The secret social life of snakes

Cuddling up: Garter snakes group together to keep warm and defend themselves against predators. © Alamy

Do snakes have personalities? A recent study has found that snakes form tight social bonds. The discovery suggests that the creatures might be more similar to humans than we thought.

What’s happening

They are limbless, cold-blooded, and mysterious creatures. For years, they have been difficult to study because of their secretive behaviour. Many of us think of snakes as solitary and unfriendly. Now, two scientists in Canada have discovered that they could be far more sociable than they appear.

Find out more

The team observed a group of garter snakes for a week. The first thing they noticed was that the animals curled together in groups. To begin with, they thought it was a technique that the snakes used for warmth. Then they began to notice a pattern: the same snakes were meeting each time.

Not only had the snakes formed social groups, but each one had a favourite individual it chose to spend time with. In other words, the snakes had made friends.

The team also measured how bold the snakes were by placing individuals in a shelter. Some were brave and went to explore. Others were shy, sticking to the safety of the shelter. Experts think this discovery could reveal more about the social networks of other animals.

Do snakes have personalities?

Some say…

It seems that way. This breakthrough shows that snakes are cognitive creatures. We have learned that snakes can recognise each other on a deeper level than we thought. They choose which other snakes they like to be around. As well as this, some are braver than others, with shy types preferring to stay in a shelter for longer.

Others think…

Probably not. Scientists say the behaviour stopped once the snakes were in larger groups. As the research took place with captive snakes, it is unclear if the creatures would behave the same once out in the wild. The snakes could make ‘friendships’ as another way of group survival, making it less likely that they have unique personalities.

You Decide

  1. Would you keep a snake as a pet?

Activities

  1. Make your own snake using bits and pieces you find around your household. Follow these instructions as a guide, and give your snake a unique pattern!

Some People Say...

“All animals need to interact with others.”

Morgan Skinner, leader of the study

What do you think?

Word Watch

Cold-blooded
Creatures, like lizards and snakes, that take on the temperature of their surroundings. They are hot when their environment is hot, and cold when their environment is cold. In hot places, cold-blooded animals can have blood that is much warmer than warm-blooded animals.
Solitary
Something or someone who likes to spend lots of time alone.
Garter snakes
A harmless, common snake found in North America. Garter snakes often have stunning coloured stripes.
Social networks
The network where two or more people or things communicate with each other, or react to each another.
Cognitive
Able to recognise, remember, and work out things.
Captive
An animal that is kept in a particular space and prevented from leaving or moving freely. The garter snakes in the experiment were not wild animals.
Group survival
When an animal or person has to get on with others in order to survive.
Unique
Being the only one of its kind; unlike anything else.

Subjects

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