- 68% of snakes are purely diurnal, while 15% and 17% of species were crepuscular and nocturnal respectively.
- Snakes are ectotherms, this means that they require an external heat source like the sun or the reflected heat from rocks to power their metabolism.
- It really depends on the snake, the location, and the species to tell when they are most often sighted.
It’s easy to imagine a snake slithering under the cover of night, stalking after its prey — but that’s a reductive view that doesn’t account for the fact that there are over 3,000 snake species on every continent apart from Antarctica.
What time of the day they choose to hunt and what seasons they choose to slumber are just two vectors in the natural selection process, but they’re important ones.
Let’s dig deeper into the question of why and when snakes come out.
When Snakes Venture Out to Hunt
Snakes can be nocturnal, diurnal, or crepuscular — and the sheer scale of both their population distribution and the diversity of overall snake species makes it difficult for researchers to make holistic conclusions about daily snake activity cycles.
Our biggest body of research comes from the Austrian Herpetological Society — which provided an analysis of the hunting habits of snakes in Europe. 68% were purely diurnal, while 15% and 17% of species were crepuscular and nocturnal respectively. These are statistics influenced by one thing more than any other: the cold-blooded nature of snakes.
Many snakes are active at night and some during the day. Snakes are predators and eat a huge variety of animals that include rodents, insects, eggs, and even sometimes young birds. Additionally, there have been some recent findings that some scientists have discovered some snakes have even been known to hunt in packs similar to wolves.
Like all reptiles, snakes are ectotherms. That means that they require an external heat source like the sun or the reflected heat from rocks to power their metabolism. Understandably, that can make them less effective hunters during the night.
Yet the fact that a third of snakes still hunt at least some of the time at night is a testament to the countless other factors that define a snake’s evolution. Let’s look at three species to evaluate why different snakes come out at specific times of the day.
Rattlesnake: Diurnal by Preference
Rattlesnakes can be found throughout the southwest American states, and it’s a combination of that harsh desert climate and the deadly neighbors that these snake species need to contend with that determines their hunting habits.
Studies dating back to 1986 indicate that most species of rattlesnake have adapted to hunting during the day because of the wide variety of nocturnal predators they face. Hawks and eagles have adapted keen eyesight to spot prey like rattlesnakes even in dusk and dark, while both the roadrunner and coyote hunt for rattlesnakes on the desert surface.
But, the rattlesnake’s most prolific predator may be the king snake — a species that is almost entirely nocturnal and has developed an immunity to rattlesnake venom. As constrictors, they squeeze their prey to death and are known for their incredible capacity to devour much larger prey.
Unfortunately, the vicious heat of the desert sun means that being active during the day sometimes isn’t feasible. During the hottest months of summer, rattlesnakes in the Sonoran Desert shift their hunting habits out of sheer survival. While a snake’s metabolism is powered by heat, they still need to remain in a range of around 70 to 90 degrees Fahrenheit to feel comfortable.
At roughly 95 degrees, they can begin to overheat and eventually die. Depending on the heat or the time of the season, this can lead them to either find shade for the hottest points of the day or burrow underground entirely to become active again at night.
The king snake’s preference for nocturnal hunting was likely influenced similarly, as they’ve been seen exhibiting more crepuscular and diurnal behavior in more temperate ecosystems. Snakes are more sensitive to strong heat than mammals and birds, and that puts species around the world directly in the line of fire for climate change.
Corn Snake: Crepuscular
The vibrant corn snake is also known as the red rat snake thanks to its coloration and its preferred choice of prey. As a crepuscular snake, it’s often active at night but does most of its hunting during the twilight hours of dusk and dawn.
These selective windows of hunting time make the promise of a meal less uncertain, but they also help them catch a meal before natural predators like foxes are out in full force. Their methods are specialized as well.
At dusk, these snakes will hunt through burrows in search of sleeping rodents. Corn snakes are constrictors that will smother their prey to death, and they supplement their diet of mice and other rodents with lizards and especially bird eggs.
But rats are the main prey here, and the corn snake seems to be driven more by the habits of that prey than by the temperature. Rats themselves are crepuscular, and the corn snake will hunker down while they’re inactive.
Roosting underbrush, rocks, leaves, or debris allows them to hide from diurnal predators while waiting for their prey to return in the evening to forage.
Corn snakes have expanded prodigiously throughout much of North America, a feat that they likely wouldn’t have achieved if they weren’t highly adaptable. During lean or opportune times, corn snakes will venture out into the day to poach bird eggs safe in the knowledge that the parents are aware of foraging.
Changes in predator and prey availability could similarly lead to corn snakes being more active later into the night, but they generally sleep through the darkest hours by nature.
Desert Nightsnake: Nocturnal
There’s some symmetry in the fact that desert night snakes and rattlesnakes are often mistaken for one another despite having opposing sleeping and hunting habits. And while it’s true that being in the cold isn’t ideal for snakes, the desert night snake has adapted to maximize its efficiency at hunting. As ambush predators, they don’t have to expend a great deal of energy chasing prey.
And as a venomous species, all they need to do is get a single strike in and then swallow their prey whole once the neurotoxins have done their work. Populations of venomous snakes like vipers tend to be concentrated in humid areas of Africa, Central America, and South America.
They also tend to be nocturnal. Less fortunate is the fact that their elusive and nocturnal natures also make it harder to track them. Daylight is of little concern for these snakes since they detect prey by sensing the air for chemicals — and most snakes will actively avoid humans whenever possible.
While their habitats often overlap, it’s unlikely that rattlesnakes and night snakes encounter one another very often thanks to their opposing times of activity and their differing diets. Night snakes aren’t above eating the occasional mouse or other rodents, a majority of their diet consists of salamanders, frogs, and smaller snakes.
While the rattlesnake is sleeping in preparation for a morning hunt, the night snake is out hunting prey that similarly thrives in the cold of night.
The Cycles of Snake Season
What temperature it is can dramatically affect the habits — or even the capacity for survival — of snake species, but they’ve managed to survive even in seemingly hostile environmental conditions thanks to a form of hibernation known as brumation.
In areas with more variable temperatures, the rise and fall of snake season can be a regular occurrence — albeit one that is sometimes thrown in disarray by what temperature and weather patterns are like in a given area.
In the United States, snake season extends through most of the spring. March or April often constitutes the beginning, but snakes will often continue to be active well into the fall or even winter if conditions are right for hunting. In the American southeast and Mexico, for instance, snakes come out for far longer periods of the year than they do in the cold of Canada and northern states.
They’ll enter a state of brumation when conditions become too cold to sustain their metabolism and when prey itself begins to enter a state of hibernation. Just because a snake is in a state of brumation doesn’t mean that it can’t wake up when it needs to. Extreme temperature and weather changes can lead to a snake awakening and briefly hunting before conditions become inhospitable again.
What temperature a snake finds itself living in can even lead to them not having to bromate at all. The tropical and subtropical climates in which vipers live tend to have less distinct seasons and more generally hospitable conditions for these venomous snakes.
Without the change of temperature — and without a seasonal scarcity of prey as a result — these snakes don’t enter into a state of hibernation as a rule. That doesn’t mean they’re not capable.
During periods of scarcity or extreme weather conditions, they may enter into brumation as an act of survival.
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The photo featured at the top of this post is © DedeDian/Shutterstock.com
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