Snake Juice

Garter snake with tongue sticking out Photo Courtesy of Paul Hancock One question that always plagued scientists who observed the mating balls was how the males could possibly determine which snakes were the females, as they all looked exactly the same to the naked eye. Through intense research, Dr. Bob Mason of Oregon State University was able to determine the driving force behind much of the strange behavior exhibited by these snakes.

When the males surround the females as part of the mating ball, each male rubs his chin on the female’s body while flicking his tongue. It has long been known that although snakes do have a nose; they cannot smell as humans do. In order for snakes to “smell”, they pick up molecules released into the air with their tongue and then insert their tongue into the Jacobsen’s organ, which is located in the roof of their mouth. This organ sends signals to their brain which are then read much like our nose detects smells. Could the males be “smelling” something on the females which identifies them?

Dr. Mason believed that female snakes produced a pheromone, a chemical which acts as a signal to influence the behavior or the development of other animals of the same species, which the males could“smell” with their Jacobsen’s organ. By isolating the chemicals removed from a female snake’s skin, Dr. Mason was able to determine exactly which chemical caused the reaction in the male snakes. This chemical could even be placed on a paper towel and male snakes would chin-rub and tongue-flick the paper towel as if it were a female! This was proof enough that the pheromones were causing the behavior. If the pheromones could have this strong an influence on the male snakes during the mating ritual, it is possible that perhaps the pheromones could be attributed to other behavior exhibited by the snakes.