How Smart Are Snakes? Everything We Know About Their Intelligence

Written by Justin Sexton
Published: November 15, 2023
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Deadly snakes - Desert (Western) Massasauga rattlesnake, Sistrurus catenatus edwardsi, coiled and ready to strike

©Matt Jeppson/Shutterstock.com

Snakes are unique animals that live a solitary lifestyle. There are 4,000 reported snake species, but that number is always changing. They’re land predators that typically eat insects, small rodents, rabbits, and other small animals. Snakes aren’t that known to eat humans, like how some horror movies may depict large anacondas to do so. Also, snakes aren’t always violent to humans. Snake attacks don’t always happen but they can happen often times. On average there’s 5.4 million snake attacks a year, per the World Health Organization.

There’s a common misconception that animals aren’t as smart as humans. Sure most animals might not have the same abilities as humans, but humans also don’t have the capabilities of many animals either. Monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, and other members of that family share 98% of their DNA with humans and can learn American Sign Language. But what about snakes? They don’t have limbs like monkeys and humans. What are their capabilities? How can we measure snakes’ intelligence? How intelligent are they compared to other animals in their ecosystem?

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What Can Snakes Do?

Let’s look at some of the common snake abilities and features.

  • They have very flexible jaws which can allow them to open very wide. Therefore, they can consume larger prey with ease.
  • They kill their predators in two ways: by constricting like boa constrictors to stop them from breathing or by injecting venom into their prey’s body through bites. Vipers are a common snake species that are smart in how they take down their prey.
  • They drag their bodies through loops since they don’t have any limbs. Snake bodies are comprised of curved ribs that also allow them to climb, swim, and fling themselves through the air. Snakes slighter through lateral undulation. The S-shaped movements help them slither along uneven terrains.
  • Larger snakes or those that live underground move in a straight-forward line more than the S-shaped movement.
  • Although they have teeth, they do not chew their food. But they swallow it whole.

Snakes not only play a massive role in the food chain as they balance it out as predators and also prey. They help maintain the biodiversity of their ecosystem.

Lizards and snakes are similar in four ways. They’re similar in their biology, diet, diversity, and the dangers they pose to humans. Lizards and snakes are both reptiles and are classified in the Squamata order. Most lizards and snakes are carnivores as they eat amphibians, fish, eggs, insects, rabbits, mice, and rodents. Both species can be found on six of the seven continents in the world with the exception of Antarctica. They also live in diverse environments like forests, river banks, deserts, and mountains. Snakes and lizards can both bite humans and some animals can inject poison into their prey. So snakes have similar abilities like some other lizards, but how smart are snakes?

Do Snakes Think Instinctively or Intelligently? Maybe Both?

Western Diamondback Rattlesnakes Fighting for Right to Mate

Western Diamondback

Rattlesnakes

fighting for the right to mate.

©Gary Mc Alea Photography/Shutterstock.com

Without an ability to learn, snakes in different environments wouldn’t be able to adapt and learn their new habitats. Without a capability to learn, they wouldn’t be able to conquer their prey at their respective environments. Several zoo experts drew a conclusion that snakes are primarily driven through instinct rather than intelligence. Some snakes are less intelligent than most animals, but that doesn’t mean they can pick up on certain things.

There are studies that display their intelligence later in the article, but there are limitations to measuring their intelligence. Some of those limitations are based on assumptions by the experts and a lack of testing methods.

Some Signs That Snakes Are Intelligent

  • Snakes are great trackers which allows them to find their prey with ease.
  • Snakes can remember cues. A study from the University of Rochester had snakes in a tub in the middle of a brightly lit room trying to find holes to hide in the dark. After they were guided by researchers one time, they kept finding the holes quicker and quicker.
  • Some snakes are able to build their nests to protect their young.
  • Snakes can collaborate with other snakes to hunt in groups. For example, the Cuban Boas work in packs to take down their prey.
  • They can learn how to take small food as a reward.
  • They can recognize their owners.
  • Snakes can go undetected as they can slither into the tightest of spots like mouse traps behind houses and holes in the ground.
  • They can warn people and animals of danger. Rattlesnakes can do that very well by shaking their tails and Cobras can elongate their head to warn people that they’re about to head their way.
  • Some snake species can fake and imitate behavior. The Eastern Hognose Snake can play dead when it’s threatened by larger predators.

What Are The Smartest Snakes?

Feeding time. King Cobra eats snakes.

King Cobras are intelligent predators that also eat snakes.

©Padodo/Shutterstock.com

Some snakes that are considered as the most intelligent are the Whipsnakes, North American Racers, and King Cobras. Their intelligence levels are considered by their hunting techniques, behavior with humans, and adaptalbitiy to their environments. King Cobras are also one of the few snakes that construct and protect their nests. King Cobras can also change their hunting tactics to best suit their hunting situation. In regard to pet snakes, pythons, boa constrictors, and corn snakes are the best options.

Why Have People Questioned Snakes’ Intelligence?

In the past, many people assumed that snakes are nothing but dumb animals that move instinctively for prey or pose as a threat to humans, but how so? Well, some people have not test snakes’ intelligence properly. Most experiments snakes have underwent in the past were mazes, something that’s unusual in their experiences. The experiment that the University of Rochester done with finding a hole out of a tub in a bright room was much more realistic.

Scientists also have a history of testing mammals more often than reptiles and amphibians. Therefore research could be very limited on those animal species. There are also negative biases towards snakes, which creates an aversion towards them. Hence, not many people would want to test snakes.

The lack of testing prevented people from discovering that snakes’ primary sense is smell and not sight. People can assume that they may be dumb animals rather than knowing that their sense of smell helps with some of their primary decision making. They also don’t use their nose for smelling. Snakes use their tongues to smell and detect any prey or predators. Not only that, but they can feel vibrations through their skin to determine how large is an animal is by their movements on the ground, underwater, and in the air.

How Are Snakes’ Intelligence Levels Compared To Other Animals?

Compared to most animals, snakes aren’t as intelligent as their threats. Some of their threats are larger animals like humans and large eagles. Compared to monkeys, they’re not as smart. But a flaw in that comparison is that monkeys have limbs while snakes doesn’t have any limbs. So the question would have to be decided on how they adjust with what their respective anatomies are like.

However, there have been studies that snakes are able to adapt to their environment and survive. There needs to be more ways to test the intelligence levels of snakes. Because of the limited testing scopes, its convinced that snakes are more instinctive animals than intelligent ones.

The scientists who primarily group snakes to be more instinctive because of the assumption that they only think of hunting, breeding, and staying alive. It all goes back to the question of if snakes are more instinctual or intellectual. Their abilities to adapt to new environment and change their behaviors around new predators and prey help them become intellectual animals.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © Image from Brehms Tierleben, 2nd Ed. 1882-1887 / Public Domain – License / Original

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About the Author

Justin is an A-Z Animals Writer that loves to cover places, unique natural disasters, and travel. He has eight years of experience as a writer in the medical and media fields. He wrote for the likes of VCU Health, theMSQshop, PayDay LA, and Comic Book Resources under the penname Jay Guevara. Although he's a full time writer, Justin graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2019 with a Bachelors in Health, Physical Education, and Exercise Science with a background in Community Engagement. After spending over two decades in Richmond, Virginia, Justin now resides in the suburbs of Rancho Cucamonga, California. He's a dedicated gymrat. He's also a two-time poetry author who's influenced by rappers Joe Budden and IDK along with Dante Alighieri.

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