This Snake Plays Dead When Threatened

The North American hognose snake, aka “puff adder, aka “zombie snake”, has a taste for the dramatic. When threatened, this natural-born artist likes to play dead in the most overacted way imaginable.

The hognose snake got its first nickname, “puff adder”, for its main defense mechanism. To scare away threats, it sucks in air and spreads the skin around its head and neck like a cobra, hissing loudly and pretending to prepare for a vicious snake. But if that doesn’t work, it has another intriguing trick up its sleeve. And that’s where the second nickname, “zombie snake”, comes in. According to the Amphibians and Reptiles of North Carolina, if a predator isn’t impressed by the snake’s threatening display, it “will then feign death by opening its mouth, rolling over on its back, and writhing around. If turned over onto its belly, it will immediately roll again onto its back”.

Photo: North Carolina State park and Recreation/Facebook

Writhing around isn’t quite the most accurate description of this actor’s performance. It’s more like squirming that goes on for quite a bit before it finally freezes in place, having seemingly succumbed to a gruesome end. If a person is familiar with this Oscar-worthy performance and pick up the hognose snake, it will start moving again, and in rare cases even bite in desperation. But its natural enemies don’t have opposable thumbs or a keen eye for acting, for that matter, so they can’t check if it’s actually dead. Believe it or not, in most cases, they actually walk away from its “corpse”.


Scientists know that the eastern hognose snake’s “play dead” trick is a defense mechanism, but they haven’t yet figured out why it’s actually effective. Many of its natural enemies don’t shy away from juicy, fresh carrion, but for some reason they choose to stay away from a “dead” hognose most of the time. Some experts suggest that it may have something to do with the dramatic way in which the artist fakes its death, which may be perceived as a sign of disease or poisoning by the predator.

Reptile Magazine writes that the snake may have a way of storing toxins from the toads it loves to feast on, and somehow releases it from its body while squirming in agony, to deter predators from coming close to its “dead” body. These are just theories though, but at the end of the day what matters is that the act works.

Interestingly, only the North American variety of hognose snake plays dead. Its South American brother relies on its vivid colors to keep threats at bay.