For an animal that has no outer ear, snakes sure do make a lot of sounds! Most people are familiar with the adrenaline-spiking sound of a hiss or rattle, but snakes make plenty more noises than just your typical hiss.
Some of the sounds and noises snakes make include hissing, rattling, buzzing, growling, and shrieking. Because most of these noises cannot be heard by other snakes, they are meant to communicate with other animals such as predators or prey and be a warning signal to approaching animals.
Let’s check out all the different noises our slithery friends can make, and what snakes are trying to say when they make them!
Snakes Hiss To Intimidate Potential Predators
Hissing is one of the most common sounds that a snake makes. But before we talk about hissing, let’s talk a little about snake anatomy.
Snakes aren’t like most animals that make noises. They lack an outer ear as well as something called a tympanic middle ear. What that boils down to is snakes don’t have the necessary parts to hear as humans hear.
The cool thing is, snakes can still sense sound! So, how do they do it?
According to an article in the University of Chicago Press Journals, snakes use what is called somatic hearing. They use their middle ear bone’s connection to the jaw bone to ‘hear’ vibrations.
So, if you’re walking down a path and talking loudly, this will not alert a snake to your presence anywhere near as much as the vibrations from your footsteps.
Now, back to hissing…
An article in the Journal of Experimental Biology found that the sound of snake hisses varies little between species, which means there’s no great mystery behind what a hiss means. When snakes hiss, they’re simply telling a predator to back off.
One of the only exceptions to the rule is the bull snake. These slithery reptiles can modify their hiss so that it resembles a rattle. Bull snakes are non-venomous, so the rattle noise is meant to scare potential predators away, duping them into believing they’re dealing with a venomous rattlesnake.
Snakes Rattle Their Tails To Warn Predators
Even if you don’t live in an area with rattlesnakes, you’ve probably heard that when a rattlesnake rattles, it’s time to skedaddle. Or something like that…
Rattlesnakes aren’t the only snakes that rattle their tail, but they are the most iconic. So, how do these serpents make their tails sound like musical instruments?
It’s all in the keratin. Keratin is the same stuff that makes up human fingernails. On a snake, the keratin fits loosely together at the end of its tail. When the tail vibrates back and forth, the tough keratin segments click against each other.
Because the keratin pieces are hollow, the clicking gets amplified and produces a rattle that can be heard from a pretty far distance. Its message is clear: Don’t come any closer!
Rattles continually grow with each shedding as another layer of keratin is added to the tail. However, after about 10 or so keratin rings, they begin to fall off before being replaced by new ones.
This is one of the reasons why baby rattlesnakes are so dangerous. A rattlesnake’s tail will not begin rattling until it has at least two layers of keratin to click together.
Shaking the tail is a signature move of rattlesnakes, but other pit vipers like copperheads and cottonmouths will also shake their tails menacingly when they feel threatened. Even nonvenomous snakes have been observed shaking their rear ends.
Defensive Snakes Make Popping Noises
Almost all sounds that come from a snake are meant to warn, intimidate, scare, or threaten a potential predator.
According to an article in the Journal of Herpetology, the Sonoran coral snake and the western hook-nosed snake use an interesting defensive noise when they feel threatened. It’s described as an ‘expulsion of air from the cloacal vent.’ This is a really sciency way of saying that the snakes literally flatulate when they feel threatened. The noise is mainly produced by the M. Sphincter muscle.
The popping noises made by these two snakes differ in frequency and pitch, but the interesting thing is that these two snakes overlap in their territories. This suggests that noise is an effective defense mechanism against a common predator the snakes share.
The muscles that produce the popping noise are present in all snakes, but there hasn’t been much study on snake flatulence in the scientific community besides the Sonoran coral snake and western hook-nosed snake. We can’t imagine why…
Some Snakes Whistle Instead of Hissing
Snakes don’t have a lot to work with when it comes to making noises. Most of the noises are caused by some kind of inflating or contracting of muscles, or the expulsion of air through their various vents.
Just as each human sounds different than the next, each snake species sounds different than the next. Their biological makeup can mean their bone structure is larger or smaller, their muscles more rigid or flexible, and so on.
These slight differences between one species and the next mean that their various defensive noises will sound different, too. Some snakes that hiss will sound closer to a whistle than the typical creepy serpent hiss.
Think of it like blowing air over the top of an empty bottle. Depending on the shape and depth of the bottle, different sounds will be emitted.
Some of the most common snakes that whistle include corn snakes, ball pythons, and Russell vipers. Other snakes may make whistling noises if they are shedding and a piece of skin gets stuck around the nostril cavity.
Snakes Make Defensive Calls When Threatened
I bet you never imagined snakes could be so talkative! One of the other noises that snakes make is distress or defensive calls when they feel threatened. As with other serpent noises, the sound is produced by air moving through the larynx in a specific way (remember our air over the bottle analogy?).
According to a recent research article, this sound is the first record of an agonistic call by a snake. The research was done in the Brazilian Amazon and was heard by the Catesby’s snail-eater snake.
So, what’s the big deal if a snake makes a defensive noise as opposed to a hiss? Well, the most interesting thing about this agonistic call is that it costs a lot of energy for the snake to make the noise.
The reason? Well, most snakes do not have vocal cords. This means it’s incredibly difficult for them to produce sounds that differ in pitch and volume. The fact that Catesby’s snail-eater can make such a complicated noise is impressive (for a snake)!
Rattlesnakes Don’t Always Rattle – Sometimes They Buzz!
The Eastern Massasauga Rattlesnake is a bit of a rebel when it comes to following rattlesnake norms. They don’t rattle when they shake their tails. Instead, they buzz!
Massasaugas are rarely observed by people because they are very timid. Bites from these shy serpents are rare and only happen when the snake is surprised such as being accidentally stepped on or moved.
Unlike most rattlesnakes that prefer dry, upland climates, the massasauga prefers swampy environments such as bogs, fens, and wet meadows.
According to Michigan State University, when massasaugas feel threatened, they will typically remain motionless and try to blend into their environment as opposed to using their rattle. But if they feel alarmed enough, they will bust out their buzzing tail in warning. The sound has been compared to that of a buzzing bee that’s caught in a spider web.
Some Snakes Will Growl If They Feel Threatened
Snakes are already spooky enough when they hiss, there’s no need to add growling to the list of possible snake noises. Am I right?
Unfortunately, King Cobras have a different plan in mind…
These massive snakes can reach up to 18 feet long, but typically average only 13 feet (only?). They are the world’s largest venomous snake but have a timid temperament in the wild unless they feel threatened.
Cobras are well known for their hoods which will flare up when they feel threatened. The hoods are meant to intimidate potential predators, making cobras look larger than they are.
The hood becomes inflated by the use of air sacs, and typically only comes out when the snake is rearing up. According to Penn State University, king cobras can raise as much as a third of their body off the ground as they ‘stand’ up.
Another tactic that king cobras use to intimidate potential predators is growling. The sound is genuinely terrifying and sounds like it belongs to a panther rather than a snake. This noise is used the same way as other snake hisses: to warn potential predators to back off.
The king cobra is the only well-documented snake that growls, but most other large snakes can growl.
Snakes That Don’t Hiss Will Rasp Instead
We have growling cobras, buzzing rattlesnakes, and whistling vipers. What’s next? Well, instead of hissing, some snakes will rasp by rubbing their scales together.
The most well-known snakes to do this belong to the Echis genus and are known as saw-scaled vipers.
These rasping snakes can be found in Africa and Asia, so the rest of the world can breathe a sigh of relief because these snakes are pretty aggressive and angry.
Their name saw-scaled vipers comes from the fact that these serpents have keeled scales. What this means is that instead of having smooth, shiny scales, they have ridges and serrations on them.
When saw-scaled vipers feel threatened, they will move their bodies in an ‘S’ shape to rub their scales together. When doing so, the keeled scales produce a noise similar to hissing. Like other hisses, this is a defensive alarm to warn potential predators.
Snakes With Vocal Cords Can Shriek
Snakes are interesting critters that lack a lot of basic things that the rest of us take for granted. Legs, for example.
But something else that most snakes do not possess is vocal cords. This is why snakes are typically quiet animals that do not communicate with each other. They have a defensive call and that’s about it.
Some snakes have vocal cords. Or at least, something similar to what we would call vocal cords. The pine snake (sometimes called the gopher or bull snake) has a laryngeal septum inside their larynx that can produce a bellow/shriek when they feel threatened.
The shriek serves the same function as a hiss or growl, meant to intimidate or warn potential predators to stay away.
Other Ways That Snakes Communicate
When a snake vocalizes, it’s pretty much only communicating one thing: go away and leave me alone. However, there are other ways that snakes can communicate that aren’t vocal noises.
- Curl Up With Head Covered: When snakes feel threatened and they’ve made all the vocalizations they want to, their next step is to curl their bodies up and tuck their head inside their protective scales. This is a defense mechanism.
- Inflate Head: Venomous snakes normally have a triangular-shaped head while nonvenomous snakes have a square head. When nonvenomous snakes want to appear more threatening they inflate air sacs on the side of their head that makes their heads appear more triangular.
- Play Dead: The eastern hognose snake and the Virginia Opossum have one thing in common – When they’re threatened, they play dead.
But the hognose snake takes the cake for dramatic performances. It will writhe upside down for minutes before laying motionless with its tongue hanging out. They will even secrete a smelly substance to add to the ‘dead’ effect.
Who knew snakes could be so dramatic?
What To Do If You Hear A Snake On Your Property
Having snakes on your property isn’t the worst-case scenario. Snakes are incredible pest-control agents and they are rarely aggressive.
However, if you happen to hear a hiss, growl, rattle, or pop from a debris pile or in tall grass, there’s only one thing you should do: leave it alone. Snakes should not be handled, approached, or touched.
Snakes aren’t like other pests that can be caught and released elsewhere. The only commercial products available for snake capture are glue traps, and these are not recommended because they catch so many unintended targets.
There are some things you can do to make your yard less attractive to snakes. One option is to use snake repellents like Ortho Snake-B-Gon Snake Repellent Granules. You can apply these granules around your home to deter snakes from coming on your property.
Another type of snake repellent is the SEEKBIT Snake Away Repellent. Instead of granules, this repellent comes in the form of small balls which should be placed every 3-6 feet in areas where snakes frequent.
Because of their small size and versatility, these are also useful if you are camping and want to keep snakes away from your tent.
Note: Always follow the directions on any products you use to repel animals.
If you’d like to learn about other methods of snake repelling, such as using scents, take a look at our guide on the scents that snakes hate here.
Another option is to modify your yard to make it less attractive to rodents, which are a favorite meal of snakes. Clean up pet food, sweep fallen birdseed, keep your lawn mowed, trim bushes, and trim your shrubs. Fewer mice = fewer snakes!
For a more in-depth look at what might be attracting snakes to your yard, check out or article on the main reasons why snakes are in your yard.
That’s A Wrap!
Our neighborhood serpents aren’t anyone’s favorite sight to see, but these slithery animals do a lot of good for the environment (even though sometimes snakes end up in your swimming pool.) They keep rodents and other snake populations under control and tend to keep to themselves.
Most snakes lack a proper vocal cord, so the sounds and noises they make are somewhat limited. Now, just to recap one more time –
There are the 9 sounds and noises that snakes make:
- Hiss – warning
- Rattle – warning
- Popping – defensive
- Whistle – similar to a hiss
- Agonistic Call – defensive
- Buzzing – the rattle of the Massasaugas rattlesnake
- Growl – King Cobra
- Rasp – rubbing scales together to hiss (Saw-Scaled Vipers)
- Shriek – Pine snake
If you happen to hear any of the above noises, the best thing you can do is walk away. Snakes should not be handled, touched, or approached.
If you’re having trouble with snakes in your yard or even inside your home, you can always reach out to a professional for help. Our nationwide pest control finder can get you in contact with a wildlife pro near you.
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Femandes, I. Y., Koch, E. D., & Monico, A. T. (2022, January 06). The Rare Cry For Help: First Record of An Agonistic Call From A Snake In South America. Research Square.
Russell, A. P., & Bauer, A. M. (2020, October 25). Vocalization by extant nonavian reptiles: A synthetic overview of phonation and the vocal apparatus. The Anatomical Record, 304(7), 1478-1528. https://anatomypubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/ar.24553
Young, B. A. (2003, September). Snake Bioacoustics: Toward a Richer Understanding of the Behavior Ecology of Snakes. The Quarterly Review of Biology, 78(3). https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/abs/10.1086/377052Young, B. A., Meltzer, K., Marsit, C., & Abishahin, G. (1999, December). Cloacal Popping in Snakes. Journal of Herpetology, 33(4), 557-566. https://www.jstor.org/stable/1565572?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents