Snakes are fascinating for a wide range of reasons, but they have typically not been believed to be very intelligent. However, ongoing research is changing that assumption. In fact, snakes may be much smarter than you think.
These 20 facts showing how incredibly intelligent snakes are made change your opinion about dumb snakes or give you confidence that you’ve been right in assuming your pet snake is a lot smarter than people assume, or even smarter than your pet dog.
From their capacity to learn, to protecting their young, forming social relationships, and incredible adaptability, there are a lot of reasons to believe in the intelligence of snakes.
Here’s what you need to know about how smart snakes really are, as well as some information about which snakes are the smartest and the dumbest, which pet snake may be the most intelligent companion for you, and whether your snake really might be smarter than your dog.
Table of Contents
1. Older snakes are more intelligent
Younger snakes may be more adaptable in using a number of different cues to find their way out of a tub, whereas older snakes rely on what they had learned to use in the past, their vision, to get out, and were not as likely to be resourceful in using new types of cues.
2. Snakes persist in urban environments
As humans have changed the face of the world with their building and urbanization, snakes have had to adapt in order to survive in this new environment. This is particularly true as humans are often not particularly encouraging of snakes.
We certainly are not likely to fill up feeders for them as we do for birds and squirrels. Since adaptability is often seen as a sign of intelligence, this capacity of snakes should point to them being smarter than we may have assumed in the past.
3. Snakes can remember cues
When 24 captive-bred corn snakes were put into a tub in a brightly lit room, they wanted to find the holes in the tub that would allow them to get into a dark, safe space.
When snakes were guided towards a hole by researchers, it was found that they were able to find that hole again more quickly the next time. In fact, they seemed to learn this skill quite quickly.
On average, the snakes took more than 700 seconds to find the escape hole on the first day but were down to 400 seconds by the fourth day of training.
4. Some snakes are smarter than others
If snakes primarily operate by instinct as many people have assumed in the past, we would expect to see most snakes perform with similar intelligence on tasks.
However, this isn’t necessarily the case. Some snakes were able to escape from a tub within as little as 30 seconds with training whereas the majority of snakes took as many as 400 seconds.
This indicates that there is diversity in intelligence between snakes, which may indicate that they are not as dependent on operating by instinct as may have previously been assumed.
5. Snakes may protect their young
Snakes are often thought to be cold-blooded not only as a physical trait but also in their indifference to the well-being of their young. However, some snakes, like the King Cobra, build and guard their nest, showing the intelligence to protect their young.
6. Snakes may cooperate with one another
Animals that work together as a group are often thought to be more intelligent than those that are solitary.
Snakes have often been assumed to be intensely solitary animals without much socialization other than reproduction, but it has been found that the Cuban Boa works in loosely formed groups to capture prey.
Other types of snakes may also work together to capture their prey, as in the case of these snakes pursuing recently hatched iguanas. This video also points to the snake’s ability to anticipate a reliable food source and work to obtain it as a group:
7. Snakes may control their venom delivery system
Some venomous snakes have been found to be able to control whether they release venom when they bite or not. At times, they may choose to deliver a dry bite without releasing venom in order to scare off or intimidate without wasting their venom supplies.
8. Snakes produce brain cells throughout their lives
Unlike humans and many other mammals that produce brain cells during specific periods but not continuously throughout life, snakes are unrestricted in their ability to create brain cells. Surely this capacity to produce brain cells points to some level of intelligence.
9. Snakes can be trained to operate an apparatus
Indigo Snakes were able to learn to press a key in order to obtain a positive result, which in this case was the presence of water.
This ability to learn to do something to get something they want in captivity that in the wild would never result in a positive outcome may point to a great degree of intelligence in these snakes.
10. Snakes can learn to associate an unrelated stimulus with a desired result
Garter snakes were trained to associate lemon-scented chips with a food reward. They could even learn the opposite, to go to the unscented chamber in exchange for the food reward.
Since the scent of lemon has nothing to do with the presence of food, this points to a level of intelligence outside of instinct.
11. Snakes can learn to take a small food reward in exchange for a behavior
Wild Burmese Pythons were taught to press an illuminated button to receive a small food reward. This is impressive not only in that they learned to operate an apparatus in order to get the food but in that they learned to accept smaller amounts of food than what they might typically hunt in the wild.
12. Snakes can adapt to handling
Just about anyone with a pet snake can attest to the ability of snakes to learn to tolerate and even seem to enjoy being handled.
Since being lifted and touched by a large animal would be a severe threat in the wild, the ability of snakes to learn to tolerate handling may indicate their capacity to learn to accept different circumstances than what they would expect in the wild.
13. Snakes can recognize their owners
If you think that your pet snake likes you more than other people, you’re likely to be right. Snakes seem to be able to pick up the smell of their owners and may respond differently to their owners than they do to other people.
14. Snakes have friends
A study has found that garter snakes seek out the company of other snakes and prefer some snakes over others, indicating that they may form social friendships very similar to what may be expected from what has previously been considered higher animals like humans.
15. Snakes are found in a wide range of environments
Snakes are found nearly everywhere in the world. Even individual species of snakes have been able to thrive in vastly different environments.
Common snakes like the corn snake are equally at home in marshy environments, hot dry prairies, and urban environments, indicating incredible adaptability which requires significant intelligence.
16. Snakes can persist as introduced species
Snakes are so adaptable that they can even survive in environments that are completely foreign to them. This is especially clear in the capacity of the Burmese Python to establish populations in the Florida Everglades, far from their native home.
17. They can remain largely undetected
Snakes are common in urban environments, but most people don’t know it. You may walk past snakes every day when you go outside without having any idea.
The capacity of snakes to anticipate our movements and keep themselves concealed from us may be a mark of their intelligence.
18. They can warn us
Most of the time, snakes don’t want a confrontation with humans or other large predators any more than we want to confront them.
Therefore, they have a number of tactics to warn us of their presence. Rattlesnakes shake their tails to warn us away from where they are and cobras lift up and elongate their heads to warn us away.
19. They can imitate and fake behavior
A number of species of snakes may shake their tails in imitation of a rattlesnake, even though they aren’t venomous. The Eastern Hognose Snake plays dead when it is threatened, which may indicate an awareness of how it is perceived by predators.
20. They are escape artists
Most snake keepers can point to at least one time in which a snake has escaped even a well-locked and carefully constructed containment. The ability of snakes to, apparently, outsmart us in this way is a strong indication of their smarts.
What is the Smartest Snake in the World?
Snakes that are active hunters like North American Racers and Whipsnakes are considered to be among the most intelligent, but it is likely that the King Cobra is the most intelligent of all snakes.
This intelligence is determined because of their hunting techniques, behavior with humans, and because they are one of the very few snakes that constructs and guards their nest.
People who work with King Cobras often describe them as seeming more aware and personable than most other snakes.
What is the Dumbest Snake in the World?
The blind snake is very likely to be the least intelligent snake. These snakes are extremely simple, without eyesight or venom. They are very small and are typically associated with termite and ant nests.
Their diet is composed primarily of the larvae of termites and ants, which aren’t particularly difficult to catch, which may point towards these snakes being some of the least intelligent.
What is the Smartest Pet Snake?
The King Cobra is well-known to be the most intelligent of snakes, but it is not a particularly good pet, not only because of its considerable size but because of its very dangerous venom. If you want to have a smart pet snake, which species should you choose?
Studies have found some common pet snakes including corn snakes, boas, and pythons to be capable of learning and being trained as well as working socially together.
Therefore, if you want a smart pet snake, a corn snake, python, or boa constrictor may be your best bet.
Are Snakes Smarter Than Dogs?
In the past, just about any scientist would have told you that there was no debate about whether dogs are more intelligent than snakes. They would have pointed to the dog’s ability to learn and the many studies done on dogs to prove how much smarter they are than snakes.
However, as new research emerges, it may be less clear whether dogs are actually smarter than snakes. The fact is that these two species are so different from one another that it can be very challenging to compare them.
Many scientists would likely still tell you that dogs are more intelligent than snakes, but this question is certainly open to debate.
Why Have Snakes Been Assumed to be Unintelligent in the Past?
If snakes have so much intelligence to offer, why have people tended to think they were dumb throughout history? There are a number of different answers to this question worth consideration:
We weren’t testing them correctly.
Previous tests of intelligence put snakes into a maze, but mazes are not something snakes would encounter in nature.
Putting snakes into a situation in which they needed to find a hole out of a tub is a much more realistic and accurate judge of their intelligence, and did in fact find that snakes showed more intelligence and capacity to learn than previously thought.
They haven’t been studying sufficiently.
Throughout the history of intellectual testing, mammals have gotten most of the attention, leaving reptiles and amphibians relatively untested.
Very little research has been done on the intelligence of snakes until quite recently, which means that most of what we thought about snake intelligence was based on assumptions, not science.
Aversion to snakes.
Perhaps the most simple reason for thinking that snakes aren’t very intelligent is the simple fact that many humans have tended to have an aversion to snakes.
It can be very difficult for us to ascribe positive traits like intelligence to animals that we don’t appreciate, such as snakes.
We assume they operate from instinct.
One of the reasons we attribute so much intelligence to human beings is because we learn as we move through the world. Older people are considered “wiser” the younger people.
On the other hand, younger people are often thought to be more adaptable in their learning than older people who may become more set in their ways.
We have often tended to assume that “lesser” species such as snakes operate primarily out of instinct and do not change the way in which they gather information and perceive the world much as they get older.
However, we are increasingly finding this not to be true of snakes.
They are highly dependent on smell.
Although studies have found that snakes may utilize sight more than we thought in the past, it remains true that snakes tend to rely heavily on smell.
Since humans are primarily visual animals, we may not have recognized limitations on snakes because of their reliance on smell and thought that they were being dumb when in fact they were simply limited by their primary sense.
We haven’t used them.
We have been much more likely to assume intelligence with animals that we work with regularly, either in everyday life (such as dogs and cats) or in the laboratory (such as rats and mice).
Since we haven’t had much use for snakes throughout our history, we haven’t had much reason to believe them to be intelligent either.
Snakes May be Smarter Than You Think
Snakes are very different than human beings, which could make it hard for humans to ascribe intelligence to them or to measure their intelligence.
However, when you take into account the many reasons to believe that snakes may be smarter than you expected, you may find yourself reconsidering the intelligence of these fascinating creatures.