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Why Do Snakes Hiss?

A snake’s hiss is one of the most notable behaviours of snakes among both humans and other animals as it creates a sense of fear and panic - if you’re out walking through fields in the early hours of the morning and you hear a snake hiss close by, chances are you’ll be on edge. But is a snake’s hiss a warning sign? How do they hiss, and why do they do it?

A snake’s hiss is a defence mechanism they’ve established to help protect themselves from a wide array of predators, often when you hear a snake hissing, it’s because they’re afraid.

Let’s start with the how. Snakes have an organ in their throats that’s called the glottis. They breathe through this and normally the glottis opens up to allow air to pass through, but snakes can change this if they need to. The hiss occurs when the snake forces air from the glottis which causes the organic structures inside the glottis rattle, creating the sound.

Okay we’ve got the how, but what would want to make a snake hiss? Well it’s not a social thing - snakes aren’t really social creatures. They’re really only ever found together for breeding purposes or if a group of them are hibernating together, this is why we suggest keeping especially male snakes separate. This means that snakes aren’t hissing to communicate with each other, in fact snakes actually have very little if any ability at all to hear airborne sounds.

King Cobras are known to emit very low-pitched growls but these are of unknown purpose. They’re actually produced differently than a hiss is and they’re carried via substrate transmission.

Some snakes are well equipped to handle themselves through defence mechanisms such as having venom or even just being really big, but most other snakes are small and aren’t actually venomous. Hissing is one of these defence mechanisms and because it’s an intimidating sound it helps to dissuade predators. A hissing snake hiding in a bush can give the impression that it’s a much larger snake that would be dangerous to pursue, so often predators will flee. There are other tactics a snake might utilise which can include biting, expelling a musk or simply just trying to slither away and most of the time a snake will try a few of these tactics at once for best results, so you’re likely to encounter a hissing snake that’s also trying to get out of your way.

The Best Hissers

All snakes have the physiological capability to hiss, that is they all have the glottis required to hiss, but many species aren’t actually known to hiss as a defensive strategy. Small snakes actually rarely hiss because hissing is an intimidation technique that’s better suited to snakes of a larger size. There are some excellent hissers though, such as pine snakes. Pine snakes and their close relatives are really great at hissing and have even been found to have adaptations physically which make them some of the best hissing species of snakes in the whole world. Another snake to point out here are the Hognose snake species. They’re also excellent hissers and like the pine snake species, they engage in several defensive behaviours which include both striking as well as creating visual displays designed to exaggerate their body sizes.

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