
The first option is a mating ball. As snakes come out of hibernation, the males usually wake up first. The females begin to release their scent hormones that signal to mate as they wake up.
Male snakes locate females using this smell. Since the female isn’t fully awake, she isn’t particularly receptive. So males swarm over the female en mass, forming a literal ball of snakes. For lack of a better description, they try to force their way into the semi-conscious female and be the first one in.
This strategy is how snakes like garter snakes and green anacondas do it.
Generally, this type of mating is reserved for snakes in temperate regions where the warm part of the year is shorter. It’s rarer, meaning only the minority of snakes mate this way.
The second type of snake mating ritual is more what you expect. A male and female snake find each other using pheromones. The male will rub and vibrate against the female, sometimes even flicking his tongue against her. When she’s ready, then they do the deed.
If more than one male appears, the males vie for the female in non-lethal combat. The two will rise straight up off the ground and fight to push the other snake’s head back to the ground. The winner gets to mate while the other leaves.
It’s basically an arm-wrestling match for the right to mate.
Once it begins, snake mating doesn’t take long at all. The male inserts whichever penis he prefers and deposits sperm inside the female.
Sexual Organs: Male vs Female Snakes
Snakes don’t have separate sexual organs like other animals. All snakes have a cloaca, a slit they use for mating and getting rid of waste. Birds also have this opening.
Male snakes have special sex organs folded up inside their cloaca. They have two penises, each having its own testicle.
The male favors one when mating, kind of like how people are left or right-handed. It receives sperm from its testicle, while the other penis remains ready for use if they come across another female soon after.
Females also have unique abilities. Most species can select which sperm they want to fertilize their eggs. This is usually true for snakes that breed with multiple partners, like the breeding balls.
They can store sperm for up to a year inside their bodies. It allows females to choose when they get pregnant and wait for the right conditions. Eggs will fail if the mother doesn’t get enough food or when it’s too hot or cold out.
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Do Snakes Lay Eggs?
Most snake species are oviparous, which means they lay eggs. About 70% of snake species lay eggs. Snake eggs are leathery and flexible, not hard and brittle like bird eggs.
Snakes lay their eggs in shallow nests, then leave them alone. The nests are rarely guarded, and baby snakes get no care from their parents. Babies are born fully capable of hunting and taking care of themselves.
The only snake that offers babies any protection is the African rock python. They encircle the nest and protect their offspring for about two weeks after birth.
Female pregnancies only last around a month.
The other 30% of snake species give birth to live babies. Garter snakes and boa constrictors are two species that use live birth.
Check out this video of a Wandering Garter Snake giving birth:
For some species, the snake still produces eggs. They keep the eggs inside until the babies mature and hatch, then give birth to live babies. In other snakes, they never develop eggshells at all.
For captive snakes, make sure to remove the female from her enclosure after she gives birth. It’s common for mothers to eat their young if they’re nearby. In the wild, this isn’t a problem. The babies spread out quickly.
Can A Snake Mate With Itself?
Virgin birth is when females become pregnant without mating with a male. It’s a process called parthenogenesis. We know some shark, fish, and lizard species are capable of reproducing without sex.
Snakes are also able to do this. Why they do this is still a mystery, with no proven theories. A lack of males is one possible reason, especially in captivity. But it still happens in the wild. And it happens more often than we thought.
How exactly a snake can do this varies. Generally, the female just uses the available eggs and fertilizes them with another egg. The resulting combination leads to an embryo with a full genetic code.
Whether or not the young are as viable as those fertilized normally is still being studied. But, it brings interesting possibilities. If we can trigger the process, it might be able to help endangered or threatened species rebound.
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Snake Fun Facts
Snakes use special organs in their nose to sense heat. It works a lot like eyes do, creating a picture in their brain of the environment.
Instead of sensing light, they sense infrared waves as heat. It probably looks like the infrared ghost-hunting cameras and helps them see in complete darkness.
Most snakes aren’t aggressive unless they’re threatened or you invade their space. Generally, they give people and other large animals a wide berth and would rather get away than fight.
Almost all snakes are solitary animals. They don’t live in social groups, though you might find a lot of snakes in one area. That’s just because it’s a good hiding spot, has easy access to food, or it’s the warmest in the area.
All snakes have teeth. Most venomous snakes have a pair of fangs that deliver their poison and puncture prey. Pythons and other large constrictors have mouths full of needle-like, inverted teeth to help them latch onto prey animals.
Snakes shed their skin multiple times per year.
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Are most snakes venomous?
The VAST majority of snakes are not venomous. Instead, they constrict their prey by squeezing them with their bodies. Of snakes that are venomous, only a handful are life-threatening for humans.
Do snakes hibernate?
During colder months, snakes go into a type of hibernation. It’s called brumation. Their metabolism slows, and they don’t move around much. They sleep for long periods and mostly wait for it to get warm again.
Do snakes have bones?
With how flexible snakes are, you might think they don’t have bones. Snakes actually have a lot of bones. They’re just almost all ribs and spinal vertebrae.
Are snakes deaf?
Snakes are deaf. They don’t have an external ear, so they can’t hear sounds as we do. Their inner ear picks up on vibrations and helps them with their balance.