Some Surprising Things I Learned about Snakes


Snakes get a pretty bad rap in human culture. Not without reason, necessarily—there are plenty of species that can kill human beings. They might be venomous, or maybe they’re constrictors that can wrap around you and squeeze the life out of you.

Garter snakes are small and harmless, but they still look a little freaky.
Maybe not this guy though. (Pixabay/Pexels.com)

Given that, it’s little wonder so many people are a little freaked out by snakes. They’re predators! And they’re certainly some of the stranger creatures in the animal kingdom. After all, they get around with no legs, yet they’re out there swimming, climbing, and sometimes even flying. They can unhinge their jaws.

And, as it turns out, they get even weirder than that.

Doing Some Preliminary Research

Once I’d decided I was going to write about alien snake shifters, I knew I needed to do some research. I mean, I could just half-ass it and base my aliens on my limited knowledge of snakes. They’re aliens, after all, so I can sort of … make it all up.

I like to ground my worlds in science, at least a little bit, though. Yes, I know—dragons don’t really exist (although they share some surprising overlap with snakes in terms of mythology) and shapeshifting is likely not as facile as I make it seems in Riding the Dragon. But even the “magic” there has roots in scientific ideas. Drake’s shapeshifting is the result of an advanced ability to manipulate matter—and we’re all made out of the same stardust, after all.

With that in mind, magic and shapeshifting doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched as it might otherwise.

When I was working with dragons, I had a lot more freedom, because they’re not based on real creatures. They share features with various reptiles, and we might even suggest some are reminiscent of dragons.

The snake, on the other hand, is a real creature, and there a lot of different kinds of snakes out there. They can be divided into different groups in a few different ways. There are constrictors, which kill by crushing the life of their prey, and there are venomous snakes that kill by biting their prey.

Snakes can also be classified by how they move, whether they hibernate, if they can swim, and whether they have rattles on the end of their tails.
One surprising method of classification is actually how different snakes give birth.

Some Snakes Are Viviparous

Animals that reproduce by sexual means can usually be classified into one of three categories:

  • Viviparous
  • Ovoparous
  • Ovoviviparous

Viviparous critters are mostly mammals. Mammals give birth to live young. Ovoparous animals, by contrast, lay eggs. That includes most birds and reptiles, as well as fish and amphibians.

Of course, nature being nature, there are always some wrenches. Sharks aren’t mammals; they’re fish. Yet some species are viviparous, giving birth to live young.

Ovoviviparous animals are sort of the half-way point between the two. These animals carry the eggs pretty much until they’re ready to hatch, then lay them. They don’t give birth to live young, but it’s not quite the same as a bird or a turtle laying a clutch, then waiting for the eggs to hatch.

Now, most of us think of reptiles as being ovoparous. After all, alligators and crocodiles and most lizards lay eggs. So do turtles.

And, by and large, lots of snakes lay eggs too.

But there are some species that are ovoviviparous or even viviparous. One viviparous snake is the South American green anaconda.

So that means these snakes give birth to live young. They don’t make nests and lay clutches of eggs. And, in fact, they nourish the young via a placenta, much like human beings do.

Only a few species of snakes hang out with their young after they hatch. Anacondas do not, but some rattlesnakes do.

That seemed like a perfect fit for the alien snakes I was writing. Marty is a human, which makes him a viviparous mammal. If the naga were typically egg-layers, then there would likely be issues around producing viable hybrid offspring between them and humans.

That doesn’t even begin to touch on the cultural differences that would exist around mating, pregnancy, and childbirth. Marty would think the naga were strange, and they’d think he was even weirder.

Yes, Breeding Balls Are a Thing

The other thing that came up in connection to this was the issue of mating balls. Yes, this is a thing that happens, not just among anacondas but among quite a few species of snakes. In my neck of the woods, garter snakes are sort of infamous for it.

Here, garter snakes have to brumate. (It’s like hibernation, but the animal is awake, not asleep.) They head into a hibernaculum (basically, a pit of snakes) and conserve their energy through the long winter months. Since snakes are cold-blooded, this makes sense. It’s too dang cold out here for us warm-blooded mammals, let alone the poor danger noodles.

So they head underground and hang out in a big ball to stay warm. In the spring, as the snow melts and the temperatures rise, the snakes thaw out. Male snakes generally become active before female snakes, so you probably have a good guess at what happens next. (I never said snakes were nice.)
Many males will attempt to mate with the same female, so the snakes will end up in a “ball.”

I can only imagine this is more horrifying when it happens with some of the largest snakes on the face of the Earth, but anacondas do the same thing. Males will scent a female, then converge on her position.

The cover for Main Squeeze, which features alien snake shifters.
So now you know what you’re getting into.

Since the naga are based on anacondas, they also exhibit this behavior.
Oh, and snakes do tend to go at it for hours, particularly in the mating ball situation. (Breeding balls can last two to four weeks among anacondas, although they don’t spend all that time actively banging.)

I don’t know, guys, it sounds pretty good to be a snake right about now. Sleep all winter, get involved in a marathon gangbang? Oh, to be a snake …

The Two Dicks Thing

You might have noticed that I tagged Main Squeeze with double penetration. That happens, not just because Marty’s banging both Jasper and Orrin (although that’s part of it).

No, as Marty astutely notes, Jasper (and Orrin) “have two.”

Snakes don’t actually have two dicks. They have what are known as hemipenises (or hemipenes, if you want to be pedantic).

These are two identical structures stored in the male snake’s tail. They may be hooked or barbed to better grip the female snake’s cloaca.

Both hemipenes are made of erectile tissue, which will cause them to protrude from the the cloaca of the snake.

So, yes, snakes have two homologous structures that serve the same function as a penis. But they’re definitely not the same as a penis (or two).

Snakes Do Have Ears

They don’t have external ears or eardrums, but snakes do actually have internal ear structures. Snakes actually may have really good hearing, which makes sense. They need to be able to hunt things in the dark.

Snakes may be particularly attuned to vibrations in the ground. That makes sense, since much of their prey is ground-dwelling or even lives underground. Their ear structures tend to be attached directly to the jawbone, which rests on the ground as they slither. As a result, they may be able to “hear” vibrations through the ground.

I included this tidbit in a couple of ways in the original draft of Main Squeeze. It doesn’t appear in the final, published version though.

What That Tongue Do?

Another interesting tidbit about snakes is that they use their tongues to “taste” the air around them. There’s some thought they may also use it to test temperature. For anacondas, there’s suggestion that during breeding season, female snakes will emit some sort of airborne pheromone, which the males can then pick up via their tongue.

A snake with its tongue out, possibly testing the air temperature.
A bit forward of you, snake. (Pixabay/Pexels.com)

Nature Keeps Making Snakes

We’re a little unclear on the evolution of snakes, if only because snakes keep evolving. You might have heard the joke that animals keep evolving into crabs.

Well, they also evolve into snakes. A snake-like body has evolved independently more than twenty-five times throughout history.

So, when we’re looking for a common ancestor of “modern” snakes, it’s a bit tricky to sort out. Some snakes may be descended from an early “snake-like” ancestor. Others may have evolved from a later mutation at another part on the evolutionary tree.

Some of the candidates we have for early snake ancestors appear to have lots in common with modern snakes, but it’s unclear if the thing is a snake or not. It may have some features, but not all—whether because those features hadn’t evolved yet or because this isn’t a snake, we don’t really know.

One thing we do know is that snakes lose their limbs thanks to DNA mutations. More evolved snakes don’t even begin to develop limbs, but older snake species do still develop limbs.

A brown python. Pythons typically develop hind limb buds, even though they have no limbs.
Leggy boi? (Pixabay/Pexels.com)

One of the best examples is pythons. Python embryos have fully formed hind limb buds, but DNA mutations prevent these from continuing to develop into fully functional limbs. Instead, pythons and other snakes like them end up with “vestigial” hind limbs, which are known as anal spurs. They use their spurs to grasp each other during sex.

Snakes Throw Up If They’re Stressed

We all know snakes unhinge their jaws and swallow prey many times larger than them. Once they’ve done that, they usually crawl off somewhere to digest. Digestion can take some time, depending on the size of the prey, which means some snakes only hunt and feed infrequently.

Digestion is an enormous process, though, which takes a lot of energy. Think about how you feel after a big meal. Now think of the snake!
So, once they’ve eaten, snakes actually up-regulate their digestive tract. If they’re disturbed during this process, they’ll throw up their meal and take off.

A stressed snake may also throw up. Disturbing the snake is one way to stress it out. Snakes kept as pets or in zoos also have to be watched for this. They can be sensitive to changes in their environment, particularly temperature changes and disturbances. They might also be stressed by light, noise, or other factors.

So, when Marty gets sick and Jasper and Orrin are asking him if he was “stressed” or having trouble digesting, this snake feature is what they’re referring to.

Anacondas Love the Water

You’ve probably heard of sea snakes. And if you live around the Great Lakes area in North America, you’ve likely heard of water snakes. Yes, snakes can swim. They’re often pretty good at it too.

Anacondas in particular love the water! They rarely leave it, preferring instead to stay almost underwater, with the snout lifted to they can breathe. Breeding usually takes place in the water as well.

Of course, snakes get around pretty much everywhere. In the desert, you might find sidewinders. Snakes are also very good at climbing. And there are even snakes that “fly”—they can glide from tree to tree with some precision, gliding for hundreds of meters. They can even turn around in mid-air.

You Probably Scare Snakes More

As humans, we tend to have an ingrained fear of snakes. And of course, we definitely need to watch out for them, especially if we live where snakes can grow quite large or there are particularly venomous species that live in our area. No one really wants to get bitten by a snake. It’s a good idea to watch out for them and give them their space.

A snake with its mouth open, possibly hissing or issuing a warning. It may have been startled.
This snake may have been startled or felt trapped. (Donald Tong/Pexels.com)

Many snakes you’ll see are totally harmless, and most of them are content to slither off the second they spot you. They’d rather not get stepped on or killed, thanks.

So, for the most part, if you give snakes their space, they’ll reciprocate!
Unless, of course, they’re alien snake-shifters who want to put the moves on you. In that case, you might want to check that your name isn’t Marty and you’re not a fictional character. (You might be a fictional character.)

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By Cherry

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