Snakes play dead as a means of defense. Some snakes (particular non-venomous snakes) use it as a last resort when defending themselves from predators. The action typically involves an immobile snake that stays still for up to a few hours, depending on the imminent threat.
The phenomenon of animals playing dead is underreported. Snakes are no different. There are several snake species known to play dead. Yet, little is known about how these mechanisms develop or change during the long life of snakes.
Some types of snakes only play dead in front of large predators. Others play dead as a first means of defense regardless of the size of the predator.
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What Is Playing Dead
Thanatosis or playing dead is known as a death-mimicking act in the snake world. Often referred to as tonic immobility, playing dead is normally seen in snakes that come in physical contact with a type of predator or even with humans.
Playing dead is not just a game for snakes. The effect of tonic immobility in snakes is that most predators stop pursuing them further. At the very least, predators will stop pushing physical constraints on snakes believed to be dead.
Why Do Snakes Play Dead
Most snakes play dead to avoid predators. It’s been shown that most snakes that play dead aren’t venomous. As a result, their fighting chances against predators perceived as more dangerous are slim.
At the same time, snakes play dead to catch prey. It’s been shown some snakes such as the Hognose Snake prefer to lay with their belly up pretending to be dead as a means to attract unsuspecting prey.
Snakes playing dead is now a major cause of concern for humans out in nature. North Carolina is one of the states that issued warnings about not touching snakes that are believed to be dead as they can spring back to life in a second. While they can bite, these snakes aren’t dangerous, but they can scare people with their tactics.
12 Snakes That Play Dead
There are many snakes around the world that play dead. They normally resort to this act for defensive purposes.
1. Hognose Snake
Scientific name: Genus Heterodon.
Common name: hognose snakes, hog-nosed snakes, North American hog-nosed snakes, puff adders.
Both Eastern Hognose Snake and Southern Hognose are subspecies of the Hognose Snake that like to play dead. These snakes are highly specialized in playing dead, surprising even researchers. The Hognose snake is one of the few snakes that have complex playing dead tactics.
When it senses danger, the Hognose snake starts to play dead. It turns on its back with its belly up to fake being dead. Its tongue hangs out of its mouth for higher credibility. This snake can also emit bad smells, feces, and traces of blood all as a combined effort to deter potential predators and to make other animals think it’s dead.
The snake doesn’t remain in this position for a long time. As soon as the predator starts to look away the snake will snap back and try to escape.
2. Common Kingsnake
Scientific name: Lampropeltis getula.
Common name: eastern kingsnake, common kingsnake, chain kingsnake.
The Common Kingsnake is one of the most avid actors in the snake’s world. It has a true arsenal of defensive techniques that include playing dead.
Current data shows it doesn’t start with the playing dead technique as it prefers to make a hissing sound at the potential attacker.
The Common Kingsnake has many predators in the animal world. Hawks are among its biggest threats together with roadrunners. The snakes will try to make a hissing sound at all terrestrial predators.
They also use tail vibration. It’s believed this snake tries to mimic a Rattlesnake when it vibrates its tail.
The snake can also smear fecal and release bade smells onto the enemy before it curls up and decide to play dead. A Common Kingsnake rarely uses all of these techniques on the same predator, however.
3. Grass Snake
Scientific name: Natrix natrix.
Common name: grass snake, ringed snake, water snake.
The Grass Snake is one of the most popular snakes around the world. It has been extensively researched for its playing dead strategies. It’s shown that this snake tries to play dead on almost every contact with an animal or human perceived as dangerous.
The Grass Snake has been researched to play dead in 66% of the cases when picked up by a human, especially in lab conditions. Out in the real world, the snake curls into a ball and it plays dead by having a limp supine body and by hanging its tongue out.
4. Rinkhals Snake
Scientific name: Hemachatus haemachatus.
Common name: ringhal snake, ring-necked spitting cobra.
This snake has also been considerably documented on its playing dead capacity, as the Grass Snake.
The Rinkhals Snake has been shown to only use playing dead as a last defense resort. It becomes entirely motionless in front of predators to keep them away. However, its first defense tactics are to raise its head and to mimic a strike, similar to a Cobra.
5. Asian Tentacled Snake
Scientific name: Erpeton tentaculatum.
Common name: Asian tentacled snake, tentacle snake.
This snake is a master of thanatosis. It spends much of its life in a motionless state.
While an aquatic snake prefers to stay still almost all of the time to increase its camouflage. This snake can stay still for up to 30 minutes, even underwater. It does a very poor job moving outside of the water as it uses tentacles to see in the dark. But it’s one of the few snakes that know how to play dead underwater, mainly to easily catch prey.
6. Texas Indigo Snake
Scientific name: Drymarchon melanurus erebennus.
Common name: Texas Indigo Snake.
The black Texas Indigo Snake has also been shown to fake death. This snake can go into a sudden motionless state which is believed to weaken the attention of its predators.
Unlike other death-faking snakes, the Texas Indigo Snake can also wiggle its lounge while playing dead, even with its motionless open mouth.
However, the snake has been shown to also keep its tongue motionless which leaves researchers to believe the snake has multiple tactics of playing dead.
7. Dice Snake
Scientific name: Natrix tessellata.
Common name: dice snake, water snake.
Dice Snake is solely interested in eating fish. These snakes have been known to love living next to water sources, particularly in the woodland since they can use their green color for camouflage.
These use playing dead as a last resort in defending themselves against predators. They can also but a very bad smell which is believed to deter predators from the holes they use to hibernate in during the winter.
8. Chilean Green Racer
Scientific name: Philodryas chamissonis.
Common name: Chilean green racer, long-tailed snake.
The Chilean Green Racer is one of the snakes with long-time playing dead abilities. Studies show the snake remains immobilized anywhere between 4 and 5 minutes at a time.
It will snap back if handled. Otherwise, the snake will only slowly start to return to its normal state by first wiggling its tongue after 4-5 minutes. It uses playing dead solely as a defensive tactic.
9. Garter Snake
Scientific name: genus Thamnophis.
Common name: Garther snakes.
The Garter Snake can stay motionless even longer than the Chilean Green Racer. Studies show the Garter Snake remains immobile for up to 10 minutes. But it’s the female pregnant Garter Snakes that use Thanatosis as a defense mechanism.
Some studies suggest females don’t move because of their pregnancy but most researchers argue the pregnant Garter Snake uses Thanatosis to go off the radar of potential predators.
10. Water Snakes
Scientific name: genus Hydrodynastes.
Common name: Water Snakes.
A large number of Water snakes from the Hydrodynastes family are known to fake their deaths.
In captivity and under scientific research, 13% of these snakes faked their death when a human approached them. The snakes would leave their mouth open with the tongue hanging out for up to a few minutes or until the human looked away. This is the moment most snakes looked for a chance to escape.
11. Military Ground Snake
Scientific name: Erythrolamprus miliaris.
Common name: military ground snake.
The Military Ground Snake is also called the Common Snake in South America. It’s believed this snake plays dead as a preying mechanism.
It stays still for long periods to easily catch prey such as frogs. Some data also indicates the snake plays dead to stay clear of predators, especially since male Military Ground Snakes are smaller than females.
12. Large-Eyed Bamboo Snake
Scientific name: Pseudoxenodon macrops.
Common name: large-eyed bamboo snake, Chinese false cobra.
The Large-Eyed Bamboo Snake is mainly found in Asia. It has been well documented for its death feigning behavior.
This snake fakes death when encountering large animals or humans. It remains immobile for up to 10 minutes. After this interval, the snake first moves its tongue for about a minute before fully resuming and moving along.
How Long Can a Snake Playing Dead
Snakes have all types of natural predators from foxes and opossums to eagles and alligators. Some of them use thanatosis or the act of playing dead as a defense mechanism.
Some species of snakes don’t eat dead animals and the same can apply to some natural snake predators.
Most snakes play dead for up to 5 minutes
Most snakes play dead between 4 and 5 minutes. By the end of this time, they should start resuming their normal habits, mainly moving their heads first and then trying to make a full escape from the dangerous situation.
Some snakes play dead for up to 10 minutes
A few snakes can play dead even longer. The Garter Snake and the Large-Eyed Bamboo Snake have both been shown to play dead up to 10 minutes.
Such a long-playing dead game can be triggered by the natural predators of these snakes that might be dangerous than the predators of other snakes. At the same time, these 2 species exhibit the same playing dead behavior in front of humans as they can pretend to be dead for up to 10 minutes.
Some of these snakes remain immobile when touched while others resume and try to escape when touched within these 10 minutes.
How To Tell a Snake is Playing Dead
It’s normally difficult to see if a snake is playing dead or if the snake is truly dead. Some snakes even let out a bad smell to truly make predators perceive them as dead. Here are a few tips on how to truly understand if a snake is truly dead.
Look at the belly
Almost all snakes that play dead lay on their back with their bellies up. This is seen as one of the first signs that a snake is playing dead. However, this is also a position many dead snakes are found in.
This is why it’s not wise to touch a snake with its belly up as it might be a snake that is only playing dead.
Look at the mouth and tongue
The mouth and the tongue of the snake are expressions of its habits. When playing dead, almost all snakes leave their mouths open with their tongues hanging out. This makes the snakes more credible in their act.
You should also look at the tongue to learn when the snake will resume its natural habits as they tend to move their tongues first before turning over on their backs and quitting the playing dead act.
Check the head
Some snakes have been shown to flatten their heads when playing dead. This is normally seen in snakes that play dead after making a hiss sound or snakes that don’t resort to playing dead as the first defense mechanism.
Consider the body size
Some snakes fill their body with air when playing dead. A bloated body can be a sign that the snake is faking its death as this is believed to deter some of its predators.
However, not all snakes bloat their body when playing dead. Some simply prefer to lay in a circle on their belly as they would normally and only keep their mouths open and tongue out.
Thanatosis or the act of playing dead characterizes snakes that use multiple defensive techniques. This playing dead act is used as a last resort in front of a perceived enemy.
The success of the act is unknown for most species but it’s clear some predators don’t pursue the attack when they believe their prey is dead.
Snakes can also master additional techniques to make their act more credible. These include letting out a bad smell which would further induce the idea of a dead snake and which can keep predators away on its own.