Like most living beings, snakes are adaptable creatures, constantly evolving to survive with what resources are available. When snakes first appeared 50-45 million years ago, they were nocturnal hunters with little need for eyesight. This is one reason they mostly have terrible eyesight even now.
Through evolution and the many changes the Earth has undergone, many snake species have adapted to daytime hunting to survive, while others have remained nocturnal. Here are 7 snakes known for nocturnal hunting.
Rattlesnakes are one of the most popular pit vipers, known for their venom and rattles in many parts of the world. Although these snakes can be active anytime, they prefer nighttime hunting when many of their nocturnal prey are active.
As pit vipers, they have pit organs that give them infrared sensing abilities, allowing them to sense movements from their prey. In addition to their infrared abilities, their Jacobson’s organs heighten their hunting abilities, allowing them to analyze their surroundings by tasting chemicals in the air. With these abilities, nighttime hunting is very convenient for these snakes.
Rattlesnakes are ambush predators, which means they lay quietly in wait for their prey. They position themselves out of sight and wait for their prey to come close enough for them to attack. Having the element of surprise allows them to quickly strike their prey with their long and sharp solenoglyphous fangs, which inject deadly venom. The venom immobilizes the prey in no time, and the rattlesnake gobbles it up.
Cottonmouths are nocturnal pit vipers that prefer to hunt at night. Because they have pit organs, they can sense movements and analyze their surroundings even without their eyes, making them capable nighttime hunters. Cottonmouths are venomous and are even deadlier predators. A cottonmouth’s venom is dangerous to humans and can cause fatalities.
These semi-aquatic snakes prey on mice, rats, frogs, small nocturnal mammals, fish, smaller snakes, and even other cottonmouths, making them cannibalistic. Also known as water moccasins, they kill their prey with a single venomous strike before wrapping themselves around them until the struggle and movement stop. Then they swallow their prey.
Baby cottonmouths, or juveniles, take a different approach. They are born with brightly colored tailed tips, which they wiggle pretending to be worms. They use this to lure unsuspecting toads and frogs.
3. Boa Constrictors
Boa constrictors are large constrictors commonly found in Southern America. They are nocturnal creatures that prefer to hunt at night. Majorly, they feed on medium-sized mammals, rodents, birds, and large lizards. Boa constrictors are even known to feed on monkeys and pigs. These snakes are ambush hunters and lay in wait for their prey to strike. However, they may choose to actively hunt in areas that do not have a lot of prey.
Either way, the boa’s first move is to grab its prey with its teeth before wrapping its body around it. When the prey takes in a breath or inhales, it tightens its hold, making its prey unable to exhale. This stops the prey’s breathing and renders it unconscious, allowing the boa constrictor to swallow it whole.
4. Gaboon Vipers
Gaboon vipers are extremely venomous vipers that are slow to agitate, despite their deadly venom. They feed on small and medium-sized mammals, as well as birds and amphibians. The species has even been known to kill and eat large antelopes. Gaboon vipers may practice ambush hunting or hunt actively, but they only hunt actively in the early hours of the night.
These deadly vipers move sluggishly and may seem slow, but don’t be deceived; they have one of the quickest strikes in the world. In addition to being deadly, their strikes are swift and accurate. Gaboon vipers have the longest snake fangs of any species and do not let go when they latch on to their prey. They inject their deadly venom into their prey and hold on until the prey dies. Then, they swallow their kill whole.
5. Night Snake
Night snakes, as their name implies, are nocturnal snakes. However, they are also crepuscular, active at dawn and dusk. They look a lot like rattlesnakes but do not have rattles. Another major difference between the two species is that female night snakes are often double the length of males and up to three times heavier! Night snakes are rear-fanged colubrids found in the western parts of the US and Mexico.
These snakes are venomous and routinely feed on lizards that they hunt down at night. Night snakes have venom that is specifically tuned to their prey and doesn’t affect humans. Their venom subdues their prey, allowing them to swallow prey even bigger than their heads. Night snakes can be found hiding beneath plant debris or rocks when they aren’t hunting.
Bushmasters are a venomous pit vipers genus found in Central and South America. These reptiles grow as long as 12 feet and weigh as much as 11 pounds, making them large in addition to being deathly venomous. Since they are pit vipers, their infrared sensing pits enable them to locate their prey and lie in wait to ambush them. Sometimes, this waiting period can last weeks.
Bushmasters are majorly nocturnal creatures and go after their prey in the evening or early nights. They feed mainly on rats and mice but also eat other reptiles and birds. Bushmasters can strike multiple times and inject large amounts of venom into their prey.
7. Egyptian Cobra
Egyptian cobras are venomous Naja snakes found in North Africa. These snakes are majorly nocturnal but can also be crepuscular. They feed on birds, eggs, small mammals, lizards, and other snake species. Egyptian cobras can locate prey through the help of their Jacobson’s organ. When they locate their prey, they strike accurately and latch on with their proteroglyphous fangs. Egyptian cobras immobilize their prey by injecting venom and swallowing them whole.
Are Snakes Really Nocturnal Or Diurnal?
Many snakes, such as the ones we’ve listed, are nocturnal and prefer to hunt at night. Others, such as corn snakes, garter snakes, and eastern indigos, are diurnal and hunt during the day. However, in many cases, this is not explicitly true. California kingsnakes, for example, are known to be nocturnal but are diurnal in southern California.
These parts of southern California are semi-arid or steep climates that get colder at night than during the day. Snakes cannot hunt in colder weather because they are cold-blooded and would freeze to death.
Consequently, many other species, like the copperhead, are both diurnal and nocturnal. They are diurnal in early spring and late fall and are nocturnal in the summer. In the early spring and late fall, temperatures are cooler, allowing them to come out during the day. However, since summer is so much warmer, the heat would be dangerous for them.
When snakes get too hot, they develop something akin to a fever. And like all fevers, they are extremely uncomfortable and even painful. If a snake cannot reduce its temperature and kill the fever by moving to a cooler location, it will overheat and die.
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- Fresno Chaffee Zoo, Available here: https://www.fresnochaffeezoo.org/species/gaboon-viper/
- Burke Museum, Available here: https://www.burkemuseum.org/collections-and-research/biology/herpetology/amphibians-reptiles-washington/desert-nightsnake