It's hard to believe that snakes can be actors, but there are several that portray the most dramatic death scenes since the Wicked Witch of the West and Little Nell. They come from many countries, and it's hard to decide who gets the Oscar -- or to pick the biggest ham -- but here are the nominees.
Both the eastern hognose snake (Heterodon platirhinos) and his western cousin (Heterodon nasicus) are accomplished thespians and enliven their death scenes with sound effects and bravado. They hiss and swell their necks aggressively in imitation of a cobra, and will actually strike at their persecutor as if to bite, but close observation reveals that the mouth is closed, rather than open. If this doesn't discourage the opponent, the hognose will flop over on his back, open his mouth, barf up his latest meal and go limp. If the confused predator rolls him onto his belly, the hognose launches into a convulsion and ends up on his back again, hoping to prove that he really is dead.
In all his many subspecies, the common kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula) uses the "I'm dead" defense, just as the hognose does, but adds a few fillips. Before his big moment, he'll shake his tail against dry vegetation to imitate the sound of a rattlesnake, hoping this will discourage the intruder. When he launches into his "dying" convulsion, he puts in a nice touch by pooping and then wriggling frantically to smear the poop on the enemy. He then rolls into a ball and "dies," only to live again when the discouraged enemy is gone.
The grass snake (Natrix natrix and various subspecies), found from England to the eastern Mediterranean and beyond, adds a stink-bomb to his pageant of death. As he defecates during his "death throes," he adds a special secretion from his anal glands that smells thoroughly vile and is potent enough to repel many an attack.
Sometimes called the ring-necked spitting cobra, he is correctly Hemachatus haemachatus or Rinkhals snake, since he is not a true cobra. This clever dramatist can go on the attack and spit venom at anything that bothers him, but he can also feign death with the best of them. If he cannot escape a threat and his venom is not enough, as a last resort he will simply go belly-up and lie limp, with his mouth gaping and his tongue lolling. To increase verisimilitude, he may even twitch this organ to be sure it gets dirt on it.
Asian Tentacled Snake
Every actor knows "you gotta have a gimmick," and the death schtick of the Asian tentacled snake (Erpeton tentaculum) is very different from those of other snakes that play dead. Instead of going limp, he does the opposite -- he simulates death by becoming rigid, apparently in imitation of a dry stick of wood, and relaxes only when any danger has passed.
- Surrey Amphibian and Reptile Group: Grass Snake
- British Naturalists' Association: Grass Snake
- Natural History Museum of Crete: Grass Snake, Natrix natrix
- African Reptiles & Venom: Rinkhals
- BioDiversity Explorer: Hemachatus haemachatus (Rinkhals, Ring-necked spitting cobra)
- Singapore Zoological Gardens: What Would Eat a Snake and How Do Snakes Protect Themselves?
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