Snakes are pretty popular for not being able to see very well. Well, I wanted to know why an animal with eyeballs built specifically for seeing, wasn’t using them to see well. So, I did some research, and here are a few things I came up with.
Can Ball Pythons See?
Ball pythons can use their eyes to see. However, due to a long evolutionary history of mostly staying in dark places, ball pythons, and most other snakes have horrible eyesight.
Armed with this information, I was ready to take the world by storm. I was ready to shout from the rooftops, hold up cardboard signs, and start a petition to improve the vision of all snakes in need.
But then I
A Superhero Named Python
This little guy could send in an application to the Justice League and get accepted in less time than it took you to say, “Hey, who turned out the lights?”
And of course, if the good guys rejected him, I know a few excellently evil supervillains who would be overjoyed to take in someone with this particular skill set.
Ball pythons can see heat.
I know, right? Pretty nifty. Snakes have spent generations upon generations as “burrowing animals.”
This means they’ve spent who knows how long in caves, under rocks, and nestled in the deep dark dirt. Simply put, they don’t need their eyes very much.
Instead, snakes, and pythons and boas, in particular, use infrared vision to seek out their prey.
This little guy could send in an application to the Justice League.
We’ll use ball pythons as an example since that was the question. Ball pythons have little pits along their jaw, just below their nose.
These pits are heat sensors, to put it simply. (Scientifically, they’re not exactly heat sensors, but in general, it’s a good way to understand them).
There is a broad wave spectrum. Infrared waves are long, slow waves that us humans can’t detect.
These waves are all throughout the air, just lazily swimming past you as you sit at your computer. You don’t notice it because it’s too slow and lazy for your eyes to find.
As these waves part around you and bounce off your body, they create a kind of picture in the negative space where you are. Snakes use this “negative space” picture to “see” where their prey is hiding.
So if this is all about light and wavelengths, why did I say those pits were called heat sensors? Well, snakes have a very thin tissue stretched inside these otherwise hollow openings, and that tissue is packed with nerves. As this “infrared radiation” enters the pits, it is detected as heat.
Something called a “wasabi receptor” then takes this heat and transmits it to the snake‘s brain in the form of a picture.
The nerves are so sensitive, they can detect even the slightest changes in temperature, and that’s how they follow their prey through the foliage.
Of course, snakes can’t always rely on their “heat vision.” What if it’s day time, and they can’t create the picture that well? What if their prey is too far away to create an accurate picture? Luckily, they have a few more tricks up their scales.
Although snakes do not technically have “ears” in the strictest sense of the word, they can hear, in a manner of speaking. Snakes completely lack an outer ear, and there are no external cavities with which they can use to hear.
They do, however, have a very sophisticated inner ear. They are remarkably adept at feeling vibrations through the ground, and even through the air.
When a snake presses its head down on the sand, it can feel all the vibrations caused by little, unsuspecting, pattering mouse feet nearby. These ripples of sound in the air cause the sand to vibrate ever so slightly.
A snake’s loose jaw will shake as it comes in contact with the reverberations in the sand. The shaking of the jaw leads directly up to the inner ear, where they can be processed and interpreted by the brain to give a direction and proximity.
If the snake has no sandy pillow on which to lay their head, they can repeat the same process just using the vibrations in the air, though to a lesser degree of success.
We recently wrote an article specifically about ball pythons and how their hearing really works, along with answering the question of whether or not they can hear you. Find the article here.
Tasting the Air
Besides “super hearing,” snakes also have a “super smelling” tongue even Copperhead from the Secret Society of Super Villains would be jealous of.
Sure, snakes have nostrils and typical olfactory chambers they can use, but what would be the fun in that? It’s much cooler to use your tongue to smell the air.
A snake’s tongue will flick out and gather odor particles from the air. These particles are transferred to two fluid sacs called Jacobson’s Organs (though I have no idea what Jacob’s son has to do with any of this) located at the top of the mouth.
After a quick pit stop and a Big Gulp, they’re on their way again, this time to a smaller, secondary olfactory gland.
Snakes actually smell much better when they use their tongue. It is able to focus more on one smell instead of taking in all the extraneous smells in the air as well.
Snakes even have special notches in their upper lip that they can flick their tongue out of, so they don’t even have to open their mouths.
Snakes With Super Vision
A coachwip is a snake found all around the United States and Mexico. It’s small and nonvenomous, so they needed a way to survive in this snake eat snake world, and fast.
Coachwips have two thin, transparent scales that cover their eyes. Naturally, these are called spectacles, because with a name like “coachwhip,” you know these snakes are classy.
These spectacles are filled with teeny, tiny blood vessels, providing sufficient blood flow.
When a snake is just slithering around about its business, these blood vessels are constantly constricting and relaxing, preventing the blood from pooling up too much and restricting the snake’s eyesight.
However, when the coachwhip is threatened, these blood vessels instantly constrict all the way, preventing any blood flow and clearing up the spectacle.
The snake suddenly has crystal clear vision (relatively) and can see adequately in order to fend off whatever predator may be attacking or to find a good place to hide.
Two more snakes with surprisingly good eyesight are the gliding golden tree snake and the Montpellier snake.
The former is native to South and Southeast Asia while the latter hails from the Mediterranian Basin (it’s actually named after Montpellier, a city in France).
Usually, snakes have eyes that are very sensitive to UV light because they live in dark places and need to see better in darker environments. The more sensitive they are to UV light, the better they’ll be able to see.
The gliding golden tree snake and the Montpelier snake, however, spend most of their day outside in the sunlight. Their eyes filter UV light, helping protect their eyes and giving their vision a boost.
It’s basically the same as a skier or jet skier wearing yellow goggles to see better in their respective, brightly lit environments.
If you’re curious about ball pythons seeing in the dark, click here to view an article.
Can Snakes See Color?
Snakes have a series of rods and cones in their eyes, just like we do. Using the pigments in these rods and cones, snakes can take in different color wavelengths in order to see different colors. We have blue, green, and red cones.
When different colors of light come in contact with our eyes, we use one or two of our three cones to absorb parts of it and bounce back what we need to see.
Snakes operate in roughly the same manner, but with one big difference: they don’t always have three cones.
In a study done, it was found that across 69 different species of snakes, they all varied on how many rods and cones they have, what pigments those cones were, and how many colors the snakes could see.
Because snakes have evolved so much in so many different environments, their way of seeing colors has changed to better suit them.
Can ball pythons see in the dark? Because their eyes are so sensitive to UV light, ball pythons can see better in the dark than most species. They can also “see” heat, which helps them track prey. However, they do not have night vision.
Which snake has the best vision? Pit vipers (and pythons, to a degree) have the best vision when compared with other snakes. They also have heat sensing pits they can use to track prey in the dark.
Can snakes go blind? Snakes do not just randomly “go blind,” but as they begin shedding, they will experience a short, temporary loss of eyesight as their old ocular scales covering their eyes separate from their new ones.