blue snakeWhy do snakes eat themselves?

From jewelry to tattoos, the image of a snake biting its tail is ingrained in many of our minds. But experts say it’s just symbolism we’ve inherited from ancient mythology, and not really a problem of herpetologists as well as snake scientists – with a few exceptions.

Rooted in myth: Ouroboros and coiled serpents

(Credit: Andrei Khusnutdinov/Shutterstock)

The visualization of a snake biting its own tail is deeply rooted in myth. In ancient mythology, the snake that eats the tail is called an ouroboros, from the Greek word literally meaning to eat a tail. As an icon, it represents the concepts of continuity, eternity, rebirth and the cycle of life.

Hoop Snakes

It has been adopted by different cultures and traditions over the millenniaincluding Ancient Egypt, Greece and Norse Mythology. Similarly, in more recent North American folklore there is a hoop snake legend — a snake bites its own tail, makes a hoop, and rolls like a wheel to catch its prey and terrorize any assailant.

Read more: Do snakes eat birds?

“Snakes do have a lot of superstitions associated with them,” he says Matt Good, assistant research professor at the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and Environment. “They are so different from us.”

Strange behavior of a snake: trauma and suffering or just a mistake

The term ouroboros has also permeated the scientific literature on reptiles. For example, the researchers named the genus of African armadillo belted lizard on Ouroborus cataphractus due to the way they curl up and bite their own tail to form a protective armadillo-like ball. Little scientific evidence suggests that snakes bite their tails or try to eat themselves.

(Credit: reptiles4all/Shutterstock)

Of course, there are several reported cases of snakes biting their own tails while in captivity, such as the famous female Albino Western Hognose bit its tail in the UK in 2014, but it’s not something scientists worry about like the snake’s behavior in the wild.

Read more: Exotic snakebites are on the rise in the UK, new research reports

“What people often see are videos of snakes biting their bodies. And the terrible news of all this is that often a snake has been hit by a car or something like that,” he says Brian Maritz, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology at the University of the Western Cape. “When snakes are in excruciating pain, they just pounce and bite. If they’re really in trauma, sometimes you see them biting their bodies and it’s really horrible to watch.”

A snake bites

In addition to trauma or severe stress, scientists suggest that a snake biting its tail may have mistaken it for prey because it was hungry or mistakenly attacked another snake.

“Snakes aren’t brilliant, are they? Then you might have a snake eating another snake. And then it accidentally just starts gobbling up what it thinks is the other snake, and that might be its tail,” says Good. “I could see that that could happen just because they have such a strong feeding response.”

Some snakes go so far as to eat other snakes – especially sure types of cobraswhose diet consists mostly of other snakes, even poisonous. “King cobras in India are one of them,” says Good. “They will sometimes eat an individual of their own species.”

Read more: 8 facts you didn’t know about poison and toxic animals

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