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Snakes by LeighAnne and Carmen

We've been handling snakes and reptiles our whole lives. One thing you learn with snake handling is to wash your hands before you pick them up because they have a super strong sense of smell. They smell with their tongues, so if you had something for lunch, the snake will flick its tongue and smell it on you. That got us thinking: Can you tell what food a snake craves by its tongue flicks?

What did we do?
We investigated four snakes from the snake shop where LeighAnne works. Snakes aren't really into cookies or chips like we are, so we prepared food samples snakes might like. We got live minnows from a bait shop, a frog and a frozen mouse from the reptile store that we soaked in water. We were only interested in the sample's smell, so we dipped cotton swabs into each sample's water. We also made a control sample of plain water. We put each scented swab into the snake's cage one at a time, waited for it to get close and then counted the number of tongue flicks we saw in one minute.

What did we find out?
The king snake really responded to the plain water, judging by the large number of tongue flicks. Since that was its first test, we figured it might just be interested in checking out the new object in its cage. The milk snake flicked its tongue most often for the frog water, but only slightly more than the other scents. The corn snake responded most to the mouse water. It barely reacted to the other samples. The python flicked its tongue a lot at the mouse water too, but only a few flicks less than the other samples. It looked like each snake responded most often to the scent of its regular prey, which is usually a mouse or a frog. We'll try the tests again another day to see if we get the same results.

What can you do?
  • Snakes in the wild eat frogs, bugs and other things that they can find. Snakes in pet stores are usually fed mice. Do you think a pet snake craves what it's used to eating or what its relatives eat in the wild? How would you find out?
  • How important is smell to animals? Snakes have a keen sense of smell and dogs can hear sounds humans can't. What other super senses do some animals have that helps them survive?
  • Not all snakes are poisonous. How did snakes get such a bad reputation? What stories, myths or legends contributed to people's perception of snakes?
  • Use this life science investigation as a science fair project idea for your elementary or middle school science fair! Then tell us about it!
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