Snakes

Are you afraid of snakes? Some people are afraid of how snakes look—the scaly body with no appendages. Some people are afraid that a snake will sneak up without warning, causing them to step on one.

Perhaps when you consider their unique adaptations that help them survive a legless way of life, you will appreciate snakes and be less afraid. Their elongated bodies contain 150 to over 400 vertebrae that give them horizontal flexibility and vertical rigidity. Snakes have a single row of wide belly scales called scutes from their heads to their vents (anus). Internal muscles attached to the scutes rhythmically tilt them outward and pull them inward. When not in a hurry, the snake extends and contracts its belly scutes in sequence, first gripping the ground and then pushing against it, called rectilinear motion. To move faster, a snake curves its body, pushing against the ground on the back of each curve. Called lateral undulation, this is also how a snake swims!

When a snake flicks its tongue, it is not trying to scare you. A snake uses its tongue for both smelling and tasting by picking up chemicals in the air or on the ground. When a snake brings its tongue inside its mouth, the tongue makes contact with the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of the mouth. This organ’s sensory cells connect to nerves leading to the olfactory lobe of the brain, which analyzes the information transmitted by the tongue. With this process, the snake can detect prey, mates, and enemies.

Snakes hear sounds by feeling vibrations in their jawbones and belly scutes. Lacking eyelids, their eyes cannot close but have protective transparent scales.

Snakes shed their outer skins many times depending on growth rate and health. A special secretion loosens the skin layer, including the eye covering, which becomes bluish opaque. As the snake rubs against a rough surface, the loose skin under the snout catches, and the body slowly crawls forward, turning the old skin inside out in one piece. A freshly shed snake shows vibrant colors and feels glossy.

Most Michigan species are harmless and will avoid people if given the chance.

Get acquainted with common snakes

Born predators. All snakes are predators. Lacking any means to rip food apart, snakes swallow their prey whole. The flexible jawbones can open wide for prey that is often bigger than their heads. Rows of small backward-facing teeth help hold the food, and muscles move the food through the long throat, taking from 10 minutes up to an hour depending on body temperature.

Calm and cool. Our most docile species are red-bellied snakes and brown snakes. Both are small (9- to 15-inches), rarely bite, and like to hide under logs, boards, or trash piles in woods or fields. The Eastern smooth green snake rarely bites when handled, but it emits a musky anal secretion on a captor’s hand. Blending into the grassy fields it inhabits, you may also find it hanging on tree branches.

No threat. Garter snakes, a common species, usually stalk nonthreatening prey, including amphibians, worms, slugs, or small fish.

Helpful removal. Rodent control is the job of both the milk snake and black rat snake as they coil their bodies around an animal, restricting blood flow or suffocating rodents to death before swallowing.

Watch out! Our only venomous species is the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, which lives in Southern Michigan swamps or bogs. A rattlesnake bites, injects venom through its hollow fangs, and then trails after the animal until the animal dies.


Are you afraid of snakes? Some people are afraid of how snakes look—the scaly body with no appendages. Some people are afraid that a snake will sneak up without warning, causing them to step on one.

Perhaps when you consider their unique adaptations that help them survive a legless way of life, you will appreciate snakes and be less afraid. Their elongated bodies contain 150 to over 400 vertebrae that give them horizontal flexibility and vertical rigidity. Snakes have a single row of wide belly scales called scutes from their heads to their vents (anus). Internal muscles attached to the scutes rhythmically tilt them outward and pull them inward. When not in a hurry, the snake extends and contracts its belly scutes in sequence, first gripping the ground and then pushing against it, called rectilinear motion. To move faster, a snake curves its body, pushing against the ground on the back of each curve. Called lateral undulation, this is also how a snake swims!

When a snake flicks its tongue, it is not trying to scare you. A snake uses its tongue for both smelling and tasting by picking up chemicals in the air or on the ground. When a snake brings its tongue inside its mouth, the tongue makes contact with the Jacobson’s organ in the roof of the mouth. This organ’s sensory cells connect to nerves leading to the olfactory lobe of the brain, which analyzes the information transmitted by the tongue. With this process, the snake can detect prey, mates, and enemies.

Snakes hear sounds by feeling vibrations in their jawbones and belly scutes. Lacking eyelids, their eyes cannot close but have protective transparent scales.

Snakes shed their outer skins many times depending on growth rate and health. A special secretion loosens the skin layer, including the eye covering, which becomes bluish opaque. As the snake rubs against a rough surface, the loose skin under the snout catches, and the body slowly crawls forward, turning the old skin inside out in one piece. A freshly shed snake shows vibrant colors and feels glossy.

Most Michigan species are harmless and will avoid people if given the chance.

Get acquainted with common snakes

Born predators. All snakes are predators. Lacking any means to rip food apart, snakes swallow their prey whole. The flexible jawbones can open wide for prey that is often bigger than their heads. Rows of small backward-facing teeth help hold the food, and muscles move the food through the long throat, taking from 10 minutes up to an hour depending on body temperature.

Calm and cool. Our most docile species are red-bellied snakes and brown snakes. Both are small (9- to 15-inches), rarely bite, and like to hide under logs, boards, or trash piles in woods or fields. The Eastern smooth green snake rarely bites when handled, but it emits a musky anal secretion on a captor’s hand. Blending into the grassy fields it inhabits, you may also find it hanging on tree branches.

No threat. Garter snakes, a common species, usually stalk nonthreatening prey, including amphibians, worms, slugs, or small fish.

Helpful removal. Rodent control is the job of both the milk snake and black rat snake as they coil their bodies around an animal, restricting blood flow or suffocating rodents to death before swallowing.

Watch out! Our only venomous species is the Eastern Massasauga rattlesnake, which lives in Southern Michigan swamps or bogs. A rattlesnake bites, injects venom through its hollow fangs, and then trails after the animal until the animal dies.

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