Snake Anatomy – Their Faces, Skeleton, Body, and More!

Written by Colby Maxwell
Published: March 22, 2022
© gabor_szikora/Shutterstock.com
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Snakes may just be some of the coolest animals on the planet. They come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and live in almost every environment across the globe. One of the things that makes snakes so unique is that they are so different from other animals. These “legless and scaly worms” are instantly identifiable, but do we really know what makes them so unique? In this article, we will explore a few of the most interesting aspects of snake anatomy. Let’s explore the snake anatomy – their faces, skeleton, body, and more!

What Makes A Snake A Snake?

Snake Anatomy - Their Faces, Skeleton, Body, and More!
Snakes are characterized by their lack of limbs, long bodies, and cold-blooded nature.

©gabor_szikora/Shutterstock.com

We will look into some of the things that truly separate snakes from other animals on the planet. Before that, however, we have to understand what makes a snake a snake!

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In summary, snakes are characterized by the following traits:

  • lack of limbs, voice, external ears, and eyelids
  • one lung
  • ectothermic
  • long slender bodies

There are over 3,500 individual species that fit these characteristics, with more being added each year. These 3,500+ species are split into 20 different families that can be further broken down into 520 genera.

Despite all of this variation, snakes generally share the above traits, as well as a few evolutionary adaptations that make them special. Let’s go over some of the physical traits that snakes have that make them unique among the animals of the world.

Why Are Snake Heads So Unique?

Snake Anatomy - Their Faces, Skeleton, Body, and More!
Snake skulls have highly specialized jaws and teeth.

©David Herraez Calzada/Shutterstock.com

Some of the most interesting things about snake anatomy can be found within their skulls and head!

Jaws

Snake jaws are different from many other animals, mostly in how far they can open. Since snakes don’t chew, they need a unique way to digest their prey. The biological solution wasn’t to create strong jaws with grinding teeth (like a human) but to allow their jaws to open incredibly wide. A snake can essentially unhinge its jaw, allowing it to open using its stretchy ligaments. A snake can open its jaws to an astonishing 160°, whereas a human maxes out at 26°.

Fangs

A second adaptation found within the heads of snakes is a lot more famous (and scary). Certain snake species have developed a way to inject their prey with venom to subdue it. Snakes can inject this venom and subdue or even kill their prey using their fangs. Although this is what snakes are often known for, only 7% of snakes have venom that can actually harm a human. The fangs of a snake are hollow and have venom glands attached within their heads. The venom glands pump their venom through the hollow fangs and into the victim when they bite.

Teeth

Although fangs are terrifying to see, most snakes don’t have them. However, what all snakes have is a set of specialized teeth. Since snakes swallow their prey whole (and often alive), they need a way to get a really good grip with their mouth. Their solution to this is their teeth. Snake teeth are really small and sharp but oriented backward. When they latch on, the teeth can grip when the victim tries to pull away.

What Is Special About The Anatomy Of A Snake Skeleton?

Snake Anatomy - Their Faces, Skeleton, Body, and More!
Snakes are vertebrates with hundreds of vertebrae and ribs.

©iStock.com/Baramee Temboonkiat

Moving on from the head, we have the skeleton of the snake. Although it isn’t visible, the skeleton of a snake may just provide them with their defining features!

Vertebrae

As we know, snakes don’t have arms and are generally long-bodied and thin. This comes as a result of their specialized skeletons. Snakes are vertebrates, meaning they have a spine made up of vertebrae that allows them to control their body. Where a human has 33 stacked vertebrae, a snake has 100-450 of them. Each vertebra allows for a little movement in either direction, and with so many, a snake can be extraordinarily limber and flexible.

Ribs

Humans have 24 ribs that protect the internal organs and provide a rigid structure for the body. Snakes also have ribs, just a lot more! For each vertebra that a snake has, there are two ribs. Doing some easy math, a snake with 200 vertebrae would have 400 ribs. Since snakes are so long, hundreds of ribs help provide a rigid structure, so they aren’t just limp noodles slithering around!

What Does It Mean To Be Cold-Blooded?

Snake Anatomy - Their Faces, Skeleton, Body, and More!
Snakes regulate their internal temperature using the environment around them.

©jmarino/Shutterstock.com

Although you may think that being “cold-blooded” is a toxic trait from your past relationship, it means something a bit different in biology. Cold-blooded animals control their body temperature through external processes and cannot regulate their body temperature internally. If a snake needs to warm up, for example, it can bask in the sun. This process of regulation is known as ectothermy. In contrast, a human is warm-blooded and can regulate its temperature internally through generating heat or sweating.

The biological advantage for cold-blooded animals is that they use significantly less energy than warm-blooded animals. A snake can go for weeks without eating and is able to survive on little resources. Warm-blooded animals have a greater environmental range (namely in the cold) but use much more energy to live.

Why Did Snake Anatomy Evolve The Way They Did?

Snake Anatomy - Their Faces, Skeleton, Body, and More!
The legless lizard is an example of how modern snakes could have slowly evolved.

©Jay Ondreicka/Shutterstock.com

While we don’t know the specifics of how snakes evolved, we do know a few things that give us a fuzzy picture. Fossil evidence shows that modern snakes first came on the scene around 100 million years ago. They descended from lizards that had lost their legs, although the exact reasons aren’t clear. It was originally believed that snakes evolved from small burrowing lizards, but recent fossil evidence (namely the discovery of the Nagash rionegrina fossils) shows that there were large-bodied snakes around well before we initially thought.

Still, we are fairly certain that snakes descended from lizards; we just don’t know whether it was burrowing lizards or aquatic ones! The most primitive snakes currently alive are pythons and boas. There are two main theories as to how modern snakes evolved: from land or water. Small burrowing lizards could be the ancient roots of the group, but another hypothesis claims that modern snakes descended from aquatic lizards. Until more evidence comes forward, we won’t know for sure!

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The Featured Image

Snake Skeleton Closeup
© gabor_szikora/Shutterstock.com

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About the Author

Colby is a freelance writer from Charlotte, North Carolina. When he isn't distracted by his backyard birdfeeder, you can find him camping, exploring, and telling everyone around him about what he's recently learned. There's a whole world to learn about and Colby is content to spend his life learning as much as he can about it!

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