You can probably go only about 4-6 hours before you’re hungry again.
So, you might be surprised to find out that certain snake species can go months (up to 168 days, one scientific study found) without eating anything at all.
Some studies have found that the maximum time is two whole years!
But how can they accomplish this impressive feat?
Scientists have found that snakes are a perfected digesting machine, able to lower the metabolic rate based on their current food needs.
How Snakes Can Lower Their Metabolic Rate
The first thing we should mention is how little is known about snakes.
Scientists are attempting to catch up with information about these creatures, with new discoveries every year.
However, overall, their metabolic changes differ from the more common occurrences in the animal kingdom.
Some animals hibernate for months at a time, and others, humans included, can “eat” our own bodies via fat stores to survive. Snakes, however, do a different version of these instances.
Despite the multitude of species, most snakes share one thing in common: they can lower their metabolism enough to go for long periods of time without food.
In Fayetteville, one biologist studied the effects of starvation on snakes by monitoring their temperatures while inactive.
Marshall McCue found that rattlesnakes, pythons, and even rat snakes reacted to laboratory testing similarly.
Each was prevented from eating for months as McCue took note of the metabolic rates. The resting rate was lowered by 72%. Another important note is the lab temperature.
Snakes can absorb the ambient temperature, and this affects their health.
The lab was kept at a steady 80°F to further balance the data. Too low of a temperature would cause them to cease functioning, and too high might have encouraged more activity than usual.
So, while they maintained the same temperature in the lab, the animals were still active enough to attempt attacks on the lab workers.
Scientists were surprised to find out that they were still alert enough to move quickly even though their bodies were at incredibly low energy levels.
The simple answer to “how do snakes do this” is by lowering their energy consumption. However, we’re still baffled by how they survive while doing this.
The best guesses involve their mitochondria and fat burning process.
Our cells are made up of many parts, but the mitochondria might be the ones you are most familiar with.
Mitochondria, as the cell’s powerhouse, create energy for cells to use, and it’s thought that a snake’s biology is uniquely suited to control these microscopic parts.
If they concentrate on lowering usage in high-energy sections of their body (like the heart or liver), then it makes sense that this minimizes the overall energy drain in their systems.
Once food returns, the metabolic use rises in the cells again, renewing their activity.
This is the most common way animals avoid starvation. It is easier to repurpose internal resources, lipids, and proteins than similar tactics. Snakes are no expectation to this rule.
However, while they do the same, what is different is their approach.
The majority of the animal kingdom will allow their fat stores to fall under a 10% mark for their body mass.
Usually, if it gets any lower than this, an animal will start consuming crucial organ and bone material.
This is why some diets are harmful to humans, dogs, cats, or any pet.
Once you reach a certain level of body mass, to survive, you consume critical organs like the heart or brain and even lose bone mass.
Scientists have discovered that snakes can go as low as 5% before their bodies move to critical protein consumption.
Furthermore, this process for our serpentine friends is less of an issue.
Their metabolism has evolved to cleverly stretch these resources out, making them even better at surviving for long periods with no food available.
But how did they start doing this? It seems like a strange skill to adapt, considering their predatory habits.
Why Snakes Metabolize at This Rate
So we know that snakes can lower their metabolism by 70%. But which environmental factors contributed to this evolutionary trait?
We covered hibernation earlier. In many habitats, a snake’s meal source can hibernate for months through the winter.
Even if their prey avoids hibernation, most winters are tough on snakes, and they need some extra help to survive.
With lowered temperatures and reduced chance of prey, species like the ball python have adapted over thousands of years to regulate their energy.
Even when not currently digesting a meal, these pythons use protein in small portions, thus preserving their energy.
The ball python has even been known to go for two weeks without water!
Their streamlined bodies fully work with the resources available to maintain their energy levels.
How Snakes Reduce Their Energy Consumption
The animal kingdom is good at keeping things balanced. Nature does not like to waste anything. This extends to our friends in the Serpentes suborder.
Going back to the study with McCue, he discovered that all three species went through specific stages as they lowered their energy consumption rates. These went as follows:
- The snake used up their stored fats.
- Depending on their diet, the subjects broke down specific proteins to keep surviving.
For example, the ratsnakes primarily eat, well, rats. So their consumption was linked more solidly to the same proteins found in their prey.
However, their close cousins, the pythons, and rattlesnakes were found utilizing a different set.
The biologist offers one explanation for this, and it’s similar to our economic system.
As the resources in an ecosystem get slimmer, the snakes lower the energy consumption to reflect it.
Then, once food returns, the animals continue to maximize their consumption, even with plenty of mice to eat.
Ball pythons have been found to maintain a steady lowered metabolic rate year-round, despite lower temperatures and food supply.
And one major discovery was that despite the deprivation, the subjects continued to grow.
The best guess for this confusing question is that a snake’s body is more efficient the longer it grows. Besides that, anyone’s guess is best.
Even with all the uncertainty, experts do know that snakes have an incredible digestive system, molded and optimized from years of living in harsh environments.
Their bodies are now lean, metabolic machines that automatically use lower amounts of energy and react to their environments.
A Snake’s Digestive System
No one should be surprised that a snake is one big tube. Without all the extra limbs, features, and movements, a snake is perfectly made to digest food.
Their system is also tied to their activity level. If the animal is moving and hunting, then it awakens its digestive system.
Similarly, if they are at rest, then their bodies slow or even stop the process.
Do you know what goes through a snake’s mind before it attempts to eat its prey?
Several factors contribute to this so that it does not bite off more than it can chew:
- Is my mouth wide enough?
- Is it too strong for me to eat?
- Will I digest it in time?
If the meal is too large, it can rot inside a snake’s body, causing problems or forcing it to regurgitate its meal.
Distension, the proper name for the bloating caused by this, in some cases, can kill.
The most exclusive feature is their digestive enzymes and how soon they work.
Unlike us, snakes can’t chew their food, so they are reliant on a very long, often horrific, swallowing process.
Their jaws are also engineered to maximize this process.
Each side can stretch way beyond its normal capacity to encompass larger prey, and the lower jaw is separated in two for more agility while eating.
Even before fully swallowing (which takes considerable time), their enzymes start breaking down the prey in their mouths, delivering helpful proteins at the beginning of the process.
Once the food leaves this period, the rest of the body works to keep it moving.
This includes the long esophagus, sometimes half of their body length, the spine, and the ribs. Everything moves together to push the food along to the actual stomach.
Other organs that help are the gallbladder, liver, and pancreas. Each distributes liquids that further break the food down. And finally, waste is excreted as normal.
Summary – A Perfectly Balanced System
The snake can last for long periods of time without eating because of its unique advantage: an amazing digestive system.
Every piece works together to create a harmonious machine.
You can impress your friends with quick facts about the snake and how it eats.
Or if you are looking into getting a snake for a pet, here are some final thoughts to leave with you:
- Snakes differ in growth periods based on the eating frequency. Make sure to research your species if you are buying one from a pet store or speak with a veterinarian.
- Some can consume 25% or more of their body weight.
- Digestion can be so taxing that snakes can rest for quite some time after a large meal.
- Do not feed your pet snake human food—especially vegetables. They are unable to digest them.
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