Eight myths about snakes

... and some common misconceptions

There are many species of snake in Victoria and it is therefore natural that the Museum receives a lot of enquiries about dealing with pesky snakes.

In amongst these general enquiries are questions or statements that drift into the realm of myths, of which there are many. We've compiled the most common myths and misconceptions about snakes, along with some tips on keeping snakes away.

Strap-snouted Brown Snake, Pseudonaja aspidorhyncha.
Strap-snouted Brown Snake

#1: A bowl of milk will attract snakes

This is one of the more widespread beliefs, possibly originating with the Milk Snake (Lampropeltis triangulum) of North and South America. Locals saw snakes disappearing into barns in search of rodents and believed that the snakes were drinking the milk from cows’ udders.

In fact, reptiles can’t digest dairy products and even if they could, it’s unlikely cows would stand idly by whilst being milked. If dehydrated enough, snakes will drink milk, but if thirsty enough they will drink just about anything.

#2: Blue-tongue Lizards and Shinglebacks will discourage snakes in your garden

Snakes eat frogs, lizards and even other snakes. Some, such as the Orange-naped Snake below, specialise in feeding on skinks. Newly-hatched snakes of various species may fall prey to Blue-tongue Lizards, but as the snakes grow the reverse is usually true.

Tiliqua nigrolutea, Blotched Blue-tongue Lizard
Blotched Blue-tongue Lizard, Alpine National Park, Victoria.

#3: If a snake’s head is cut off it will stay alive until sundown

This myth seems to be particularly popular in rural Australia. It may be based on the fact that a snake’s body will continue to writhe for some time after decapitation, but this story is not even remotely true.

#4: A mother snake will swallow her young when threatened

Although the now-extinct Gastric-brooding Frog (Rheobatrachus species) and mouthbrooding fish do appear to swallow their young, any snake ingested by another snake will immediately succumb to digestive juices.

#5: Snakes always travel in pairs

In general, the only time two snakes are in the same place is during courtship and mating. Otherwise the larger snake will usually kill and eat the smaller one.

Lowland Copperhead Snake in grass
The Lowland Copperhead (Austrelaps superbus), a common inhabitant of the most disturbed habitats across southern Victoria.

#6: If you kill a snake, its partner will come after you

Snakes do not have any sort of social bond, nor the intellect nor memory to recognise and remember an assailant. Apparently Bollywood may be partially responsible for this myth.

#7: The Hoop Snake bites onto its own tail, forms a circle and rolls down hills

Another myth common to Australia’s rural regions, but unfortunately no such snake exists. The story is also widespread in USA and Canada where records appear from as early as the 1700s. It may be based on the ancient Greek symbol ouroboros which depicts a serpent eating its own tail, representing constant re-creation.

#8: Snakes are deaf

Although they lack eardrums, snakes possess inner ears which are able to pick up not only ground-borne vibrations but low frequency airborne sounds. They do have difficulty with sounds at a higher pitch.

Murray Darling Carpet Python
Murray Darling Carpet Python found during the Murray Explored Bioscan, Gannawarra Shire, Victoria.

And now a few common misconceptions...

Snakes are cold and slimy

In fact, snake skin is dry and, depending on the surrounding temperature, can be quite warm and soft.

Snakes are poisonous

Technically snakes are venomous, not poisonous. But not all of them are venomous by any means. Australia has the highest proportion of venomous native snakes of any country in the world (100 out of the 140 species of land snakes), although only a handful can give a fatal bite to humans.

Poisons must be ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin, whilst venom must be injected into the bloodstream.

Snakes are out to get you

Humans are larger, generally faster and stronger than Australian snakes. Snakes have a number of predators, of which humans well and truly qualify.

When you encounter a snake it is usually caught off guard (as you are), but the vast majority of encounters are avoided by a snake vanishing as soon as it hears you coming.

A surprised snake will pick the nearest escape route and aim to disappear as quickly as possible, particularly when faced with a potential predator 50 times its own size. However, snakes in general have poor eyesight and don’t always pick the best route out of trouble. If a snake feels cornered, it will often stand and defend itself as a last resort.

Snake behaviour can also become more erratic in spring during the breeding season, and females become more defensive if eggs or young are nearby. However, the vast majority of bites to humans in Australia occur because someone decided not to leave a snake alone.

Snakes dislocate their jaws whilst feeding

Snake jawbones aren’t fused as ours are. A highly flexible ligament joins the bones of the lower jaw, which stretch to allow enormous expansion of the mouth. So the mechanism is not dislocation, just great flexibility.

Pythons asphyxiate their prey by squeezing them

Recent research has shown that technically pythons kill their prey by preventing blood circulation, not breathing. A constricting snake quickly stops the heart of its prey, and breathing fails soon afterwards.

Red-bellied Black Snake
Red-bellied Black Snake, Croajingolong National Park, Victoria

And finally, for the record, here’s what you can do to keep snakes out of your yard

  • Remove potential food sources, in this case usually rodents. Keep your property rodent-free and snakes will have less to eat.
  • Remove open water sources. Snakes do find water attractive, and need to drink water regularly to survive.
  • Remove shelters, such as sheets of tin on the ground and piles of rocks or firewood.
  • Keep a clear area around your house. Make sure grass is cut low, remove fallen branches, and prune overgrown bushes. Most snakes prefer not to move across long stretches of open ground.
  • Patch up holes in buildings. Snakes will live under houses or outbuildings where the conditions are warm and dry, and can get through any gap larger than your thumb. Place wire mesh with holes no larger than 1cm square over all potential entry points.

Got a question about snakes? We can help you with identifications and general research. Ask us!

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