Hognose Snake Playing Dead | Acting for Survival

If you’re a fellow reptile enthusiast like me, you may have come across viral YouTube videos of the master of playing dead – the hognose snake.

While it’s easy to find clips of the hognose snake’s incredible “hognose snake playing dead” skills online, there’s a lack of informative articles really breaking down this snake’s impressive defense tactic.

As a curious reptile-lover myself, I decided it was time to write the ultimate guide to hognose snakes and their famous “playing dead” behaviors.

In this article, we’ll dive deep into why and how hognose snakes play dead so convincingly, and share some cool videos of their over-the-top performances.

We’ll also look at whether baby hognose snakes can pull off this death-defying act, and learn about the differences between eastern and western hognose snakes.

So keep reading to learn more!

Do Hognose Snakes Play Dead?

hognose snake playing dead

In short – yes, absolutely! The hognose snake is legendary for its dramatic death-feigning abilities.

When threatened or scared, these small yet skilled serpents will immediately spring into action by playing dead.

Hognose snakes have mastered the art of deception when it comes to fooling potential predators through their playing-dead antics.

While other snake species may briefly play dead or emit foul smells as a defense, hognose snakes take it to the next level.

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Do Baby Hognose Snakes Play Dead?

Yes, baby hognose snakes do exhibit the behavior of playing dead when threatened, just like adult hognose snakes.

Even at a very young age, hognose snake hatchlings will instinctively roll onto their backs, open their mouths, and go limp if they sense danger nearby.

Baby Eastern Hognose snake playing dead

However, their playing dead skills may not be as convincing as an adult hognose snake that has years of experience.

The babies will still mimic the movements, but their routines may not seem as polished or dramatic.

The ability to play dead appears to be an inborn defense mechanism in hognose snakes, present even in new hatchlings.

They do not need to be taught this behavior. All hognose snakes seem to possess the instinct from birth to feign death when frightened as a form of self-preservation.

Baby Hognose Snake Playing Dead Fresh From the Egg (ViralHog)
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How Do Hognose Snakes Play Dead?

When a hognose snake decides to play dead, it puts on an impressive and dramatic show.

As soon as it feels threatened, the hognose snake will quickly roll onto its back and writhe around for a few seconds.

Then it will lift its head slightly, open its mouth, and stick out its tongue, holding incredibly still.

To complete its dramatic performance, the hognose snake will relax its muscles until its entire body becomes completely limp.

Eastern Hognose Plays Dead (Nicole Barys)

It will not move a muscle, even if gently prodded or moved.

Some hognose snakes may even release a foul-smelling musk from their cloaca to convince predators that they are deceased.

The hognose snake’s eyes will remain wide open and glassy. If turned right-side up, it will immediately roll again onto its back.

It will continue to hold its mouth agape and tongue extended for as long as necessary, rarely breaking character until the threat has fully passed.

This elaborate act of pretending to be dead is an incredible feat of deception.

When feigning death, the hognose snake appears so lifeless that even knowledgeable herpetologists have to touch it to confirm if it is truly still alive!

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Why Do Hognose Snakes Play Dead?

Hognose snakes have evolved this remarkable ability to pretend to be dead for a very important reason – defense and survival.

By convincingly playing dead, hognose snakes can effectively deter potential predators, avoiding being eaten or attacked.

When faced with a hungry predator, a hognose snake’s first instinct is to rapidly roll onto its back and play dead rather than try to flee.

First Name: Hognose, Last Name: Drama (Animalogic)

This is because the snake is counting on its dramatic acting performance to confuse the predator into thinking it is an unappealing, rotten meal.

By mimicking the look and smell of a deceased snake, down to going fully limp and releasing foul musks, the goal is for the predator to lose interest so the hognose snake can be left alone.

Its open mouth and extended tongue add to the illusion that it is unwell.

This ingenious adaptation gives the harmless hognose snake its best chance of surviving close encounters with predators it could never dream of outrunning or overpowering.

For this nonvenomous, docile snake, “playing dead” has proven to be its most effective defense and survival tactic over the years.

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What Kind of Horned Snake Plays Dead?

Within the horned snake family, it is specifically the Eastern and Western Hognose snakes that are famous for their incredible ability to play dead when threatened.

The Eastern hognose snake’s range extends throughout the eastern United States from southern New England to southern Florida and west to Eastern Texas and Minnesota.

hognose snake playing dead

The Western hognose snake resides farther west from Saskatchewan to Arizona.

Both the Eastern and Western hognose snakes share the trademark upturned, pointed snout that gives them their “hog-nosed” appearance.

Their keeled scales also help distinguish them from other horned snake species.

So while not all horned snakes play dead, the Eastern and Western Hognose species have uniquely perfected the art of pretending to be deceased as a defensive tactic in the horned snake family.

No other horned snake puts on as impressive of a “playing dead” act as these two hognose snakes.

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Hognose Snake Playing Dead | Does Hognose Snake Play Dead Work?

Yes, the hognose snake’s infamous routine of playing dead is an extremely effective survival strategy.

The hognose snake’s infamous “playing dead” routine has proven to be a highly effective defense mechanism.

When faced with predators and danger, playing dead helps protect hognose snakes and improves their chances of survival in several key ways.

Confuses Predators
  • A convincing “dead” act often causes predators to lose interest, believing the snake to be diseased or rotten, causing them to move on.
Avoids Attack
  • By appearing lifeless, hognose snakes avoid being viewed as prey worth pursuing or eating at the moment. This protects them from immediate harm.
Buys Time
  • Feigning death allows the snake time to assess the threat level. If the predator loses focus, the snake may stop playing dead and try to sneak off undetected.
Harmless Appearance 
  • With its mouth agape and limp body, the hognose snake cleverly projects an image of being ill and non-threatening. This makes predators wary of attacking.
Last Resort Option
  •  When under attack with no chance of escape, playing dead is a last bid for survival over trying to fight or flee from a losing battle.

So yes – the hognose snake’s tactic of playing dead is an extremely effective defense mechanism that has served this species well as a key survival adaptation.

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How Long Do Hognose Snakes Play Dead?

Typically, a hognose snake will play dead anywhere from a few minutes up to one hour or more, depending on the perceived level of threat.

If it senses a predator has lost interest and backed off, the hognose will end its act earlier and try to silently slither away unnoticed.

But in the face of immediate danger, these snakes are capable of exhibiting astounding patience and persistence in playing dead until they are absolutely sure the threat is gone.

They will let nothing break their motionless stiffened state as they hold their breath and remain perfectly still.

Can a Hognose Snake be Kept as a Pet?

Can a Hognose Snake be Kept as a Pet?

Yes, hognose snakes can make terrific pets for reptile enthusiasts who are looking for an exotic yet manageable pet snake.

While not as common as beginner choices like corn snakes or ball pythons, hognose snakes have gained popularity over the years among snake lovers.

Hognose snakes are relatively easy to care for once their habitat and nutritional needs are met.

Their small size maxing out around 3-4 feet makes them appropriate for handling and housing compared to larger snake species.

Their unique personalities, defense mechanisms, and range of color morphs have captured the interest of reptile experts and amateurs alike.

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For someone looking to get more into snake-keeping beyond just a corn or king snake, a pet hognose snake is often a perfect next step.

They offer all the rewards of an interactive snake pet without being overly demanding to keep healthy and happy in captivity.

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Final Thoughts

The hognose snake is truly one of the most fascinating serpents thanks to its incredible ability and dedication when it comes to “playing dead.”

This harmless yet dramatic snake has perfected the art of deception in order to protect itself from predators.

While many snakes may briefly feign death for defense, none take it as far as the hognose.

The lengths this little snake will go to in order to appear convincingly lifeless are astounding – and entertaining to witness.

From the smoothness of its Oscar-worthy performances rolling onto its back to its commitment to remaining motionless for hours, the hognose snake shows that “playing dead” is an effective survival adaptation.

So next time you come across a hognose snake, consider yourself lucky to be in the presence of a true master of deception.

Just resist the urge to poke it to double-check it’s still alive! Its dedication to staying in character is part of what makes the hognose snake such a joy to encounter and study for snake enthusiasts.

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FAQs

Do eastern hognose snakes in Missouri play dead?

Yes, Eastern hognose snakes found in Missouri exhibit the classic death-feigning behaviors this species is known for, including rolling over, mouth agape, going limp, etc. when threatened.

How do eastern hognose snakes play dead?

Eastern hognose snakes play dead by rolling onto their backs, opening their mouths, sticking out their tongues, relaxing their muscles completely until stiff, and staying perfectly still even if moved or touched. Some may release foul-smelling musk for added effect.

Is it safe to hold a hognose snake?

Yes, hognose snakes can be safely held if handled gently. However, sudden movements or tight grips may trigger their playing dead response as a stress reaction. Allow them to acclimate before handling.

What do hognose snakes do when scared?

When scared or threatened, the hognose snake’s natural reaction is to roll onto its back and play dead.

Resources – (for further reading)

Britannica – Hognose snake | Behavior, Size, & Facts

SREL Herpetology – Eastern Hognose Snake (Heterodon platirhinos)

Florida Museum – Eastern Hog-nosed Snake

I'm Ernest M Noah, the founder of BugsTips.com. I have years of experience as an exterminator in Texas and Idaho, and I'm passionate about educating people on how to deal with pest problems effectively and safely.