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Killing and Eating

Excluding the toothless egg-eater, all other snakes have to rely upon their sharp teeth or both fangs and teeth when seizing their prey. Snakes must kill their prey before eating it unless prey is small and struggles prove no handicap, like when a cobra swallows a frog. Methods to kill prey vary according to whether a snake is venomous or non-venomous.

Non-venomous or harmless snakes kill by constriction, which results in suffocation. Having struck and retained a grip with their needle-sharp teeth, one or more body coils are whipped round victim and pressure exerted. The aim is not to crush or break bones but to prevent breathing.

Because snakes are not equipped with cutting or grinding teeth to reduce prey to small sizes, prey has to be swallowed whole. Venomous, back-fanged species, retain their grip for a longer period and employ a chewing action to ensure their rear-fangs penetrate to discharge venom to paralyze prey. The more deadly front-fanged snakes possessing a much quicker acting venom are able to kill prey without constriction.  Instant fang penetration is possible at moment of striking. Cobras will retain their grip on a rodent and start swallowing immediately after it died; mambas will deliver a swift bite and release fangs at once and prey will stagger a short distance away; adders and vipers employ a similar method. At the moment of strike their large hinged fangs, normally folded back, are erected to point forward and prey is subjected to a stab delivered at great speed.

Snakes sometimes swallow prey of far greater girth and breath  than their own; their physical adaptation  allows for an enormous degree of expansion, this is achieved through muscles, ligaments and skin which stretches amazingly.  The bones in the skull are attached by elastic tissue and are movable, mouth stretches in any direction and the two halves of lower jaw stretches in opposite directions and act independently and alternately. The neck and body is also capable of enormous distention. To avoid suffocation during swallowing process: the end of windpipe is controlled by special muscles which moves forward or backward. During swallowing process the end of windpipe is pushed forward to lie between separated halves of lower jaw, thus preventing suffocation. To prevent collapse of windpipe by pressure of prey, its walls are strengthened by annular rings of cartilage, to ensure it always remains open.

When a large python swallows a sharp-horned antelope, the horns sometimes pierce the body and leaving wounds which soon heals. Should the snake be attacked shortly after a meal it regurgitates the meal in order to get away in a hurry.


During the coldest months of the year snakes hibernate and then they do not eat. Towards end of autumn they start building up fatty tissue to sustain them. During this period they do not sleep but is in a state of torpor or suspended animation induced by low temperature.

Spitting snakes

Snakes spit venom in self defense; to scare off humans coming too close or to keep predators at bay. This is done by putting force on venom glands thus forcing venom down hollow fangs. A small hole near tip of fangs forces the venom out of the snake’s mouth as far as 2,5 meters or further. Spitting is not done accurately but is effective. There are two common spitting snakes in South Africa: the Rinkhals and Mozambique Spitting cobra and two lesser-known and less common spitters, Black Spitting cobra and Western Barred Spitting cobra.

Snake venom is harmless to skin unless it enters an open wound.

In the eyes it is absorbed quickly by tiny blood vessels close to surface and causes severe burning and inflammation. Do not rub the eyes as it will only do further harm.



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