It doesn’t take much to notice that snakes aren’t really like us — or even like our other pets. Your reptile slithers, eats live mice for breakfast, and occasionally sheds her entire skin, all of which would be way strange if a human did them. Reptiles also have a tendency to flick their tongues out of their mouths. While you might get too good a look at those pointy fangs, this display isn’t really a threat. It actually means your snake’s just getting a better sense of her surroundings.
You see her dart her tongue out and retract it quickly. Then again. And again. What’s she doing? Quite simply, snakes usually stick their tongues out to get a better smell. That’s it! Unlike humans, who use our eyes as a way to take in most of the world, snakes don’t rely on sight for everything. In fact, many serpents have poor vision and struggle to see clearly. They also lack ears and, therefore, the acute hearing found in people and most pets (though they can “hear” through feeling vibrations). Therefore, many snakes rely on their sense of smell to find prey and mates and to check out their surroundings. While snakes do, of course, have nostrils, these small openings need a little help from their mouths. Their special tongue greatly increases a snake’s ability to smell what’s around them.
We all know how noses work, but the snake tongue has an extra-intricate method of smelling. That little fork at the end actually helps with the process as it allows your friend to pick up moisture in the air or from the ground in two places at once. This means she has more information, so her tongue better delivers a smell map to her brain. That’s why you might notice your snake quickly flicking her tongue in and out of her mouth, especially if prey lurks nearby. She’s collecting particles in the air around her, which include some scents. Then she pulls her tongue into the roof of her mouth, where a special organ picks up on the smell droplets and lets her know what’s around. She may even turn her head as she tongue-smells to get a 360-degree “view” of her location.
There are several reasons why a snake might use her tongue for smell.
Feeding: You can see your snake flick her tongue a lot more often around feeding time, especially if you give her something alive to chase. In fact, in the wild, snakes hunt using this special smell technique to follow prey through scent trails. They smell the ground or air in one area and then follow that same aroma, constantly testing to keep track of it. While your pet no longer needs perfect hunting instincts, she still has the habit built in.
Mating: It’s also possible that some snakes, especially males, use this scenting to find a mate. When another snake is close by, you might see your pet give a couple of tongue flicks. She’s essentially tasting him through the air and determining if he’d make a good partner.
Getting to know you: There’s one other thing snakes might be sniffing out: you. While your animal will get to know you eventually, your smell might have belonged to a predator or a threat to her wild ancestors (or possibly her cousins). When you first bring her home, she might think to still avoid your smell. Don’t worry, though. Many snakes are trainable and will learn that your smell means food and free time, not danger.
In addition to a smelling tongue flick, you occasionally see a snake sticking out her tongue to hiss. This is when it might mean she feels threatened, though she’s probably still smelling with her mouth since she’s sizing you up. Look for that telltale sound that accompanies her tongue and means the flick is more than just exploratory. You should always understand the signs that your pet may be in a grumpy mood or about to bite, especially if you’re dealing with a large or aggressive breed. However, for the most part, your snake sticking out her tongue is really the same as your licking your lips — it means it’s dinnertime.
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