Modern Myths About Snakes

    Below is a list of common myths regarding snakes and snake behavior and some possible explanations for these tales.
Charming Snakes 
    A popular myth about snakes is that they are somehow able to hypnotize or "charm" their prey so that the prey is unable to escape.  There is no evidence to support the claim that snakes charm their prey.  This myth may have resulted from the observation of small animals and birds becoming "frozen with fear" when confronted by snakes, however they are not being charmed.  Often an adult female bird will flutter about in front of a snake in order to distract the snake from the fledglings in her nest.  Another possible explanation may be that many animals are unable to perceive the slow approach of a long thin snake as dangerous.  Finally, the fact that a snake is unable to blink may have something to do with the origin of this myth. 
 Rat snake (Elaphe obsoleta
 photo credit: Jeff Beane 
Hoop Snakes
    According to folklore, when frightened a hoop snake will bite its tail and form a rigid circle which allows it to travel downhill like a wagon wheel.  Obviously, snakes are not anatomically equipped for rolling.  There are no reliable accounts of this event ever taking place.  The hoop snake myth may have originated from the observed behavior of mud snakes.  Mud snakes in the southern United States will occasionally lie in a loose coil shaped like a loop, but when confronted they slither away from danger like other snakes.
Poisonous Breath 
    Some people believe that hognose snakes (Heterodon platirhinos; also called spreading adders or puff adders) are able to mix poison with their breath and kill a person at a distance of over twenty feet.  In reality the breath of hognose snakes is harmless.  Hognose snakes exhibit perhaps the most elaborate bluffing behavior of any snake.  They may spread their hoods, hiss, and even strike, although they don't attempt to bite.  If they are continually harassed, they will flip over on their back and play dead.  Hognose snakes rarely bite people and their bite is usually less bothersome than a bee sting. 
Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos
photo credit: Michael Dorcas
Rattlesnakes Add One Rattle Every Year
    It is often suggested that rattlesnakes add one rattle every year.  Contrary to this belief, a rattlesnake adds one rattle every time it sheds its skin.  Snakes may shed several times a year, each time adding a new rattle; in addition rattles may break off.  For these reasons, counting rattles is not usually an accurate method of determining a rattlesnake's age.

Snakes Travel in Pairs
    Another myth regarding snake behavior is that snakes travel in pairs, the survivor seeking revenge if one is killed.  This myth is entirely false, snakes hardly ever travel in groups or pairs.  Snakes do not have any social bonds and would feel in no way vengeful if one of its conspecifics were to be killed.  One possible explanation for this myth may be that in a prime habitat situation, several snakes of the same species may be observed in a small area.  Another possible explanation for the origin of this myth could be related to the typical reproductive behavior of snakes.  During the mating season a male snake may closely follow a female snake much as a buck deer trails a doe during the rut.
    Unfortunately some people are uninformed about the striking capabilities of snakes.  Many people believe that snakes can only strike from a coiled position.  In reality, snakes can bite or strike from any position.  Coiling does however, increase the distance that a snake can strike.  A common inquiry relating to cottonmouths (Agkistrodon piscivorous), concerns their ability to bite underwater.  Cottonmouths can in fact bite underwater, which makes sense since they live in wetland habitats, and feed on fish and water snakes. 

    A related myth states that injured snakes die before sundown.  This myth is of course false.  A mortally wounded snake will usually die quickly, just like any other animal.  Time of day has no bearing on the death of any animal.  The origin of this myth may be related to the fact that nerve reflexes may cause muscle twitches for several hours after death, resulting in movements of the body and jaws.  Because of the lingering nerve reflexes, even a dead venomous snake can be dangerous. 

Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorous
photo credit: Whit Gibbons 
Sucking Milk 
    In farming communities throughout the world, it is a common superstition that snakes suck the milk from cows and goats.  In North America, the milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum)     acquired its common name based on this myth.  Although milksnakes may be common around barns, they lack the anatomical structures necessary to suck.  A snake drinks by submerging its head, or at least its mouth, in water and it then takes in water by expanding its body wall.  Milksnakes are common in barns because barns house an abundant supply of small rodents, their primary prey. 
  Milksnake (Lampropeltis triangulum
photo credit: Jeff Beane   
Swallowing Young
    Many people believe that mother snakes will swallow their young when confronted with danger.  Despite countless hours of observation, this behavior has never been documented.  Swallowing young would not serve as a protective strategy in snakes because anything that enters the esophagus soon arrives in the stomach where it is promptly digested.  Although thousands of dissections have been performed on female snakes, none have revealed a stomach full of baby snakes belonging to the same species.