Snakes have always fascinated people with their ability to unhinge their jaws and swallow prey much larger than their own heads. This has led some to wonder – can a snake try to eat itself, and potentially eat itself to death?

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer to your question: Yes, it is possible for a snake to start eating itself, a behavior called ouroboros. However, it is very rare and unlikely that the snake can actually swallow enough of itself to cause death.

In this article, we’ll look at some real-world examples of the ouroboros phenomenon and explain why it is so uncommon for snakes to successfully eat themselves to death. We’ll also discuss what causes this abnormal snake behavior and how snakes are physiologically limited in their ability to consume themselves.

Documented Cases of Snake Ouroboros

19th Century Examples

Reports of snakes eating their own tails have been documented since the 19th century. In the 1860s, a specimen of Causus defilippii, a venomous viper species found in west and central Africa, was described exhibiting ouroboros behavior in captivity.

The viper was observed coiling itself into a hoop and eating its own tail. This unusual sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn sn behavior was attributed to the snake being under extreme stress and confined in an enclosure too small for its natural instincts.

Another early account comes from the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London in 1879. A Jamaican boa constrictor at the London Zoo chewed a portion of its own tail off after being kept in a cramped cage.

The report states: “This singular act was occasioned by the irritation consequent on the confinement of a large, active serpent in too small a cage.” Captivity stress seems to have triggered the act of self-cannibalism.

Recent Instances in Captivity

Ouroboros continues to occasionally occur in captive snakes today. In 2008, a ball python at the Phoenix Herpetological Society in Arizona was observed slowly ingesting its own tail. The snake may have mistaken its tail for prey due to glossy scales and irregular feeding habits caused by captivity.

Another incident occurred in 2014, when a kingsnake in Cape Girardeau, Missouri coiled into a loop and started swallowing itself tail-first.

The most recent and dramatic case happened in 2019 at the Charles Darwin Research Station on the Galapagos Islands. A female tiger rattlesnake almost completely ingested itself, likely due to extreme stress, mating instincts and hunger. The snake was recovering well after being uncoiled by staff.

These instances show that while rare, some captive snakes still exhibit ouroboros behaviors today, indicating that conditions may not be ideal for their natural instincts and well-being.

What Triggers Ouroboros Behavior in Snakes?

Ouroboros behavior, where a snake attempts to eat its own tail, is a rare and unusual phenomenon. While the reasons behind this odd behavior are not fully understood, researchers have identified several potential triggers that may cause a snake to mistakenly strike at its own body.

Stress and Anxiety

Stress, anxiety, and fear are believed to be common instigators of ouroboros attacks. When snakes feel threatened or disoriented, they may enter a defensive state and lash out instinctively at any perceived target, including their own tails.

Captive snakes that are handled frequently may be more prone to stress-related self-biting. Additionally, conditions like overcrowding, excessive heat or cold, loud noises, and other disruptions can stress snakes out and provoke self-directed biting.

Vision Problems

Problems with vision and perception also appear to underlie some ouroboros incidents. Snakes use specialized heat-sensing pits on their heads to detect and target prey sources. However, injuries, birth defects, or genetic abnormalities affecting these heat pits can confuse a snake and lead it to mistakenly identify its own body heat signature as potential prey.

Shedding complications can also temporarily impair vision and cause misguided attacks on a snake’s own body.

Hunger and Prey Drive

A hungry snake is a biting snake, and extreme hunger may override a snake’s ability to differentiate food sources. Young, growing snakes tend to be voracious and food-motivated, and may react instinctively to any warm, moving object that triggers their prey drive – even their own bodies.

Undernourished or underfed captive snakes may likewise strike out more readily at any faint stimuli due to their intense feeding urge.

Parasites and Disease

Illness and medical conditions like parasites, infections, and neurological issues can also elicit strange ouroboros behaviors. Parasites may physically irritate the snake and provoke reflexive biting at irritated areas.

Bacterial or viral infections, especially those affecting the nervous system, can cause disorientation, spasms, and repetitive biting motions. Brain damage and other physiological problems may likewise manifest in tail-chasing symptoms.

Stunted Growth

Abnormally small body size is another potential factor in ouroboros attacks. Snakes housed in cramped enclosures during development may fail to reach their normal adult dimensions. A stunted snake may then not have sufficient body length to visually differentiate its own head from tail regions.

This size distortion essentially leaves the snake “chasing its own tail” when hunting prey items.

While a rare behavior, ouroboros attacks illustrate the refined predatory nature of snakes. Their innate drive to stalk and seize warm-blooded prey targets can sometimes overpower and confuse even their own self-preservation instincts.

Careful habitat management and prompt veterinary care for any signs of illness can help mitigate risky tail-biting behaviors.

Snake Anatomy Limits Self-Cannibalism

Flexible Jaws Have Limits

Snakes are able to unhinge their jaws and swallow prey much larger than the diameter of their own heads due to their highly mobile skull bones and lack of a rigid mandible (lower jaw). This allows them to consume prey whole that would otherwise be too large to swallow.

However, there are still anatomical limits on just how far snakes can open their mouths and stretch their throat and esophagus.

According to snake anatomical experts, even the most elastic snake jaw can only open to about 130% of the width of the snake’s head. So unless the snake has a very large head relative to its body size, it would be physically impossible for it to swallow itself tail first or even get its head into its own mouth.

Scientists have measured the esophageal stretching capacity of snakes and found they can only expand to 1.5-2x the circumference of the snake’s neck. This means a snake’s esophagus simply does not have the anatomical capacity to swallow an object as large as its own body, even in smaller snakes.

Self-cannibalism is therefore anatomically impossible for snakes.

Esophagus Anatomy and Peristalsis

A snake’s esophagus is a highly elastic muscular tube running from the throat down to the stomach. It does not have a continuous open passageway, but rather its muscles contract in waves (peristalsis) to push food down toward the stomach.

This peristaltic motion makes it physically impossible for a snake to swallow itself. The esophagus would not be able to generate the coordinated wave-like contractions needed to push its own body down into the stomach.

The contractions would instead work against one another, rendering self-cannibalism fruitless.

Additionally, there are tight tissue junctions connecting the esophagus to surrounding structures like blood vessels and the trachea. These anchor points would prevent the esophagus from stretching out far enough to accommodate swallowing the snake’s own body.

Snakes have evolved this anchoring intentionally to assist normal peristalsis.

Health Consequences of Snake Ouroboros

Injury and Infection Risks

When a snake attempts to eat itself tail-first, known as ouroboros, it risks injuring itself in several ways. The snake’s sharp teeth can cause lacerations and puncture wounds along its body as it tries to swallow itself.

These injuries disrupt the snake’s scales and skin, providing an entry point for harmful bacteria that could lead to infection. A 2013 case report described an escaped pet python found with ouroboros wounds that had become septicemic.

Without veterinary treatment, snakes with infected ouroboros wounds may die from sepsis or systemic infection.

Additionally, a snake that swallows part of its body risks obstructing its own airway or digestive tract. Cases described in veterinary literature reveal snakes asphyxiating after swallowing a large portion of their tails.

The misguided feeding behavior can also lead to intestinal obstruction or even intestinal prolapse, requiring emergency surgery in some cases. So while the mythological ouroboros represented cyclical renewal, the real-life version is more likely to bring injury or death for snake patients.

Disruption of Organ Functions

Beyond direct physical damage, a snake eating itself can disrupt vital organ functions through compression or obstruction. As a snake attempts to swallow part of its elongated, narrow body, the resulting bulk and pressure in its digestive tract can squeeze surrounding organs like blood vessels and nerves.

Studies of snakes eating large prey show that the extreme gastric dilation impairs cardiovascular function and blood flow, which could also occur with self-cannibalism.

Additionally, a snake’s lung position shifts during swallowing, with potential for atelectasis (collapsed lungs) or pneumonia if its airway is obstructed too long. The kidneys, liver, and other abdominal organs can also be impacted by the abnormal pressure and expansion.

There may even be risk of the stomach rupturing if a snake manages to swallow a large portion of its body. So while snakes can ingest prey larger than their own heads, attempting to devour part of their tapering body carries substantial threats from gastric overdistension and its compressive harms throughout the chest and abdomen.

Preventing Ouroboros in Captive Snakes

Ouroboros, derived from the Greek words meaning “tail” and “devouring,” refers to the behavior of a snake eating its own tail. This strange behavior can occur in captive snakes due to various factors like stress, malnutrition, and more.

As snake owners, it’s crucial we understand what causes ouroboros and how to prevent it from happening.

Causes of Ouroboros

Several reasons may lead a captive snake to start eating itself:

  • Inadequate housing – An enclosure that’s too small or lacks proper hiding spots can stress snakes out.
  • Hunger – Malnutrition from irregular or insufficient feedings may spur ouroboros.
  • Health issues – Parasites, mouth rot, neurological problems can trigger odd behaviors.
  • Boredom – Inactive snakes without enrichment may bite their tails.
  • Shedding problems – Trouble shedding can make snakes bite at irritated skin.

Prevention Tips

Luckily, ouroboros can often be avoided by making a few adjustments to your snake’s care:

  • Upgrade housing to an appropriately sized terrarium with hides, branches, plants, etc. This stimulates snakes mentally and physically.
  • Stick to a regular feeding schedule with prey of suitable size. This prevents both under and overfeeding.
  • Quarantine new snakes to check for illness. Treat any health issues promptly.
  • Provide enrichment like puzzle feeders, novel scents, and gentle handling. This relieves boredom.
  • Monitor sheds and humidity levels. Assist with stuck sheds if needed.

While an alarming behavior, ouroboros is preventable through proper husbandry. By tending to snakes’ basic welfare needs, we can promote healthy captives that don’t resort to self-cannibalism. With attentive care, our slithering friends can live enriching lives in our homes.


While intriguing, the idea that snakes can eat themselves to death is largely a myth. Documented cases are extraordinarily rare, and snake anatomy limits how much of itself a snake can consume. However, ouroboros attempts can still be dangerous and stressful for the snake.

Careful husbandry and monitoring for underlying health issues are important for preventing this abnormal behavior in captive snakes.

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