Snake Friends: Snakes Can Be Great At Being Social!

by David Lowbridge
snake friends

For a long time it has now been thought that reptiles, and snakes in general, are unable to have social groups. And sadly, for a long time I’ve also seen keepers on forums say that snakes don’t have the brain to form social connections. Now all that has been put into doubt. Thanks to my wife, I’ve found a scientific article that has shown evidence that there is such a thing as snake friends.

What Do We Mean By Snake Friends?

Snake friends are the snakes that other snakes prefer to spend their time with. In the study in question, this behaviour was seen when snakes were kept in groups, then when those groups were rearranged, the snakes would seek out and find the original group of snakes they were with.

The study took 30 wild caught Eastern Garter snakes and 10 captive bred individuals. The scientists placed nontoxic coloured dots on the heads of each of the individuals in the study. He would then place a group of 10 individuals into an enclosure with four plastic hides, commonly used in reptile keeping. As there were only four shelters, it would force the snakes to form groups. The groups were also mixed sex.

For eight days, a camera would take an image of the testing area every five seconds. This would track the snakes’ movements. Every day, the scientists would also photograph the groups of snakes in the shelter. After taking the photo, he would take the snakes out, clean out the enclosure, ensuring to eliminate any scents or smells and place the snakes back in the enclosure, but also mix their starting places up.

The snakes though weren’t content to staying put. They would seek out their original groups which were between three and eight individuals. Essentially, they were finding their “snake friends”.

Important Notes From The Study

There are several key notes from the study that we must consider. Here’s a list of my thoughts on the study and what we can learn from it.

1. Species Used

The first thing to consider is that Eastern Garter snakes were used in the study. Eastern Garter snakes are often kept in groups anyway as they’re a known social species and aren’t a threat to one another.

However, that doesn’t rule out this study completely.

In 2012, there was another study that determined there were some active social behaviours in rattlesnakes, a species that is often portrayed as being a snake that lives a life on its own.

In addition, collections at zoos across the world will often house multiple Royal Pythons or Corn Snakes in one enclosure. Sometimes these snakes will spend time inside a single hide.

2. The Size Of The Groupings

An important part of the study I feel is that size of the groupings. Had the snakes been looking for non-social groups and were just in the hides for safety, you would expect there to be an almost even spreading of the snakes across four hides with groupings of between two and three. However, the study reports that the groupings were up to eight large. So there would have been plenty of room in other hides for the snakes to spread out if there wasn’t a social element to the groupings.

3. Returning To The Same Groupings

In addition, snakes would return to the same individuals. Therefore, they have the sophisticated cognitive ability to recognise individuals within their species, much like most other animals do.

If the snakes were simply looking for another purpose to the groupings other than social interaction, then it wouldn’t matter who was in the groupings. Therefore, they wouldn’t have abandoned closer individuals to find those that they preferred.

Now this does pose a good question about cohabitation within private collections. It is often considered good husbandry to keep individuals in separate enclosures. And I’m not about to discourage that. However, there are some that have successfully kept individuals together. Perhaps because the individuals in question have gotten along.

When individuals don’t get along when cohabitation is enforced, perhaps this is what leads to individuals being hurt or killed. The reasons for this could be numerous. One suggestion might be that the snakes don’t speak the same language/dialect.

While this sounds far-fetched, there is some evidence to suggest that this might be true. For instance, research into dog barks have shown that dogs will mimic the accent of their owner. And orcas have different vocalisations that differ between clans and dialects between pods. And of course there are humans which have 7,000 languages.

Therefore, Orcas and humans show that a single species can speak different languages. Both Orcas and humans have also been shown to be aggressive towards their own species, especially when there are poor communications between individuals. Orcas have also shown this in captivity when individuals who have no previously known connections will attack one another.

Ensuring that individuals can get along while being cohabited would be near-on impossible too. Therefore, it is probably best that you don’t start housing your Royal Pythons together.

4. Gender Preference

Another interesting point to note is that there was no case of gender preference within the groups. The scientists noted that males would not seek out the female snakes, but would seek out the same individuals.

Therefore, this puts to rest the idea that their motivation for the groups would be purely for reproduction. There must be another reason why the groups were formed.

Why Might Snakes Seek Social Interactions?

There are numerous reasons why snakes might want to find snake friends. In the 2012 study, there were several passive and active social benefits. The passive included thermoregulation and active included alloparenting (i.e. parenting of young not related to the carer), group defence and kin selection.

There is no indication why the Eastern Garter snakes did congregate in the experiment. It is unlikely to be food related. Snakes do not share food, because they can’t bite chunks off prey items, like is seen in wolfs, lions, etc.. Nor have they been shown ever pack hunting.

The study in 2012 suggests snake congregations could be for parenting reasons as pregnant females were often seen together in the study. But that wouldn’t explain why males would group together as they did.

Therefore, the true reason is not known, yet.

Behaviours Of Individuals

I think it is also important to note that the scientists found that the snakes’ personalities played an important part in their behaviour. Those that were deemed shy were more likely to stay where they were. Those that were considered bold would venture out more and would so quicker.

This behaviour could be important in understanding why snakes escape too. I’ve often found that snakes that are more active and interested in using their full enclosure, no matter how big it is, will be the ones that escape.

Francais and Babe are notable examples of this. Gumball is another example of a snake that likes to explore, but we’ve learnt our lessons from the previous escapees and ensured he can’t escape in the same ways. Though that is not discounting he won’t find a way.

What This Means For Keeping Snakes: Should We Find Them Snake Friends?

This article has both proved some of my personal opinions but the science paper has also modified them. First of all, I’ve always understood that snakes have the complex brains to recognise individuals. Babe, one of our house snakes recognises my wife and will come out for her, but is shy around me. Likewise, Gumball will come out if I am in the reptile room to watch me work.

I’ve always believed this was because of an appreciation for us. After all, they will probably recognise us giving them food, water, heat and safety. This is how dogs and cats became domesticated, so it is no surprise that other animals could show a similar behavioural change.

And this isn’t unique to animals and humans. Other animals have shown that they can form close bonds with individuals of other species.

However, I am now of the firm believer that like other animals, dogs, cats and others, that snakes are able to form true bonds with their carers. With enough patience, love and care, snakes won’t just tolerate handling sessions, but will in fact enjoy these sessions. Why? Because it will fill a basic social need and are therefore become their snake friends.

This does not mean that I think that snakes should be cohabitated. Nor do I think that snakes lack social interaction while in captivity if regular interactions between you and them take place. After all, most studies of wild individuals show that the majority of time they’re alone. However, what the studies have shown is that the same group of snakes will congregate from time to time for social interaction. And this isn’t for reproduction in most cases.

By handling our snakes regularly and interacting with them, we are fulfilling that social need without risking the health of the snakes in our care. Perhaps then we can be their snake friends.

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