For centuries, the snake devouring its own tail has been a symbol of infinity. But seeing an illustration of this concept means nothing compared to the actual horror.
In rare cases, mostly recorded in captivity, a snake can actually swallow its own tail.
As the reptile swallows more and more of its body, the symbol of eternity quickly turns into a death spiral. If the snake’s owner does not intervene, its digestive enzymes can begin to decompose its own body.
Some pet snakes that are used to eating themselves have damage on their scales from acidic stomach fluids.
Herpetologists don’t know exactly why snakes do this, but they suspect that the self-destructive behavior occurs because of stress, confusion, illness, or even starvation. If a snake is overheated, for example, and can’t escape into the shade, it may become confused, unable to distinguish its own tail from potential prey.
Overheating can also cause the snake to develop an appetite.
That’s what probably happened to the poor creature in the video below, which was filmed in a pet store, curled up in a bowl of water and swallowing its now bloody tail. (Beware – some viewers may find the scene and the reactions of those around them a bit disruptive).
Even if a snake realizes its mistake after the first bite, it can still run into problems. While snakes can protect themselves from their own venom, their fangs can also inflict serious wounds that can cause infection.
Because king snakes tend to eat other snakes, this breed is thought to be particularly prone to mistaken cannibalism.
In a 2020 YouTube video, for example, Jesse Rothacker of the Forgotten Friend reptile shelter in the United States explains that king snakes often bite their own tails. But they rarely swallow them.
However, the snake he was filming at the time “wasn’t just nibbling on itself. It swallowed half of its body.
“He’s not the smartest king snake,” Rothacker laughs in the video. “The problem is if you have reptiles that don’t get along, you can usually separate them … when a king snake has its own tail, you can’t separate the king snake from itself.”
To save the snake, Rothacker carefully pulled the tail out of the snake’s mouth.
But there is a more passive approach.
When another owner of a spotted king snake discovered his pet was eating itself, he took a clever solution on video. The owner placed disinfectant near the creature’s face, and the smell caused the snake to vomit its own tail almost instantly.
If you catch your pet during such a disturbing act, you can also try using disinfectant or putting them in water to see if that will cause them to let themselves go. If you can get them to let go, it’s still best to contact your vet – as soon as possible if they won’t let go.
It’s not known how often king snakes bite their tails in the wild, but even the most dedicated owners of this breed don’t place much value on their pet’s intelligence.
“I have a Nuevo Leon king named Kevin,” one owner wrote about a king snake that eats its own tail.
“Kevin is definitely not the smartest snake.”