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Notes from a Musky Trail Hiker #9: Do Snakes Get Rigor Mortis?

A regular blog sharing a biology observation from my hike on the Musconetcong Wildlife Management Area trail in Asbury.

-Tish Lascelle, MWA Board of Directors


The best time of year to walk the Musky Trail is early spring. We had so much snow this winter that I hadn’t been using it much. Spring has the benefit of minimal bugs (especially ticks, which everyone says are already very bad this year) and great visibility, because the plants aren’t leafed out yet. It changes so fast, it’s almost possible to watch things grow right in front of you.

Our trail is technically a wildlife management area. I mostly observe plants because they don’t run or fly away from me. But occasionally, the animal kingdom provides an unexpected treat. I recently came around a bend in the trail and saw an unusual blonde-colored snake sunning itself in the middle of the trail. I took a picture before startling it. Surprised it hadn’t moved away, I eventually poked it with a LONG stick. That’s when I realized it was dead. And not just dead, decapitated. And that unusual blonde color was actually its belly. A million questions flooded in. Why was it still here? Nature usually cleans up after itself. Do snakes die belly-up like cockroaches? How long had it been here? It’s still flexible. Do snakes get rigor mortis? What predator would bite off the head first? Is that predator watching me now? Am I next?

David Attenborough once said, “An understanding of the natural world and what’s in it is a source of not only a great curiosity, but a great fulfillment.” This is the power of nature. On the surface it’s all fun and games but internally it fuels curiosity. When you take a child into nature, watch their innate curiosity; how many of their questions can you answer? Fortunately, with a smartphone and a good data plan you can be brilliant.

So here we go… Yes, snakes can get rigor mortis, but because they are cold-blooded, it might not occur for several days. Usually, they don’t last out in the open long because they become food for predators like hawks or foxes. I concluded it was likely that this unfortunate snake lost its head not long before I came upon it. It might have been belly-up just by chance; some snakes roll on their back to relieve pain prior to death.

And then there’s this… a story from Texas of a decapitated rattlesnake head that bit a man. He decapitated it with a shovel to protect his wife and then picked up the head. Mammals will die almost immediately without their heads, but cold-blooded reptiles like snakes use far less oxygen to fuel their brains and hence, it lived on to bite its attacker. You never know with nature. Let’s just say I’m glad I found the other end of my decapitated snake.


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