How Do Snakes Communicate With Each Other?

Most people would never imagine a reptilian brain capable of communication, much less a snake. In fact, unless you live somewhere with a lot of snakes or you raise snakes, you’ve probably never seen snake communication. Snake communication is complex and much more sophisticated than you might imagine. Since snakes are usually solitary animals, they have different reasons for communicating. So then, how exactly do snakes communicate with each other? That’s what we’ll be discussing in the following article.

Key Takeaways

  • Snakes communicate for different reasons. Their communication methods vary according to what they’re trying to convey to another snake.
  • Pheromones play a major part in snake communication. Snakes have a sensitive vomeronasal system to pick up on other snake pheromones.
  • Snakes use body language and physical contact with other snakes to communicate. Without limbs, they have adapted various dances and movements to communicate.
  • Sound communication is rare between snakes, but it does occur. Snakes don’t have vocal cords and do not use vocalizations to communicate.

How Do Snakes Communicate With Each Other?

Ringneck Snake tongue flicking
Ringneck Snake tongue flicking | image by Christina Butler via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

Snakes communicate with each other using a few different methods, including through pheromones, physical contact, and sounds. To understand how snakes communicate, you first need to know the reasons they are communicating. Different species communicate for various reasons using smell, physical contact, and sound.

Reasons Snakes Communicate

Copperhead snake on rocky surface
Copperhead snake on rocky surface | image by Alan & Flora Botting via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

There are a number of reasons snakes communicate with each other. Snakes are usually solitary animals. They generally don’t socialize or communicate with each other unless necessary for survival, reproduction, or combatting a rival.

For these reasons, snakes have developed different complex ways of communicating. For example, some snakes use pheromones released as they slither to communicate. While at the same time, they also use physical contact and body movements to communicate with other snakes they come in contact with, especially for mating purposes.

Sound is not often associated with snake communication other than their use of hissing and rattling to ward off danger. However, snakes are actually very sensitive to sound vibrations. For instance, scientists are trying to understand King Cobra communication.

It was recently discovered that these deadly snakes communicate with each other through sounds. We will discuss later the fascinating discoveries made about how snakes communicate. Snakes have different reasons for communicating with each other, despite being solitary creatures.

Understanding why snakes communicate helps us understand how they communicate. Continuing on, we will talk about how snakes communicate with each other.

Pheromone Communication

Banded Watersnake in defense position
Banded Watersnake in defense position | image by Under the same moon… via Flickr | CC BY 2.0

One of the primary forms of communication between snakes is through pheromones and smell. Snakes release pheromones as they move along the ground, leaving a scent trail. Other snakes are able to determine the age, gender, and stage in reproductive cycle from the pheromones left behind.

It’s an incredible adaptation they’ve developed. They do this with a highly developed Vomeronasal System. This is why you see snakes flicking their tongue out.

They use their tongue to gauge environmental conditions and “smell.” Snakes have a unique way of interpreting the environmental information from their tongue using their Jacobson’s organ, which is an additional part of their olfactory system. The snake uses its forked tongue to draw in smells from the surrounding air, including pheromones.

Then, it flicks its Jacobson’s organ on the roof of its mouth. When processing the pheromones, snakes decide if there is a potential mate nearby or competition. They also use others’ pheromone trails to find shelter.

For example, rattlesnakes and copperheads have been known to share dens with hundreds of other snakes in winter. They find the dens by following pheromone trails left by other snakes. For reproduction, male snakes follow pheromone trails left by potential female mates.

Some male snakes release pheromones that are confused as females to throw off contenders. When encountering a female emitting pheromones, male snakes are triggered to engage in courtship behaviors. That is, they move to physical communication we will discuss next.

Physical Communication

Rattlesnakes 
Rattlesnake | image by Adam Baker via Flickr | CC BY-SA 2.0

Physical communication between snakes includes behaviors and movements snakes perform to engage with each other. This also includes courtship dances, mating rituals, and combat. Courtship communication is displayed in some species by a male rubbing his chin on a female to initiate mating.

Male rattlesnakes engage in chin rubbing and gentle biting to seduce a female. Female rattlesnakes will smack a male in the face with her tail until she is ready to mate. The whole process can last a couple of days to a week, and they communicate the entire time.

Sea snakes perform courtship dances underwater as a way to communicate their desire to mate. A pair glides through the water together, weaving around each other. Snakes communicate through coiling around each other, bumping another snake with their nose or chin, or posturing for aggression.

Cobras are an example of aggressive posturing. The cobra is easily recognizable by its inflated hood when it coils to a defensive position. Male cobras fighting over a female expand their hoods to show aggression.

Two males fighting over territory or mating rights may also look like they’re performing a courtship dance. This is known as a combat dance.

For example, male rattlesnakes coil around each other when fighting. This might appear like they’re communicating through mating behavior when they’re really engaged in combat.

Sound Communication

Pine Woods Littersnake
Pine Woods Littersnake | image by evangrimes via iNaturalist | CC BY 4.0

Sound is probably the last method of communication you would imagine between two snakes. We know snakes communicate using sound to ward off predators and danger. An example of this is the rattlesnake.

Rattlesnakes have special scales that are loose and make a rattling sound when shaken, but this is not used as communication between rattlesnakes. Snakes that make sounds to communicate are rare. Most snake species have no form of vocalization.

For those that do, scientists are still baffled since snakes don’t have ears. Studies show that snakes don’t hear sounds. They feel them.

They have inner ear structures under their jaw to pick up vibration.  So this explains why snakes would not need to communicate through sound. The King Cobra mentioned earlier does emit a growling sound when in a defensive stance.

King Cobras engaged in combat might be heard hissing and growling. Scientists don’t know if this is a sound or vibrational communication between the two or a result of their inflated hood.

Conclusion

Snakes communicate with each other using chemical pheromones, physical contact, and sounds. Depending on the species, they have a variety of reasons for communicating. These slithering reptiles have incredibly complex forms of communication.