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Colubrids: Colubridae - Behavior And Reproduction

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Scientists have not studied the activities of most of the 1,700 colubrid species in any detail, because many of them live underground or in trees, or else they have excellent camouflage (KA-mah-flahzh), a sort of disguise, which makes them difficult to watch. Scientists do, however, have a lot of information about the more common snakes and even some particularly odd types. The most obvious features of many colubrids are their defensive methods. Often, snakes make their bodies appear bigger to scare off attacking animals, known as predators (PREH-duh-ters). For instance, the false water cobras spread their necks into a hood, giving them the look of much larger snakes. Some colubrid snakes will open their mouths wide and might even strike and bite. Many, including the northern ribbon snake, give off bad-smelling substances to convince predators that they should leave them alone.

A wide variety of colubrid snakes find that the best way to keep away from predators is to move away as quickly as possible. Other snakes act like venomous (VEH-nuh-mus), or poisonous, species, or they have coloring that copycats the coloring of venomous species. For example, the scarlet kingsnake has no dangerous venom, but it looks very much like the venomous eastern coral snake, and the milk snake, that has no dangerous venom, will wiggle its tail just as a venomous rattlesnake does.

Many colubrids that live in cool climates, particularly those with very cold winters, will hibernate (HIGH-bur-nayt), or become inactive and sleep deeply, to help them survive the frigid (FRIH-juhd) weather. Although most snakes do not dig, they will use other animals' underground homes as places to hibernate. Snakes will also sometimes hibernate among tree roots; inside old, rotting tree stumps; or in any other protected spot they can find.

During mating season, which usually happens once a year, the males of many colubrid species will wrestle with one another. In these fights two snakes usually twist their bodies around each other while trying to tip over the opponent. The winner approaches the female to mate. In some species, the male flicks his tongue at the female and presses his head against the female's back before mating. Tongue flicking is also used in hunting. Snakes do not really have a sense of smell. When a snake flicks out its tongue, it picks up scent (SENT) chemicals from the air. The snake then presses its tongue against the roof of its mouth and "smells" the scent, or odor, in that way.


When considering all of the snakes in the world, nearly three of every four species is a member of the family Colubridae. Scientists have been struggling for many years to decide for sure if all of these snakes should remain in one large family or be split up into several smaller families. For now, however, they are all in one large family that is divided into smaller groups, called subfamilies. Not everyone agrees on the arrangement of the snakes in these subfamilies or even on the number of subfamilies, however, so plenty of work is left to do.

Most colubrid snakes lay eggs, but some females give birth to live snakes. Typically, the females lay eggs in a hole or tunnel in the ground or under some rotting leaves. The smaller species have fewer young than the larger species. Some of the smallest colubrids, such as the worm snakes, may lay only three eggs at a time, while larger species, like mud snakes, may lay more than thirty eggs. The diamond-backed water snake gives birth to nearly fifty live young at a time. For some species, the female's duties are complete as soon as she gives birth, but for others, the female will stay near her nest and protect her eggs.

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