Why do snakes like tight spaces? How does that translate into housing?
Well the answer to this, in its very basic form, is to make them feel safe, I’m sure we all know that tight spaces meet their security needs. Many of us have experienced our snake cram itself into the tiniest cork bark tube or under the water bowl.
But why tight spaces? Why not any hidden space? Well the answer is something a lot more interesting than “because they do”.
Its do to with something called thigmotaxis, and what this means is the movement of an organism toward or away from an object that provides mechanical stimulus. It has also been described as to stay close to walls when exploring an open space.
In a snake specific case, it means seeking an area so tight that the mechanical stimulus of the surrounding area provides added security. This is something we humans can relate to, in a scary situation what do we do? We put our back to the wall, because it makes you feel more secure right?
Example of thigmotaxis in a very tight cork tube.
Thigmotaxis is something studied in everything from mice to humans. And what’s super interesting is that the more options for security, the more relaxed an organism can be.
But here’s the problem…
Unfortunately, this is something that gets misinterpreted in the hobby quite often. Some of the way’s snakes are kept due to different beliefs in the hobby aren’t optimal and we will go over some studies later in this article.
This high security need for tight spaces in snakes, has led some keepers to assume that if we keep the snake in an enclosed space like a rack or a tub, then that’s the problem sorted right? Well not really, no, and that’s creating a far bigger array of problems and leads to lower welfare overall.
And look I get it, I can see where that logic is coming from, but actually its not entirely true.
I know what you are thinking, loads of keepers keep in racks and tubs and have great success with them. I would say I totally get that, but that premise is defined on our definition of success, because the snake feeds, defecates, grows and breeds in that tub, that is success in some people’s views.
I would argue those are baseline parameters for care, just because the snake breeds in that space, it doesn’t mean the conditions in which it finds itself in are optimal. Snakes in shipments have been found locked in transport bags. Arguably the most stressful situation the snake can be in. Just because many snakes may breed in most conditions, it does not mean those conditions are optimal, what it is, is a testament to the snakes drive to survive and reproduce.
Lots of keepers are aware of not slipping into anthropomorphism, which is projecting human emotions onto an animal, for example “my corn snake loves cuddles”.
A lot of keepers fear being criticized for anthropomorphism so much they actually go to the other end of the spectrum and slip into mechanomorphism, which is perceiving the animal as nothing more than machine like, which is just as dangerous as anthropomorphism.
Now, on the flipside, that doesn’t mean a big enclosure is magically optimal either. Its great that keepers may recognize the welfare issues related to racks and want to provide big enclosures. Which is good, as it allows for overhead heating, UVB, a greater thermal gradient, the opportunity to create microclimates and overall, there is more space for the animal.
But how you set this enclosure up is critical, some keepers may only provide one or two hides, the age-old rule you hear is a hide at the cool end and a hide at the hot end. While this is a good thing, it’s also missing things. An enclosure with barren space in between both hides can leave a snake feeling exposed.
My crude example of the typical two hide set up with barren space in-between.
Which can lead to a snake prioritizing its security over thermoregulating along the gradient. It may stay put to avoid venturing out into the open when what it wants to do at that time is achieve a new temperature.
So, what’s the answer? Well the answer is clutter. Clutter the enclosure, with visual breaks, hides, and tunnels. The snake should be able to move along the gradient without being seen at all should they choose. You may think well why would I do that? I want to see my snake. I’ll never see it. And that is a reasonable conclusion to come to.
My own snake enclosure, with deep leaflitter to allow concealed movement and cork bark hides on the floor and in elevated positions.
However, you may be surprised to hear that the opposite happens. You see the animal more because the animal takes confidence in the multiple options of security it has.
But don’t just take my word for it, there’s real science to back this up.
In a study containing an experiment with corn snakes, a set of juvenile corn snakes were divided into two. One half kept in enriched cluttered enclosures and the other in a non-cluttered enclosure.
The results of the study where interesting, the snakes in the non-cluttered enclosure spent the majority of the time hidden, while the snakes in the cluttered enclosure, were out visible more often and altered their hiding spots between different options and elevations. This is because they could thermoregulate more freely while remaining hidden due to the amount of clutter. They didn’t have to hunker down and stay put like in the non-cluttered group, because they had more options of security they were out more often to be seen.
In another study, comparing black rat snakes in enriched enclosures, to minimal enclosures over a period of 8 months. Now bear in mind here all variables where accounted for, temperatures and food items given were all identical between the groups. The snakes in the enriched enclosure grew significantly larger in both length and weight. This could be due to having better opportunities to exercise, and thus having better muscle development.
But the snakes also performed better in eating live prey, habituated faster to new situations outside of the enclosure and were also faster than the non-enriched group at learning trials. The snakes had to locate hole and duration was timed, the enriched snakes were faster.
To me this makes a lot of sense, a more complex environment would be asking more cognitively of the snakes to navigate that environment compared to a less complex environment.
What we must ask ourselves is this, if a snake may be better both cognitively and physically in a more complex environment. Shouldn’t we be striving for that? I know I certainly am. It shows there’s a lot more a snake husbandry than just feeding, defecating and breeding I’d argue.
Part of that complex environment could include UVB, near infra-red emitting heat lamps, variations in humidity etc and all the studies and science that supports that, but that’s a whole other set of videos, which I have made.
My Mexican black kingsnake basking under UVB.
The point I’m trying to make is, the more complex the enclosure with lots of clutter, the better it is for the snake and you, the reptile keeper to view and enjoy them. And I don’t know a snake owner that doesn’t want either of those two things.
About the Author:
Liam Sinclair is a keen reptile keeper that has worked as a zookeeper as well as in a specialist reptile shop in the UK. He is currently pursuing a degree in Animal Management, and runs the YouTube channel, Reptiles and Research. His goal is to help people achieve higher welfare for their animals.
Almli, L. M. (2004). An Assessment of Environmental Enrichment on Morphology and Behavior of Yearling Rat Snakes (Elaphe obsoleta). https://trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=3176&context=utk_gradthes
Rose, P., Evans, C., Coffin, R., Miller, R., & Nash, S. (2014). Using student-centred research to evidence-base exhibition of reptiles and amphibians: three species-specific case studies. Journal of Zoo and Aquarium Research, 2(1), 25-32. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/269093642_Using_student-centred_research_to_evidence-base_exhibition_of_reptiles_and_amphibians_three_species-specific_case_studies